Macleay Lecturer and Video Journalist Tim Young looks at why podcasts are the future.
Considering the state of news and media these days, from job cuts to shrinking ad revenues and accusations of ‘fake news’, journalists could be forgiven for feeling some existential angst.
In a mere 20 years, the migration of journalism online has fragmented audiences and destroyed an ad revenue business model that for decades supported vast newsrooms employing hundreds of journalists.
Desperate attempts to stop the bleeding have failed. Paywalls haven’t paid much. Web display ads bring in pennies. Journalists, sub-editors and photographers get the sack. Redundancies. Restructures. Redundancies again.
But despite this carnage, one area of new media has emerged a surprise winner. It boasts robust traffic, strong revenue growth and high levels of engagement. Little wonder everyone now seems to have a podcast.
Since the 1920s, radio has delivered news and current affairs to people around the world. Families used to gather together around the wireless and marvel at what they heard, whether news from German battlefields or fictional tales of alien invasions.
Part of what makes the audio medium so compelling is that it’s visual. Like reading a book, when listeners hear stories, they conjure rich imagery in their minds. When television arrived it made its own pictures. Audiences just had to stare directly into the light. Smartphones added interactivity and portability. Content became bite-sized. Attention spans shortened.
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So what explains the rise and rise of podcasts?
The roots of podcasting stretch back to the 1980s, but the convergence of widespread internet adoption, the arrival of the iPod and RSS feeds puts the birth of podcasting as we know it at around 2003. Apple added podcasting to its iTunes player in 2005. Pioneers published shows and built audiences, not really knowing what the future would hold.
Many of us were first drawn into this world in 2014 when the NPR show This American Life released Serial, an episodic true-crime podcast about the death of a high-school student and the subsequent murder conviction of her former boyfriend.
It was a phenomenon. By the end of season one, Serial had been downloaded 68 million times and today remains the most popular podcast ever, with more than 420 million total downloads. It spawned a thousand imitators and, eventually, a brutally precise spoof of the genre it defined.
Serial busted open the myth that news consumers were now just too busy. In reality, people would happily invest their time in long-form audio if the payoff was good.
Podcasts quickly found a niche where traditional media couldn’t compete. People were listening at the gym, on their commute or while cooking dinner. New episodes arrived automatically on their smartphones. It couldn’t be easier.
And people were listening a lot. New statistics from the US publication Business Insider show the overall audience for podcasts has doubled in the past decade. It’s estimated the American audience alone will top 106 million regular listeners within five years.
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Advertising dollars have begun to flow as well, with the US podcast ad spend set to grow by 110% by the end of 2020. Business Insider highlights the main reasons why it’s such an attractive medium for advertisers:
- The majority of regular podcast listeners tend to finish what they start.
- Listeners are far more receptive to ads in podcasts than in other mediums.
- Most listeners don’t skip past ads.
Can any other form of media boast this level of engagement? What’s particularly pleasing is this success is driven by the same values that used to underpin traditional media. Honesty and integrity are rewarded. So, too, are production values and good storytelling.
Plenty of problems remain in our industry, and figuring out how to adequately fund quality journalism remains a crisis without a solution.
But for the first time in a very long time, there's a reason to celebrate. When it comes to podcasts at least, the future looks very bright indeed.
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