2017 – A Solid Gold Year for Podcasts

2017 has been the year that podcasts entered the financial and creative mainstream. It’s been clear for a while that they represent the greatest opportunity for accessible high-quality audio since BBC Radio began broadcasting from a makeshift studio in central London ninety-five years ago.

The near universality of smartphones in the UK and US, allied with innovations in digital recording technology have unleashed a new golden age of spoken audio programming. A bonanza crop of great podcast productions including,  The Daily – from the New York Times, S-Town, Homecoming along with others, have made that point with considerable force and ever larger audiences.

The Podcast Phenomenon

But there are divergent opinions about what this means, and if the blossoming of online audio is a passing fad. Jessi Hempel, formerly a writer for Wired magazine,  has said that the podcast phenomenon is overblown and that many online audio offerings face an uncertain future. ‘Like those blogs of yesteryear,’ she wrote, ‘the promise feels huge. But as that brief era also taught us, the golden age doesn’t last.’

In support of her view, she cited an estimate of 180,000 active podcasts, suggesting that many of them are like the prospectors of the Wild West who ended up with handfuls of gravel as opposed to the riches of their dreams and that  most people still haven’t figured out ‘how to listen to them yet’.

While I disagree with her general view of podcasts, Hempel makes some valid points about the challenges they face at this moment in their development. The sheer numbers of programmes staking a claim in the new world of online audio have created some chaos and confusion.

Potential listeners are often befuddled by the choices on offer: where are the best places to find programmes? What’s worth hearing and what should be ignored? How can you find what you’re interested in (without trawling through pages of results on Google)?

But this disarray is simultaneously generating innovation and solutions. A process of Darwinian-like natural selection is underway in the podcast world, which new technology is helping to advance.

Podcast Analytics

Podcast analytics is one development that is beginning to have a significant impact. Until very recently,  it’s been impossible to know how many people are listening to a particular programme, and for how long. But Apple has just introduced a new feature which will address exactly this issue. Podcast publishers – along with potential advertisers and investors –  can now know just how many (anonymized) listeners have stayed through a whole episode — and what proportion of the audience turned off.  As analytical tools further develop, so they will be crucial in determining which podcasts survive and which will fade away.

In addition, podcast publishing platforms – such as Libsyn and Acast –  are thriving and are likely to provide ever more accurate ways of measuring audience size and retention.

The world of podcasts is already changing with big(ish) money entering the field. A prime example is Gimlet Media, the Brooklyn-based podcast production house which has attracted $20 million in investment since August 2017 on the basis of its growing success.  This relatively large scale financial input into the nascent podcast industry sends a positive signal to smaller investors and sponsors that online audio is a commercially viable and attractive proposition.

The sheer range and number of podcasts is also creating a side industry to help listeners find their way amid all the offerings. For example, a recently launched social media app, Chorus, allows subscribers to share recommendations and podcast favourites.

Taken together, these technological and financial developments are laying the ground for a more secure and ordered podcast industry.

Hopefully, this will create greater space and opportunity for both the smaller creative producers along with larger, more established programme makers to flourish alongside each other.

And the listeners hoping for new exciting programmes in the coming year, that is all good news.

So here’s to a good year for podcast listeners and programme-makers in 2018.