Podcasts For All – the Call of the Digital Revolution

Podcasts For All

Looking at the media today – especially regarding audio – it’s clear we are in the midst of both a revolution and a renaissance, where podcasts will be a major feature of the new broadcasting landscape.

I began my radio career in the early 1990’s as a reporter for a local station in the West of England. In those distant days, the newsroom (more like a newscloset) had a few ‘mobile’ phones to share. These hernia-inducing devices were the size of car batteries and had a temperamental relationship with functionality. To add further weight during reporting assignments, we were armed with recorders the size of small briefcases, which could only accommodate 15 minutes of recording per spool.

It’s fun to recall those days of rushing between market towns breathlessly covering breaking news of council meetings, church fetes and inclement weather. But the most striking aspect in looking back is realizing how completely broadcasting has been transformed from a place where radio stations ruled the airwaves, and technology was in the hands of the few.

The rapid development of digital technology and the internet mean that – as consumers and program makers – we no longer need a radio, a studio, or a transmission mast to make, air and hear high-quality audio. This technological revolution has brought into question the whole nature of the term ‘broadcasting’.

Thanks to these changes, audio is entering a potential golden age, where audiences – both large and small – can access bespoke high-quality programming.

Traditional broadcasters such as the BBC and NPR are garnering ever larger numbers of listeners bringing programs to wherever there is a cellphone connection.

This same technology is also allowing for non-traditional broadcasters to create and serve new audiences. Marc Maron who airs the WTF podcast from the garage of his home gets an estimated 2.75 million downloads per week!

The monumental success of made-for-podcast documentary features such as ‘S Town’ and ‘Serial’ have demonstrated the creative inventiveness that the new technology has unleashed along with the mass audiences it can attract.

And while on-line audio can draw huge numbers, its major unique selling point lies in its ability to serve niche groups of listeners.

As Matt Hill from the British Podcast Awards says, ‘its core strength at the moment is in narrowcasting. It creates audio content for niche groups of people, but it does so really effectively.’

Niche podcasts can range far and wide serving a multitude of differing audiences; from those curious about the intricacies of international finance and how money makes the world go around, to others fascinated with astronomy and what makes up the whole universe turn.

Think-tanks, universities, international organizations, even hobbyists, can use this tool to serve and reach beyond existing constituencies, generating new interest and awareness in their areas of expertise.

My own experience in producing and editing the podcast series, ‘Between 2 Geeks’ for the World Bank is illustrative of this trend. Another example of similar programming is ‘Pocket Economics’ made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Both podcasts are squarely aimed at a particular audience– in this instance those interested in international development. Both have been made to a high standard – technically and editorially – so they that offer a stimulating, informative and convenient (i.e. not too long) listen.

But if niche-interest podcasts are to stand the test of time – as well as stand out amid an increasingly crowded field – they must serve up high quality, focused programming. As more and more podcasts are launched so producing a polished and appealing product becomes increasingly important.

Making the right product for the right audience can reap real rewards, for listeners, program-makers and others. Podcasts can create communities and become a tool in joining together like-minded individuals.

Advertisers have also been quick to notice the commercial potential of audio narrowcasting. Matt Hill says, ‘podcasting is starting to educate advertisers that there is an upmarket audience that would be interested in intelligent speech programming and would be happy to hear advertising alongside it.’

The technology that has freed audio from the constraints of transmission masts and conventional studios (as well weighty tape recorders) may have been around for a while, but the opportunity for it to reveal its full potential – for differing audiences – has only just begun.