Simple storytelling and the Radiolabification of podcasting.

img_0788

I hate to dump on “The Daily”.

Apart from editing and producing our own shows, this brilliant New York Times podcast takes up more of my listening time than any other.  For news junkies, “The Daily” is part of our weekday morning routine. The show’s genial and ever curious host, Michael Barbaro, is like a friend at breakfast time.

So I take it personally when something is not quite right.

Recently, on several “The Daily” documentary episodes, a bit too much production has been getting in the way of the narrative. The informal, often intimate approach that is unique to podcasting,  is occasionally replaced by a more careful and rehearsed construction.

One example came this week in an otherwise gripping episode about the chaotic Trump Administration zero-tolerance policy that led to 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.

At one point, the sound of  the computer keyboard can be heard as New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson discusses her emails seeking information on the children from the Department of Homeland Security. To my ears, this was distracting, adding neither information nor enhanced atmosphere. Several other soundbites and mood music tracks also got in the way of the compelling narration.

On “The Daily”, the Times reporters are the stars. Let them unpack their deep understanding of the beats they cover without too many interruptions.

Perhaps you disagree with me or think that this is a trivial quibble. But it’s part of a broader trend in podcasts made by companies, where teams of producers and editors often spend many hours crafting a single episode.

Perhaps they take their cues from “Radiolab“, the critically acclaimed, two-time Peabody Award-winning science and philosophy podcast and public radio show that began life on WNYC in 2002. Over the years, Radiolab’s inventive, playful use of sound has been a delight to listen to.

But maybe the show’s influence on fellow podcasters has become too great.

When podcast creators lack the deep skills of Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, rich, textured sound can be turned into a formula. Some well-written podcasts are burdened by the overuse of ambient sound and music.

This school of complex, layered production can sound precious, and be a barrier to understanding. A podcasting friend of mine from South Asia, who learned English as a second language, calls it confusing. Perhaps that’s because she didn’t grow up listening to the distinct sound of American public radio programs and documentaries.

Usually, spare is best. What makes podcasting and audiobooks so penetrating and memorable is the presence of a single human voice in your ears, telling you a story.

Often that’s enough. Intimacy requires nothing more.

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

 

Advertisements

The f-word podcasters think the most about is….

img_0788-1

Friction is the thing.

It’s not as easy, convenient or simple as it should be to discover podcasts, or find shows that fit your range of interests. Confusion and complexity are holding us back.

The first barrier for wannabe podcast listeners is the prompt. iTunes and other platforms suggest that you “subscribe.” But this is a lousy name for it. Sounds like a loyalty program. Subscriptions involve paying for something, but podcasts are free.

That’s the first piece of friction.

Search is also a big problem. Our news solutions podcast, “How Do We Fix It?” is a show that asks experts about what works to improve civic and political life. But someone who searches for “how to fix it,” “solutions,” “fixes” or “what works”, won’t find our shows. Other podcasters have similar problems.

More friction.

Smart speakers are a huge thing these days. But the vocal prompts for podcasts are not as easy as they should be. Friction!

All this presents a problem and a great opportunity.

Podcasting needs its own industry association or trade group.

Investments should be made by Audible, Spotify, NPR and other big players to produce witty, creative and catchy public information videos and radio spots that would reach out to the tens of millions of people who engage online, but haven’t got a clue how to listen to podcasts. Facebook, where many non-millennials gather, is an obvious place to start. Then advertise on the next Super Bowl!

Big podcasters should launch a contest with an enticing prize for the best five YouTube videos that show folks how to engage with podcasts.

Fight friction with fun.

More than 550,000 podcasts are on iTunes– and the number is growing all the time. Two- thirds of Americans have heard of the term “podcast,” but fewer than one-in-five  are regular listeners. With nearly 50 million regular listeners, podcasting has come a long way in the past few years. But it’s time to take it to the next level.

The launch of the new Google Podcasts app may go a long way towards this goal.  Until now, Apple has been the dominant player. Google says its goal is to help listeners and make it “easier for them to discover and listen to the podcasts they love.” If the search giant uses AI to improve podcast script and voice search, this would be a major breakthrough.

At Podcast Movement in Philadelphia last week, Tom Webster of Edison Research said: “The key to moving from 48 million weekly podcast listeners to the 100 million mark is understanding why those people familiar with the term “podcasting” have never listened.”

48% the “I have’t heard a podcast” crowd say they’re not sure how to listen. A similar number believe, incorrectly, that podcasts cost money and suck up a lot of data. 37% don’t understand what they are.

The challenges are great, but so is the potential to reach into new, and often marginalized communities. Most early podcast adopters were white men. It’s time for industry leaders to be more diverse, and to reflect the country at large.

Fewer than one-in-four podcasts have a woman host. Thanks to Kerri Hoffman of PRX, Laura Walker at WNYC and others, positive, powerful efforts are underway to correct this.  Ethnic, racial, class, viewpoint and geographic diversity are also needed to boost the authenticity, reach and range of podcasting.

Nearly one-in-five Americans own smart speakers. They’re the fastest growing electronic devices since most of us got a smart phone. Smart speakers introduce a different way to listen. Others may be in the room with us. We are not on ear buds nor headphones. Podcast listening might become more social, and in some cases less intimate.

The future for podcasting may include more short quiz shows, games and drama.

How about a 12-minute soap opera with revolving characters that has audiences coming back for more every day? It’s already been tried in the U.K. “The Archers”  has been running for nearly 70 years, with nearly 19,000 episodes under it’s belt. It’s the world’s longest running radio soap opera.

With podcasts, what’s old can be new again.

“Can Podcasting Save The Planet” is the latest episode of “How Do We Fix It?’

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.