Listening Numbers Are Booming, But Even Spotify Doesn’t Know If It Will Make Money From Podcasts.

img_0963

I’m a bit old school. While podcasting occupies much of my time each day, a long-established habit of slowly leafing through the pages of newspapers continues to be a source pleasure. Print discoveries are made without digital nudges from algorithms.

Among my favorite finds last week was in the “C-Suite Strategies” section of The Wall Street Journal and a surprisingly revealing comment by Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy.

Asked by a reporter “why is podcasting an important medium for the company to expand into?”, McCarthy answered: “It remains to be seen whether or not it becomes an important medium.”

Huh?

His company spent approximately $400 million this year on three podcasting firms, in the expectation that these investments would increase Spotify’s growing subscriber base.

As more people discover the many rewards of podcast listening, many content producers and distributors are allocating a growing part of their media budget to podcasting. And for good reason.

“Frankly, if Spotify didn’t get into podcasts it would risk losing share of the audio listening market to other platforms,” said a recent post by the financial advice site, Motley Fool.

Despite soaring revenues from music subscriptions, the fast-growing streaming giant operated at a small loss during the first quarter of 2019 and for all of last year.

Podcasting is a big bet and McCarthy admits that “there’s a fair amount of uncertainty” about whether it will have a positive impact on profitability, “which is probably troubling to investors.”

Assuming that consumers will pay for podcasts that have, until now, been free may be a risky investment. While the most popular shows reach hundreds of thousands of listeners, most expensively-produced podcasts don’t make a profit. And compared to other media, podcasting’s share of the advertising pie is slim indeed.

One industry projection forecast that by 2020, U.S. podcast advertising would grow to $659 million, while in 2018, radio ad sales were $17.8 billion.

Overall digital advertising revenue last year surpassed $100 billion!

The numbers beg the question: How well-deserved are big podcast investments by venture capitalists and others? Will millions of listeners pay for monthly subscriptions to Spotify, Luminary, Pandora and other platforms?

While podcasters celebrate expanding opportunities, growing media coverage, dazzling new shows and a steady rise in consumer acceptance, the industry’s producers and investors must broaden their horizons.

“Some fear that podcasting has become a community talking to itself— a coastal thing like electric scooters and avocado toast,” wrote Gerry Smith in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Yes, the pod potential is huge. But competition is increasingly fierce. Obstacles remain. A little more caution and humility may be in order.

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant, media coach and former network radio journalist. His weekly solutions journalism podcast is “How Do We Fix It?

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.

 

“How do you feel”, “tell me more” and other smart interview questions.

How to answer questions. The second in a series on podcasting.

“It was 1992. The closing days of the Presidential campaign and I was beginning to get a name for myself.

Not in a good way.

During crowded press conferences with the candidates all that year, I was the network radio reporter who would ask: “How do you feel?”

Sometimes not-very-polite snickers were heard nearby from fellow members of the traveling press. “What a dumb question” they probably murmured under their breaths. They were far from impressed.

But more often than not a question about emotions or feelings — as opposed to something erudite about policy — resulted in one of the best soundbites of the day.

The point is simple. It’s not about you. Interviewers on podcasts, reporters at news conferences, or panel members at webinars shouldn’t try to make themselves look smart or impress colleagues. Instead, look for ways to engage others.

This is especially true on a podcast, when almost all listeners start at the beginning. They don’t tune-in half-way through, as so often happens during a radio show. A podcast audience is much more likely to stay with you for the entire episode when they’re hearing a lively conversation.

Hosts who are curious and honestly interested in what their guests have to say are more engaging and fully present than those who are merely clever.

Be direct. Keep questions brief, if possible. Humor works. So do challenging questions. But unless being obnoxious is part of your act, don’t try to show up the guest or be snarky. On the other extreme, avoid being a toady, who repeatedly flatters guests. “That’s so interesting” or “it’s such a good point you’re making” works once or twice during a twenty minute conversation, but no more than that.

Preparation is essential. Know your stuff. An interview should have moments of surprise, laughter and spontaneity. When the answer provokes a follow-up, don’t stick to a written list of questions. “Tell me more” is a gentle prompt that enables you to go a little deeper.

Two more ways to get the best from a guest is to make her/him feel comfortable before the microphone is switched on. If you edit your podcast before it’s published (you should do this), explain beforehand that a guest can “re-do” an answer. Second, put some energy into how you ask your questions. If you do, the answers are likely to be more animated.

Another way to improve interview technique is to listen to the pros.

We all have our favorite hosts. Mine is Terry Gross. For more than 40 years, she has been voice of the NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Next month in Philadelphia, she will be the closing keynote speaker at Podcast Movement’s annual get together. I’ll be on the edge of my seat, taking notes on what she’ll tell the audience.

Podcaster Marc Maron called Terry “‘the most effective and beautiful interviewer of people on the planet.’’ I love her infectious laugh and warm, deeply intelligent manner.

“Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy,” wrote Susan Burton in a lovely profile for The New York Times Magazine. “In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.”

Many podcast hosts who are relatively new to the game are understandably nervous. But some of the best interviews I’ve heard were by amateurs, speaking with friends or those they love.

Have you listened to “Storycorps”? This brilliant non-profit organization founded by radio producer Dave Isay has been recording and collecting conversations for years. “Our mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world,” Storycorps says on its website.

“Storycorps” has countless examples of loving, empathetic and surprising questions and answers. “Listen. Honor. Share” is their motto. Not a bad thing for us podcasters to include our own mission statements.

If Moms and Dads, sons and daughters and cousins can ask great questions, so can you.

Richard Davies is a Podcast host, consultant and media trainer. Learn more at DaviesContent.com

Like what you read? Give Richard Davies a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.

Responses
img_0788

Podcasting Movement:  Kind of Like Woodstock Without the Sex, Mud and Rock n Roll

  
Actress and comedian Aisha Tyler on podcasting:  “I do it because I love it”

I’m just back from Podcast Movement, the annual pep rally, support group and two-day college course for podcasters in Fort Worth.  Chances are you’ve never been to an industry show quite like this one.

1100 attendees paid $500 each, plus hotel and airfare, for an earnest and at times joyous lovefest.  Think Woodstock minus the sex, mud and rock & roll.  What a way to network: I came with nearly 200 business cards for my How Do We Fix It?  podcast, and left with only a handful. 

“Podcasters enjoy being together. They want to learn from the best in the industry,” says Jared Easley, co-founder of Podcast Movement. 

 Most were either wannabe podcasters, or newbies like me, looking to learn all they can about their chosen passion. They’re their own program directors, show hosts, engineers and sales team. Most of us here haven’t made a dime from our shows … yet.  

But hope springs eternal. It’s been a heck of a year for this chaotic, young online industry since the first, and much smaller, Podcast Movement conference that was held last summer.

Weeks ago, in late June, President Obama appeared in-person for an episode of WTF With Marc Maron, recorded in the comedian’s garage at his house in Los Angeles.

Since rolling out last fall, the hit show “Serial” has been downloaded an astonishing 94 million times. Its runaway success sparked a wave of mainstream media coverage about podcasting in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Saturday Night Live and many other places.  A playful video segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last fall featured Ira Glass of “This American Life,” and a woman in her late-80’s, describing how easy it was to listen to a podcast.

Marketers and tech firms are taking note of podcasting’s recent growth. Some companies sponsored booths and took part in Q & A sessions. Many programmers, marketers, equipment vendors and automobile manufacturers have beefed up their investments. Audible (owned by Amazon) is jumping into podcasting, and Apple embedded a purple podcast into the iOS operating system on iPhones and iPads. 

 “I do it because I love it,” declared actress and comedian Aisha Tyler, well-known for hosting “Whose Line Is It Anyway” on ABC. In a speech that was frequently interrupted by laughter, cheers and applause, Tyler spoke of her own success and struggles in making “Girl on Guy,” the four-year old weekly podcast, where she interviews her favorite male celebrity friends. “It is the purest expression of what I do,” she said. 

Another keynoter was Lou Mongello, author, host and producer of the WDW Radio Show podcast. He urged podcasters “to be passionate, persistent and patient about what you are doing.” 
The audience can hear the passion in your voice, Mongello told me. “Worrying about your microphone, your plug-ins and your software is secondary to finding your voice and finding your audience.”
 There are said to be roughly 300,000 podcasts in production today in The United States. From self-help to sales shows, comedy to current affairs, they include an astonishing range of subjects, formats and production standards.  

“For someone who’s interested in learning, or having a laugh because life is challenging, I think podcasting is an amazing blessing,” says conference organizer Jared Easley. “There are so many good and talented people who are putting so much time and energy into content.”

But will they make money? That was the uneasy question hanging over this event. There are only a small number of podcasts that give their creators anything like a comfortable living. 
The only safe bet is that an industry shakeout is coming.  But while podcasting is still fairly young and cool, it’s great fun to be along for the ride.  Kind of reminds me of the early days of FM rock radio, before the slick program consultants crashed the party.