Podcasting: destined for stardom or always an extra?

For just over a decade, the podcast industry has been growing and maturing, with the last few years each promising to be the ‘year of the podcast’. In 2015, “as a medium, podcasts are hot right now”, 2016 was the “year the podcast came of age”, while in 2017 we must “prepare to be blown away” by its growth.

But why is it that we’ve not yet seen the medium’s ‘hockey stick moment’ we’ve been assured? This week’s mailer considers that question (and tells you MTM’s 5 favourite podcasts!)

Casting the net wider than ever

The latest Infinite Dial report states the share of Americans who describe listening to podcasts monthly has grown 14 percent year-on-year, now reaching 24 percent of the country.

And when people are ‘in to’ podcasts, they’re really ‘in to’ them: 5 is the average number of podcasts listened to each week and 6 is the average number subscribed to.

Typically, the US leads the way in podcasting and break-out hits, but here in the UK, the medium is also experiencing growth. One in 10 of us download a podcast every week*, and on average per week, we listen to over 6 hours’ worth (*more on the data behind stats later).

Podcasts in the spotlight

This year, the intimate yet globally relatable S-Town was downloaded 16m times within its first week; it’s been described as “changing podcasts all over again”. Last month Britain saw its first British Podcast Awards, which, according to co-founder Matt Hill (former Guardian writer and podcast host), “aims to celebrate the quirkiest and most inventive shows being made right now…we’ve built categories that reflect the huge range of talent in this country”.

Another boost will likely come from TV. Fox 21 is said to be adapting Serial for the small screen, as well as a This American Life project. And viewers in the UK can look out for Amazon’s TV transformation of mythical podcast Lore.

The other side of podcasting

However, Nieman Lab describe podcasting’s growth as being somewhat underwhelming and interestingly, of the 40 percent who have tried podcasting, only 24 percent listen regularly.

So what is stopping more people trying and sticking with podcasts?

What, where, how?

First is an education issue. Since their inception, defining what a podcast ‘is’ has been a grey area, and 4 in 10 Americans still aren’t familiar with the term. Are they online clips of radio shows, whole radio shows or something separate altogether? And from podcasters’ perspectives, when we talk about ‘downloads’ do we also include people streaming them? We cover this more in a moment.

The fact that many start but don’t regularly listen suggests there is also an issue with content itself. Nieman Lab argues it means either there isn’t “enough good stuff” or “they simply can’t find it”. Some audiences aren’t satisfactorily served (particularly 55+ year olds), and the Knight Foundation reports a lack of talent diversity, with the vast majority of hosts being male and white.

Another widely reported barrier is discovery; while this has improved with the introduction of ‘podcatchers’, it is still somewhat intimidating and difficult for podcast newbies to work out where to start, with much of discovery currently relying on knowing others ‘in the know’.

Commercial potential

The challenges for publishers, broadcasters and other podcasters for monetising their work are two-fold: first, the lack of universal measurement for listening; and second, choosing the right monetisation method.

Mashable writes “while iTunes ranks the most popular podcasts, no one outside of Apple knows exactly how it works”. How can podcasters tell how many listeners they have, and how many streams vs. downloads they achieve? This relative opacity doesn’t make the decision about how content can be monetised easier. Fipp outlines the options, from sponsorship, subscriptions and crowdfunding to live events. No one is yet to crack the formula for making a financially independent podcast, and there’s little to suggest that 2017 is the year it will happen.

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But in a world where every media is endeavouring to be the ‘next big thing’, is that what podcasting should aim towards? It currently has a sizeable audience of dedicated fans that others would be glad of; perhaps they should embrace their niche position? We’re excited to see what’s next for the medium that many of us at MTM love.

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Speaking of which, here are our 5 current favourites…

Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People – Every week, Chris opens the phone line to one anonymous caller, and he can’t hang up first, no matter what. From shocking confessions and family secrets to philosophical discussions and shameless self-promotion, anything can and will happen!

Athletico Mince – Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson nominally talk about football, but take surreal and very funny diversions around a bizarre range of topics. Described by GQ Magazine as ‘the best podcast you probably haven’t heard of’.

Lore – an award-winning, critically-acclaimed podcast about true life scary stories. Our fears have roots. Lore exposes the darker side of history, exploring the creatures, people, and places of our wildest nightmares

Flophouse – the internet is studded with geeks mocking bad movies from the safety of their podcasts, but The Flop House might just be the best of the bunch

Song Exploder – a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made

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If you would like to discuss any of the topics outlined above, or tell us your favourite podcasts, do not hesitate to get in touch.

About Georgie Coad

Georgie Coad is a Senior Research Executive at MTM working in the qualitative team. Growing up during phenomenal technological change, with the explosion of social media and the beginnings of OTT, Georgie is excited to research ways that media will continue to evolve and change the way we live.