The response to S-Town says it all. Every episode of the new podcast from This American Life and Serial was published in one go, and the kinks and intrigue made it an addictive story from the beginning.
Just like its critically acclaimed predecessor, S-Town already feels like it’s given a boost to podcasting as a whole. The ability of the team behind it to reach as big an audience as it does is a fillip for the art of podcasting because those ears are listening to something very simple, very effective and very important.
They’re listening to great storytelling.
This latest addition to the world of heavyweight podcasting has given me the excuse I needed to get on my soapbox and blow smoke up the hoop of my medium of choice.
I’ve been podcasting for eight years and there are something like 450 hours of my boring voice out there in various places. Many people have been doing it for longer, and many more are relative newcomers. I know because I listen to them.
It’s that focus on storytelling, under which I include lengthy interviews and the like, that makes me listen to hours upon hours of audio content every week. It’s what makes podcasts work.
In practically every corridor of the marketing industry we talk about stories and content. Too often what brands actually end up publishing is actually much closer to advertising. Too often, that is, except in podcasts.
Where social video can stray into ad territory, podcasts doing the same just wouldn’t be listened to. Podcasting might not be the last bastion of storytelling, but it is the beacon and it remains relatively pure. The introduction of brands into the medium has seen them, not it, change.
Branded podcasts are becoming commonplace. I’ve listened to a few. I’ve even made some. And as a long-time podcast host, producer and listener, it strikes me that there’s a crucial barrier to entry that protects the integrity of podcasting.
Audio content needs authenticity. It must be real. I don’t mean it must be true (I’m playing around with a fiction idea of my own) but that brands talking about themselves — with the possible exception of brands with an internal story to tell and telling it well — are going to fail.
So even brand storytelling through podcasts has to be worth listening to in its own right. That means it’s not the right medium for a lot of brands, in truth nearly all of them. But the ones who see value in it are, by necessity and because of their own smart intentions, making a positive contribution to podcasting.
That’s not always the case in social media. The line is blurred. The “stories” brands tell on their owned social channels are often more above than through.
As podcasters we have a duty to maintain the integrity of our medium. It shouldn’t be too difficult; people simply aren’t going to listen to branded garbage so we hold all the cards. We should be welcoming to brands that join us and approach it the right way.
But, putting on my social media content hat for a moment, we should aspire to tell better stories. To trust our audiences to engage with those stories because they’re better. To think beyond the short-term brief, and to benefit the brands we work for by giving them a reason to be loved.