Serial

what it does (and doesn’t) mean for
the future of podcasting

Most of the following text was originally created as an audio post.
You will find a link to the audio below.

There have been several excellent posts on Medium of late discussing podcasting and the state of that art (T.Moody here, E.Aguilar here and here, and S.Rao here; off Medium there’s also J.Davis here). A few months back, while Serial had everyone’s podcast-knickers in a twist, I created an audio response to the same which I’d like to share here.

Why?

  • I am a podcaster (since 2006).
  • I was an NPR junkie (since 1984), but since I’ve been podcasting I don’t have nearly enough time to consume the same quantities of radio… except for Serial.

Wait, you say: Serial isn’t NPR; it’s a podcast!

To which I say, No. It isn’t.
Listen…

(audio here, shownotes here)

—Audio Transcript —

— Intro —

[Female host] For the last almost nine years of my life I have spent every week podcasting. And if you want to get technical about it — which apparently I do — podcasting is probably not what you think it is.
[music cue] What do I mean by that?

This week on CraftLit…

— What is Serial —

(00:30) [Female Host] OK, just to put this out there, let’s assume for a moment that you’re one of the seventeen people who has never heard of the This American Life show called Serial. I know it’s hard to imagine, but stay with me for a sec.
If you are one of those unhappy people, this might fill in a few gaps for you:
(01:00) [cheering — voice of Colbert] …Welcome back everybody. My guest tonight is the Peabody winning journalist and host of the true-crime podcast Serial. Please Welcome Sarah Koenig…[cheering]

Koenig on The Colbert Report

So Serial is a fantastic show — addictive, compelling, interesting, shocking — but contrary to what you’re reading in the papers and seeing online: it is not the most popular podcast.

How can that be?

What was it? Five million downloads a week or something incredible like that?
Well to understand why Serial isn’t the most popular podcast, we have to go back and look at history a little bit, which — if you listen to the CraftLit podcast normally — you’re used to doing. So, let’s take a look at how all of this got started in the first place.

— How It All Started —

(02:00) [Female Host] Whether you find yourself in the Tesla or the Marconi camp when

Tesla / Marconi

it comes to determining who invented the radio, the important part for us is that by 1920 radios were regularly being bought by average consumers and by 1922 there were over 600 separate radio stations in the United States. By 1928 those independent stations had already been boiled down into just three major radio networks. This type of growth continued and gradually those independent voices and independent stations were muscled out or taken over by the larger networks. As a consequence the stations became more generalized and broadcasting as we know it was born.
But the early days of radio — the days of radio that I just learned about from a podcast — turned out to have looked a lot more like the landscape we see in front of us these days on the podcasty part of the Internet.

[Male podcast host audio] …The question really was not what businesses were busy trying to get radio stations but rather which ones weren’t! Historians refer to it as the broadcasting boom of the 1920s. Everyone was getting into radio: banks, newspapers, department stores, universities and colleges, public utilities, cities and towns, an automobile repair school, a chicken farm, hospitals, pharmacies, creameries, a Detroit Police Department with the call-letters K O P. (COP! You’ve gotta love it!)

— How It Looks Now —

(03:45) [Female host] That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If you go to Google and you look for a podcast on, say, chiroprachty, I guarantee you you’re going to find something.

[Male podcast host audio] Welcome back to another exciting new information packed episode of Spinal Column Radio. My name is Dr Thomas Lamar chiropractor and dad of six, and this is the podcast that gets you to think — to think about your health in a whole new way. We’re the podcast for your backbone. The podcast with backbone….

(04:15) [Female Host] Well that’s fine and all but what do you do if cracking people’s backs isn’t your cup of tea? What if you really like your iPhone? Or what if you love to knit? Or what if yoga is the thing you really want to be doing but you can’t get out of the house to get to a class? Or what if you really love having classic literature read to you with, you know CliffsNotes-like audio annotations, so you don’t miss the good stuff?
[Male podcast host audio & Podcast intro] Welcome to Today in iPhone… Yeah, I like it a lot… Hey Kool-aid!… [cheering] …Welcome to the show I’m your host Rob, and this is the Today in iOS podcast. First up, I want to thank Jeff for sending in the music you hear in the background…
[Female podcast Host audio & Podcast intro] Welcome to The Knitmore Girls podcast, a multi-generational knitting production. This is episode three hundred seventeen. This week’s segments include: on the needles, in stitches, events, a contest, mother knows best, when knitting attacks…
[Female child Podcast intro] Welcome to Elsie’s Yoga Class. [adult female podcaster] Hello everybody and welcome to Elsie’s Yoga Class podcast episode number ninety eight How’s that for the cutest intro you’ve ever heard in your whole entire life…
[Female podcast Host audio & Podcast intro] Welcome to CraftLit, the podcast for crafters who love books. My name is Heather Ordover and I’m podcasting from…

— Podcast? Radio Show. —

(05:55) [Female Host] So the clips from those podcasts make part of my point for me. You can hear just by listening to those intros that there’s a fundamental difference between radio programs and podcasts. And a part of that difference is that podcasters are speaking directly to their audience. When you, as a listener, have somebody’s voice in your ear every week (and they have you that they’re talking to every week) you get to know your podcaster (and we get to know you). That’s different from listening to someone on the radio (who doesn’t know you exist).

Travel! Art! Literature! Sheep!

As a weekly podcaster I am in communication with hundreds of listeners. I know them by name. I’ve met many of them in person and in fact this October I will be going to England for the Second Annual CraftLit Tour — this time we’re going to the UK’s Lake District with thirty other fantastic, literature-loving creative-minded men and women who want to see the same things that I want to see because… we all have similar interests. In fact there are only two seats left so if you’re interested in going, go to CraftLit.com, left-hand sidebar and you can see all about it.

— The Tech Thing —

(07:10) [Female Host] But Heather, (I hear you say) But Heather, what does that have to do with Serial not being the most popular podcast ever?

It comes down to definitions.

[fx — modem connection sound] In the beginning, there was the Internet, and the Internet was good [fx — AOL You’ve Got Mail].
Actually that’s not true.
In the beginning there was the World Wide Web and before that there was something else. There have been lots of ways for machines to communicate with other machines over the years but not until the beginning of what we know as the Internet did this newfangled thing enter the mainstream. Before long people figured out that one of the things they wanted to have access to was digital audio. And not long after the dot com boom of the Nineties mp3s and mp3 players appeared on the market. This was happening at roughly the same time as the invention of R.S.S. feeds — and R.S.S. stands for Really Simple Syndication.

— and podcasting was born —

Then someone who is called The Podfather, Adam Curry (@adamcurry), took advantage of these R.S.S. feeds and he and a number of other people figured out a way to add a script so that digital audio files could be delivered through a syndicated feed from their door to yours.
All of this history is available on the Internet. But the upshot is Curry started to send out audio files to readers of his blog via his R.S.S. feed and those digital audio files were able to be loaded onto an iPod. The script that created the ability for people to use those R.S.S. feeds to send out files eventually became the first podcast aggregator which was called iPodder and that was the beginning of podcasting.
Free audio
that lived on the Internet,
delivered to your computer
from someone else’s computer,
with no corporate intermediary,
no delay,
and no fee.
It couldn’t have been more egalitarian in the beginning. Anyone with a mic — who could figure out the code — could launch a podcast.

(09:30) So, somewhere in 2004, The Guardian journalist Ben Hammersley suggested using the term Podcast to describe the phenomenon and then Danny Gregoire registered the term podcasting to describe that automatic download and synchronization of audio content — and podcasting, as we know it, was born
By June 2005, Apple added podcasts to iTunes 4.9, a directory of podcasts appeared at the iTunes music store, and Apple started selling computers which came with Garageband and QuickTime Pro software, making it possible for anyone with a Mac to immediately create a podcast.

(10:20) This history is also why if you talk to any Podcasters you’ll find out how ticked off they about The Podcast Troll getting a podcast patent from the United States Patent Trade Office in… July 2009. Clearly, the genie had been let out of the bottle a good while before that. And getting a podcast patent at that point is more than a little disingenuous.

(10:40) Well, let’s get back to the original question: why isn’t Serial the most popular podcast ever? Because if what we said is true and podcasts are just digital audio released through an R.S.S. feed over the internet then Serial should be the most popular podcast ever, right?
The answer is right there at the end of each Serial episode.

— The Production Factor —

Yeah, not a podcaster sitting in their closet with a mic and set of notes. (Also why Serial’s music cues and drama sound so great!)
(img from Vogue.uk’s article on Serial. Click here to go to the — very nice — article)

[Serial Host audio] Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Diana Chivvis, and Me. Emily Kannan is our production and operations manager. Ira Glass is our editorial advisor. Editing help from Nancy Updike. Fact checking by Karen Fergala Smith. Special thanks to Lou Teddy Jane Marie Seth Linda Lee Berger and the entire staff of “This American Life” and to my in-laws…
[Female Host] Did you catch that? Maybe this will help?
[Female podcast Host audio] Serial is a production of This American Life and W B E Z Chicago…

Startup podcast

[Female Host] Start-Up, a podcast released by Alex Blumberg of Planet Money fame (you’ve probably heard his voice before if you listen to N.P.R.).
In one of his Start-Up episodes — which are fascinating — he reveals that he’s making six thousand dollars an episode from Mailchimp. Well, his company is… which is why the podcast is called Start-Up.
However, if you were to listen to the end of, say, a CraftLit episode, you might hear something like this: CraftLit is produced by Heather Ordover productions and operations manager Heather Ordover, editorial advisor Aaron Ordover, editing help Heather Ordover, administrative assistant Vanessa Laven…

The Cure for Boring Shakespeare

And as you might hear on the Chop Bard podcast — The Cure for Boring Shakespeare  Aye, there’s the rub. Because calling Serial a podcast is like calling a Ferrari a go-cart. One, made with a lot of money and one, put together in your garage.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that — and not that they don’t both do what you want them to do.
They’re just very, very different.

— Letter vs Spirit —

(13:00) [Female Host] When it comes to legal things, we think of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Well, we’ve gone over the letter of the law for podcasts. We know what they are: digital audio files available for free to subscribers on the internet.
Fine.
The spirit of the law is that those files that you can automatically receive are made by independent podcasters who are beholden to no one but their audience, providing specialized content that you can’t get anywhere else.

Serial, on the other hand, is a radio program.

— The Crux —

(13:45) [Female Host] But all of this raises a question which my fifteen-year-old son was kind enough to ask me.
[teenage male voice] But Mom, isn’t this just because they’re more popular than you?
[Female Host] Well, sure. I mean, what podcaster doesn’t want to have five million downloads a week, right? But the longer that I thought about this the more that I realized that it’s not my overdeveloped sense of injustice that’s at play here — or at least it’s not my overdeveloped sense of injustice for me alone. It’s that if you go to iTunes as a consumer of content or if you go to Stitcher Radio — the two easiest ways for people to access podcast content — you will see the front page dominated by what I’ve started calling Pro-casts.

If you’d gone to iTunes or Stitcher Radio two years ago you would have seen that front page filled with podcasts created by independent podcasters, designing and creating their content for their specific audience of listeners. Now those independent podcasts are buried so far down the page it’s not even worth comparing it to the search for a needle in a haystack.

— Why It Matters —

(15:07) [Female Host] But there’s one more element of podcasts that I find important and the point was made by Ira Glass and his friend Mary.
[Voice of Ira Glass] …how to get it because it’s not very hard and I asked you to come here today because I know you know how to do it but I also know you do it every week, right?
[Voice of Mary] Of course every week.
[Voice of Ira Glass] I don’t need to give away your age but is it safe to say you are an actual older person.
[Voice of Mary] I’m on the dark side of eighty five. How’s that? [laughter] Try it! It’s wonderful. It’s a whole new world. I love it. I truly do. It’s opened up so much for me…
(15:45) [Female Host] I know I speak for many many of my fellow podcasters when I say we hear the same things from our listeners every week.

You’ve changed my life… You’ve made the world a bigger place… I’ve been shut in for years and I finally feel like I have a life and a community and friends… You helped my daughter pass her English final… Thank you for bringing so much richness to my life every week.

— Sour Grapes? —

(16:18) [Female Host] So am I mad about Serial’s success?
Heck no, I love the show!
Am I upset because Start-Up made six thousand dollars an episode from Mailchimp?
No, because Alex Bloomberg comes from Planet Money. He’s a known quantity. They know he can not only do the job but they also know that because of who he is, and where he’s worked, he can open doors that regular podcasters simply cannot.

Photo by Tim Wilson — “The PodCave”

— What to Do? —

(16:50) [Female Host] So why this Serial-esque episode? (Because this is not how CraftLit normally sounds.)
It’s because I thought the point was important enough to make — and make in a way that is familiar to you if the only ‘cast you have ever listened to is Serial.

So this isn’t a “don’t listen to Serial” or “don’t listen to WAIT! WAIT! DON’T TELL ME.” No, this is not a rallying cry for a boycott.
Instead, I think it would be great if we could all — with one voice — request that iTunes and Stitcher separate their front page organizational structure and have the podcasts separated from the Pro-casts.
That way listeners could find what they actually want — whether it’s an N.P.R. show that’s been re-purposed for on-demand listening on the Internet or a podcast that’s been created by someone just like you, in front of a microphone, sharing the things that they’ve learned and that they love with you, because they know you love those things, too.

Whether it’s one hundred thousand listeners or ten, there are podcasters out there creating audio for free, for you. It would be great if the playing field were leveled again so you could find what you’re looking for.

(18:10) [Female Host] Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to this podcast — and if you like audiobooks and think maybe it’s time to read that book you should have read in high school (or said you read in high school) come back to CraftLit.com and listen to any one of the twenty complete Annotated Audiobooks™ (audiobooks-with-benefits) we have in our archives.

Thank you so much for listening.
Take care.
Have a great one.
Bye.
CraftLit: Annotated Audiobooks • Audiobooks-with-Benefits™ — is produced by Heather Ordover, production and operations manager Heather Ordover, editorial advisor Aaron Ordover, editing help Heather Ordover, administrative assistance Vanessa Laven, fact checking Heather Ordover.
Special thanks to Dr Thomas Lamar of Spinal Column Radio, Rob Walsh at Today in iOS, Jasmine and Gigi at Knitmore Girls, Elsie Escobar of Elsie’s Yoga Kula, and the family of Heather Ordover for putting up with her absences.
Support for CraftLit comes from Survival Organs, March Hare Yarns, and Knit Circus.
CraftLit is made possible by the generous support of its listeners and for that I am truly grateful.
CraftLit is a production of Crafting-a-Life, Inc., and its imprint Crafting-a-Life Books.
If you liked this special episode and the point that it made please feel free to share any way you possibly can because the advertising budget is… less than a Starbucks.
Thank you so much.
Take care.
Bye.

[end of audio transcript]

— the future —

So what does Serial mean to the future of podcasting?

I’ve heard a lot of hopeful voices in the podcasting community positing that a rising tide lifts all ships and therefore we would all see increases in our subscriber numbers.

Or not.

Well, there is one podcaster I heard who indicated that his podcast received a bump when Serial’s serialization ended (heard on episode 49 of The Feed; listen at 1:00:50 re: a Serial and Marc Maron/Obama bump). The theory is that folks had gotten used to the on-demand audio format and started searching for other, similar things to listen to when Serial went off the air. Most of the other stories I’d heard were front-page-iTunes fare… which generally means more NPR knockoffs or podcasts by those-who-were-previously-famous.

What many podcasters had hoped was that the bump would lead people to find podcasts (that I guarantee exist) in their own little niche-interest-area. Like trickle-down economics, though, this seems to be a bit of a pipe dream, or, if it is happening, it is at least not in numbers that one would notice (and definitely not in numbers that the media notice).

I fear that what Serial really heralds for us is the doom of numerous and wide-ranging, niche and über-niche podcasts. If searches on iTunes continue to be as flawed and limited as they have been, then people will continue to not find the podcasts they are actually looking for. And like small business owners over the last thirty years, podcasters will likely see a rise in fees and eventually be shut out of the more reliable networks and… well. There it is. History doing that lather-rinse-repeat thing again.

NPR (and the general Media Industrial Complex) aren’t helping any, either. A quick listen to Rob Walch in episode 50 of Libsyn’s The Feed podcast will rapidly make clear the problem with reports of Serial’s “podcast resurgence” (39:40–41:30 minute mark). Though some reporters have a unique and welcome perspective on the junction between radio and podcasts, these moments of enlightenment seem to be too few and much too far between.

• • •

I love NPR, really I do. But I don’t relish being elbowed out of my own medium (after 10 years of work) by bigger guys with bigger wallets — not after everything podcasters have done to innovate and expand the technology and find creative ways to grow their audiences on minimal budgets. I admit, it’s painful to watch the often self-congratulatory Isn’t-It-Cool-How-We-Invented-Podcasting-a-Thons that NPR-native hosts are throwing of late (with their friends from NPR covering the fêtes). It feels smarmy and disingenuous — or is, at least, lousy reporting as Walch says (41:20 minute mark).

But what can be done, right? I mean, this is beyond David and Goliath (or maybe it’s the Goliath Corporation). It sure feels that there’s no way to win. Elsie Escobar points out that the only way any of the Werk It women say they ‘found their audience’ was when their shows were… (wait for it…) covered by NPR (or they are former employees of an NPR show). I even experienced this, albeit in a much smaller way. This past winter I was interviewed by Jon Kalish (who is lovely, by the way). I had a lot of fun talking with him for a story on podcast funding and monitization (which is the ugly underbelly of this whole story, isn’t it?).

CraftLit’s Subbable page moved to the Patreon world

My show CraftLit had been picked up by John and Hank Green’s venture, Subbable (now merged with Patreon) and I was the first podcaster to respond to Kalish’s request (after the requisite private-fan-girl-hyperventilating). The majority of my audio was cut by an editor (quoth he) but Kalish was able to keep my show’s opening clip (32 second mark). Within a month I was receiving emails from new listeners who had just found CraftLit. How? — by hearing that scant 10 second clip on NPR’s Weekend Sunday Edition.

Was the bump enough to notice in my stats?
No.
Do I care?
Eh.
Someone who wanted to enjoy classic literature (without pain) found my show.
That’s all I ever wanted.
Without NPR would they have found CraftLit?
Well… that’s the point, isn’t it?

Unless the search engines at iTunes and Stitcher find a way to separate the Pros from the Pods, probably not.

You can find
Serial here, Startup here, the adorable video with Ira Glass and Mary here, the Spinal Column Radio Podcast (now podfaded) here, Today in iOS here, Knitmore Girls here, Elsie’s Yoga Kula here, Chop Bard here, and CraftLit here.
You can contact
Apple iTunes here and Stitcher Radio here.
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