The Radio Drama Episode and the future of podcasting

This week, “This American Life” released The Radio Drama Episode, a recording of a live event they hosted in Brooklyn in 2014. If you haven’t heard it, you should cue it up. It’s a poignant, creative, and thought-provoking production (and, it is a production) that had me laughing out loud in the middle of the street. It also gives us a few hints as to what the future of podcasting will look like. The episode might’ve been taped a few years ago, but it’s still well-worth a closer look to better understand what’s working in the medium, where it’s going next, and where growth will come from. Let’s dig in:

The Rise of Celebrity-via-Audio: This weekend, I found myself at a dinner party where the conversation shifted from Mike Pompeo’s performance as Secretary of State to Kim Kardashian’s latest stunt to….Guy Raz (of How I Built This Fame) and his voice. It was a first for me, but it certainly won’t be the last time podcasters are mentioned alongside other dinner-table-worthy debates about celebrities. Podcasters are the most undervalued influencers in media, and we’re increasingly going to them develop personas that cross over into mainstream pop culture and other mediums — -and vice versa.

The Radio Drama Episodereally highlighted the trend. Not only did Lin-Manuel Miranda make a cameo, he created a whole mini-Broadway play for the occasion ( it’s called 21 Chump Street, and you should definitely check it out). Comedian Mike Birbiglia did a short set that he’s since developed into a one-man show. And, of course, the audience was filled with people who paid nearly $100 to see Ira Glass — the original podcast celebrity — in action. This isn’t a new phenomenon; content creators want to distribute their work out over as many channels as they can. But, we’re going to start seeing a lot more instances of podcasting-as-a-means to acquire and/or amplify one’s celebrity status.

Live events: Ira Glass kicks off the show with a joke about the fact that people paid $85 to be there. He’s clearly a little incredulous, because, on face, it feels ironic that so many people would pay to see content made explicitly to be heard. They do, though.

Live shows are an increasingly meaningful piece of major podcasts’ revenue streams. The growth of live podcasting is bolstered by two meaningful trends: the celebrity-ization of podcasters (see above) and millennials’ placing a high value on experiences. Podcasts are taking this lesson and embedding it into their models.Crooked Media even officially goes “on tour.”

From a business model perspective, live shows are a good way to turns costs into a revenue stream: shows can charge for people to watch a live recording, and then edit relatively lightly before putting the episode out to the rest of the world.Take it one step further: charge people to attend a live recording, and then sell rights of the video recording to HBO or Netflix (also like Crooked Media).

Storytelling’s revival: It’s admittedly a stretch to say that Ira Glass is the modern day Homer, and The Radio Drama Episode is his Odyssey. The analogy has some truth to it, though. The episode makes use of a broad set of tools to tell stories, from broadway-style musical numbers, to comedy, to opera, to good-ol-fashion character voices. It’s an inspiring (and fun) glimpse into how much potential still exists in the space — especially one up until now that’s largely been a medium for investigative journalism and roundtable discussions. The current podcast content mix is akin to a world where network TV only consists of cable news, a bunch of well-constructed documentaries, and the occasional Hollywood drama. There’s no corollary to Friends, This is Us, or Game of Thrones in major league podcasting.There’s a lot of potential to be unearthed. We got a glimpse into what it might sound like in The Radio Drama Episode. It’s pretty great.

We’re also going to see a general resurgence in interest surrounding the art of storytelling. The Moth is the movement most famous for this; they do live events around the country, invite listeners tell their stories to a live audience, and then package these recordings into podcasts. As people start to get re-acquainted with the art of storytelling and people get more comfortable with the idea of public narrative, more movements like The Moth will pop up. Interest is already bubbling in small, niche communities; storytellers clubs are popular on university campuses, for example. It takes a few amazing stories to be told on these small stages going viral before we see a Sofar Sounds for stories pickup steam.

Sponsored by Squarespace: The more things change, the more they stay the same. We’ll continue to see our podcasts punctuated by 45 second breaks, allowing sponsors like Squarespace and Ziprecruiter the chance to say their piece. We’ll see a lot of changes in the business of podcasting over the coming years, but podcast ads aren’t going anywhere. The business will continue to grow quickly, albeit on a small base. Still, there’s no other medium where advertising represents 100% of revenue, and podcasts won’t stay that way forever either. Ads aren’t going anywhere (just like they haven’t for TV and print), but we’ll start to see new revenue streams emerge that allow for direct-listener monetization through subscriptions and one-time content buys (also, like TV and print).