22 things I learnt about audio from three days in London and an hour on a boat

Between fan funding, live performances, perceptive media and the emergence of smart speaker technology, audio is in rude health

Wise words from Tommy Ferraz from Voizzup at Next Radio

Everyone loves a conference. A day out of the office. A chance to meet up with some old friends. An opportunity to learn new stuff. However but some sort of quirk of scheduling, I’ve ended up in a bit of a conference frenzy over the last few days.

Three different conferences in four days. Two days at the London Podcast Festival, the radio ideas conference, Next Radio, and Cardiff’s tech festival, Digital 2017. It’s fair to say that my brain itches with cognitive load.

But the last four days have given me a real sense of the rude health that audio finds itself in at the moment. Both professionally and in the amateur sphere. It really is one of the most creative and exciting industries to be in with right now.

Day One – London Podcast Festival

Now in its second year, the London Podcast Festival is a celebration of all things podcasting, including live recordings of some of the biggest podcasts in the world, including My Dad Wrote A Porno, Criminal and The Memory Palace, and a series of smaller ‘How To…’ sessions. It is a fantastic and fascinating gathering of both industry rock stars and people who have no more than a great idea and a dream. In this sense it is perhaps the most democratic and inclusive conference I’ve ever been to.

L-R Helen Zaltzman, Imriel Morgan, Julie Shapiro and Jesse Thorn talk podcast networks at LondonPodFest

With the benefit of copious notes, these are some of the insights, learnings, great tips and brilliant anecdotes I’ve accumulated over the last few days.

1 We’re told to be dogged when pursuing that key interviewee. But that’s a big no-no for the brilliant team behind Radiotopia’s Criminal team. “If I have to ask them to talk, they’re not ready to talk”, says host, Phoebe Judge.

2 Executive Producer Julie Shapiro wanted a packed auditorium to get to know her Radiotopia hosts. So while we’re on Criminal, Phoebe Judge’s first pet was a hamster called Judy, she point-blankly refuses to sit in a window seat of a plane and would love to host The Bugle if there was a Radiotopia host-swap day. I’m not sure Andy Zaltzman is so up for Criminal though.

3. The Bugle host Andy Zaltzman says podcast provides freedom that comedians crave, which is why so many of them have their own podcasts: “The joy of podcasts is that you control of your own projects. It's hard to get that with TV”

4 If you want to upset a podcast presenter, tell them that their podcast sends you to sleep at night. This came up in conversation in two separate sessions. To be honest, it is the weirdest of compliments – after all, you wouldn’t say it to a concert pianist, would you!

5 Cathy FitzGerald presents and produces Radio 4’s The Invisible College so well that just two days after her talk here, she was nominated for Best Non-Breakfast Speech Presenter at the Audio and Radio Industry Awards. Her session on creating breathtaking audio was fantastic. She takes pages and pages of notes when she’s out recording, so that when it comes to writing a script, it oozes with details to bring it alive for listeners.

6 Cathy again: “Give the listener something to do. We get caught up in the need to signpost that we sometimes forget that there is an enormous pleasure in not knowing what’s going on.” But remember, while “too much clarity is boring, too much mystery is a mess.”

7 Interesting stat of the day from the Audio Drama Production Podcast’s Fiona Thraille:

In 2017, to get into top 10% podcasts you need to get 212 downloads in your first 30 days. To get into the top 5%, 14,000. The top 2%, 41,000. And to be amongst the top 1% performing podcasts, you need to get 88,000 in first 30 days!

Time to start hammering social media! More on that later…

8 Liz Campbell, Production Manager for British Podcast Award winning comedy, Wooden Overcoats, talked about the various revenue streams open to podcasters. Namely,

a) Ads and sponsorship (Hello, Squarespace!),

b) Fan funding (Hello, Patreon!)

c) Affiliated sales (Hello, Merchandise!). Liz says while it’s important to diversify, the potential of fan funding if you can find an active niche is huge.

I mean, who can resist a bit of top quality merchandise!

Day Two – London Podcast Festival

9 “Find the surprise in the story”: Simple, priceless bit of advice from Julie Shapiro, Radiotopia’s Executive Producer and surprisingly, their only member of staff.

10 Jesse Thorn, founder of US comedy network, Maximum Fun, talked about their operating model. Producers own their own shows and networks sells advertising into those show and help them raise money via donations. Producers earn 70% of donations raises. and ads revenue split 50–50.

11 There was a lovely interchange between Jesse and The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman. Jesse’s wife had told Helen that she went to law school to earn a living while he concentrated on podcasting and public radio. However she now works for Maximum Fun too. “Turns out law school blows,” says Jesse, “I wish we knew that $150,000 ago!”

12 Perhaps the session of the weekend came from Picturehouse Podcast’s Simon Renshaw and Flixwatcher Podcast’s Helen Sadler & Kobi Omenaka. Meant to be just about entertainment podcasts, there was great solid advice for podcasters of all kinds. Particularly, how to do an elevator pitch for your show:

For (Your target audience) who love (your niche), (podcast name) is a podcast that (one key selling point of your podcast). Unlike (name of similar podcast in your niche), our podcast (key differentiator).

13 Two great social media tools from Caroline Crampton, head of podcasting at New Statesman. Firstly, a social media image size guide. Secondly, twangulate, which finds people on Twitter who follow influencers and your competitors, so you can target them with your content. I also jotted down some of her social media do’s and don’ts:

Day Three – Next Radio

Monday morning and its off to the Royal Institution in Piccadilly, home of Next Radio for day three of conference mania. Next is a slickly run conference with an impressive ledger of speakers. The day is chocked full of TED style 9 and 18 minute talks, which are all filmed and put up online, alongside with all the talks from the previous six years. It’s a treasure chest of possibility.

So, back to that list…

14 What do regular podcast listeners tune in for? US podcast watchers, Edison Research, have been finding out. Themes that came up in the qual research included:

  • helps me improve myself / my business
  • learn something new everyday
  • tailored topics and coverage I want.
  • Being part of a community

But you can also watch the full talk here

15 Edison Research’s Megan Lazovick on the new creative opportunity that voice-controlled smart speakers present content makers with:

“For the first time in years, we’re seeing people gather around the radio — almost like it’s the 1930s.”

16 Talking of smart speakers, the BBC is developing an audio drama that you can control via Alexa and Google Home. Think pimped up version of an interactive storybook.

17 Stat from radio futurologist and Next Radio co-head honcho, James Cridland: If a podcast is one hour long fewer than 50% of listeners make it past the first 15 minutes (PocketCasts Research). Interestingly, how long a podcast should be was a dominant feature of the weekend again. Again, “it depends” is the closest thing we got to an answer, as I blogged about last month.

18 Objectivity, and building on the success of the traditional fanzine are part of the reason why fan podcasts are on the rise, particularly in football. So says Alex Adey, AudioBoom’s UK Head of Content.

19 Five Live presenter and presenter of the What Goes on Here podcast, Sam Walker did a brilliant session on what audio content producers can learn from horror movies. If you do nothing else today, watch this video.

20 James Cridland again:

“We make radio rather too complicated and particularly podcasting too complicated.”

Only 19% of people think finding a podcast is easy. So, making the tech simpler for users should be a priority. Megan from Edison made a similar point earlier. We should be forefronting the content and not the tech in order to bring new people in.

21 Two good tips from Nan Davies, producer of the Penguin Podcast: Firstly, think about how you can unlock the passion of your guest. For example: they ask their guests to bring in an object which is important to them. Secondly, invest in assets – great photographs help sell your podcast.

An hour on a boat – Digital 2017 Conference, Cardiff

Captain Ian Forrester of BBC Research and Development aboard the good ship Perceptive Media

It’s ironic that, after spending three days at media conferences in London, the most W1A moment I experienced happened a nine minute walk away from my house in an unfashionable area of Cardiff. A rather brilliant session by a senior leader of the BBC’s Research and Development team happened on a boat in the River Taff. It was part of Cardiff’s ambitious two day Digital 2017 tech conference. To give you a sense of the ambition, I was greeted by a dancing Tesla as I walked into the conference centre at Tramshed Tech. I can only assume the riverboat is a trendy version of the school demountable.

22 Interrupted only by the odd bump on the shore caused by the wash from other boats, the Senior Firestarter (yes, you heard that right) at BBC R&D, Ian Forrester, explained how technology is helping to revive the age-old skill of oral storytelling. People tell stories to other people all the time and how long those stories are is often dictated by how much time is available. Why can’t content work in the same way? What if you only had 20 minutes – could that video, that podcast, be adapted to fit your window, and take into account your surroundings, the weather, your journey to work? Well, it’s called Perceptive Media and Ian and has team have already worked on this concept over the last few years. They’ve also open-sourced the code for it on GitHub. It will be interesting to see how it can challenge our conventional thinking about what is fixed and what is flexible.

Now, does anyone have some cream to help with this itching?

Steve Austins is the Founder and Director of Bengo Media, which specialises in creating powerful audio content for businesses.