Why The Future of Podcasting Isn’t Medium… It’s Rush Limbaugh

I’m sorry for that deliberately click-bait-y headline.

But stick with me here, cause I have a point to make about the future of podcasts that will make this headline make sense.

As a podcaster myself, I’ve been as amazed as anyone with the Internet’s general fascination with Serial as a phenomenon. It’s difficult to think of a truer example of a “breakthrough” show… a show that brought its entire medium into the mainstream. Maybe The Sopranos is the closest similar example in recent decades.

But in all the media attention and all the prognostication about what Serial might mean for the future of podcasting generally, I think that a lot of the analysis has gotten things exactly wrong, at least within the existing podcasting community.

There’s been a bunch of talk in podcasting circles about the need to replicate what Serial has achieved, both in format and in production level. Everyone’s been focusing on how more Serials can be produced. Everyone’s looking for another riveting show that can become appointment downloading for millions of ravenous fans. A lot of people are speculating about producing “Serial, but for this topic/genre.” It’s almost becoming a bit of a speculative bubble among people who are looking to capitalize on the Serial hype.

To my mind, the sort of couldn’t-get-out-of-my-car-until-I-heard-how-it-ended listening that Serial did so well (which people like Howard Stern and This American Life are so good at) is perfectly admirable. But it is not necessarily what most podcasters should be aiming for.

Because, that style of listening does not actually play to podcasting’s inherent strengths. I’m not at all saying that a riveting serial like Serial can’t have a place in the podcasting firmament. I’m just saying that what will actually prove to be podcasting’s winning formula for the vast majority of podcast producers will be something a bit different.

Podcasting Isn’t Disrupting Radio. It’s Disrupting Talk Radio.

The talent flooding into podcasting shouldn’t necessarily try to replicate Serial. Instead, the medium of podcasting will likely find greater success by replicating Talk Radio — by aping Rush Limbaugh, WFAN, Howard Stern, Dan Patrick, Garrison Keillor and others. Talk radio.

Here’s why I think that. Do you know any serious podcast fans? I’m talking about the people that have ten or more podcasts that they subscribe to regularly, the ones who listen to podcasts for several hours each day.

I am such a person. All my working life, I’ve always had something on in the background. Early on in my career, it was NPR (when I lived in Ann Arbor and had the wonderful Michigan Radio in my life). Then, for most of the 2000s, it was Howard Stern. As a desk jockey for most of my career, talk radio has helped me measure out my day with coffee spoons.

And when it comes to exercising—running, or going to the gym—I’ve always actually preferred audiobooks, or at least, some form of spoken-word programming. More so than music. Sure, something with a driving beat can help you power through a run, but I’ve found that I can make it to 5 miles a heck of a lot easier if my mind is distracted as opposed to being engaged with the misery.

So, podcasts entered my life as a perfect amalgamation of everything I need to provide the background noise to my day. I have a rotation of about 25 podcasts that reliably get me through the work week, always on in the background.

And I would estimate that most true podcast connoisseurs engage with podcasts this way: lively, entertaining, occasionally very engaging, but emphatically in the background. Just like Talk Radio has always done.

Talk radio has always been the background noise in your office, the reception area, the coffee shop, the barber shop, and most of all, on your commute. A groggy guy driving in at 8 am doesn’t necessarily want something hard-hitting or provocative. Generally distracting will do. The morning talk shows (for all of their atrocious Morning-Zoo-ish-ness) are those friends you share your commute with. They might not always have an interesting guest, but you tune in to see what the Jay the Intern did at the Holiday party or to see what your pals have to say about the Awards Show that aired last night. Sean Hannity and All Things Considered both keep you angry or up-to-date on current events, depending on your temperament. Your favorite San Francisco 49ers call-in show might be rehashing the same injury news and quarterback controversies all week until the big game on Sunday, but that’s sort of what you’re looking for.

Just as with talk radio, podcasting can help you to wallpaper your day with hours of entertainment about whatever your niche interest might be.

Please note that I’m emphatically not saying that podcasts should be boring. What I am saying is that they don’t suddenly all have to transform into gripping narrative pieces like Serial.

Long Tail, Not Blockbusters

What I’m saying is, I seriously doubt that Podcasting will be a medium of blockbusters and mainstream crossovers. And I don’t think podcasting producers should aim necessarily for tight narrative. Again, there will always be room for high-quality, finely produced, expertly edited and crafted shows. But I highly doubt that will become the norm for podcasting generally.

Because that’s not podcasting’s actual strength. The vaunted “intimacy” that podcast advertisers talk about loving in the podcast medium comes not from slick production or even strong narratives at all. No, it comes from the voices, the intimate connection the listener has with the performer. And in fact, one of them medium’s greatest strengths is that very looseness of format, that lack of a hard and fast structure.

I would argue that podcasting’s free-form nature is its greatest strength, as well as its biggest draw for people who become hard-core podcast listeners. Those people who are attracted to the medium by serial narrative of Serial will hopefully be drawn in by the medium’s charms. But those that become “serial subscribers” like myself will likely return because they fall in love with the fact that the medium can be anything.

I tune in to tune in. Sometimes to be rivited. Sometimes to laugh. Sometimes to learn. But I tune in out of comfortable habit. Just like good talk radio.

Adam Carolla every day. Several times a week for Doug Loves Movies and Joe Rogan and WTF. Wednesdays are for Nerd Poker. Fridays are for the VergeCast. Sure, I might set aside special listening time on Mondays so I don’t miss any of the jokes on Comedy Bang Bang, and if there’s an especially riveting episode of the Mental Illness Happy hour, you bet it can make me stop what I’m doing. But I find these are (cherished) exceptions.

I would posit that podcasting works better as habitual listening, not just appointment listening. Podcasters should aim more to be a regular nightcap like the Daily Show, not must-see-tv like Game of Thrones. If you end up making the Game of Thrones of postcasting, then great. But I bet that would be an outlier in the medium. Better that podcasters remember what makes podcasting truly great: it’s not radio. It doesn’t have to be. It can be better.

Podcasting Can Be Looser Than Radio (Thank God)

Basically, I’m cautioning podcast producers against falling into the classic trap that seems to be equally common to Hollywood and tech startups. You don’t need to try to create the “Serial for ‘x’ niche.” Just create a quality, interesting and informed podcast for ‘x’ niche. The rest will take care of itself.

Because, for as much as I loved what Medium did—and heck, for as much as I love one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, for similar reasons—podcasting just does not have to be that… tight.

I would actually say that loose is better. I would argue that for most producers and audiences, podcasting works best as a loose, meandering medium. Don’t be embarrassed by that. It’s the lack of structure, the formlessness of the medium that is podcasting’s greatest strength. We don’t have time slots. We don’t have half hour hard-outs to hit. We don’t actually have time constraints at all! That’s the beauty!

Take, for example, this week’s episode of Reply All, a great new podcast from Alex Bloomberg’s Gimlet Media. The episode asked and answered the question: whatever happened to the girl behind JenniCam. Jennifer Ringley was one of the first to live her life out in the open on the web… before seemingly disappearing from the web (and public life) entirely.

It was a great episode. Thought provoking. Well-produced. Edited together to tell a great, tight, 17 minute story.

But then they mentioned that they actually had more than 3 hours of audio from their conversation with Jennifer. And I thought, “Why can’t we hear the whole 3 hours?”

Again, I loved the tight production, the neat narrative arc that the episode achieved. But I wondered what details I missed out of in order to produce that tight 17 minutes.

I loved the 17 minutes. Why couldn’t I have also gotten the 3 hours if I wanted to?

I mean, that same week, we got the usual, nearly-three-hour You Made It Weird episode from Pete Holmes. He was interviewing Dana Carvey. Now, I’d love to hear Dana Carvey on, say, Terry Gross. It would be fascinating to get that 20–30 minutes of conversation.

But the 3 hours that Pete gave me was a much better podcast. And ultimately, it was a better interview. It kept me entertained for most of my afternoon while I was working.

The thing is, I love that Dan Carlin gives us 5 hour Hardcore History podcasts. Those 20 minute nuggets from Stuff you Missed in History Class are great, but they come from the world of radio. They’re better segments than podcasts.

Staying True To The Medium

So, alls I’m saying is, let’s not go overboard. Let’s not suddenly all try to be like Serial. Let’s applaud Serial what what they’ve achieved, let’s learn from what they’ve done well, and let’s hope the added attention jumpstarts podcasting’s continued growth.

But I’d caution podcasters from trying to turn podcasting into radio. It’s not radio. It’s something different.

Like all things that spring from the Internet, podcasting can take niche interests another level.

Podcasting can and should—and probably will be—more like talk radio… but for any interest under the sun. Are you a programmer? There are literally hundreds of podcasts about programming, industry gossip, Apple or Android-centric fanboi-dom — even educational and tutorial casts. You can spend your work day programming while listening to programmer-centric content. Let’s say you’re into, I dunno, skiing… or maybe quilting. Guess what? Dozens and dozens of options on iTunes. I was once the guest on a Podcast called A Bit of Geek and Nerdery. If you’re into World of Warcraft and cosplay, guess what, there’s a show out there for you! In fact, I’m sure there are hundreds.

So that’s my two-cents about Serial and the debates it has kicked up in the podcasting community.

I know there are people who sit down in a quiet room, put on headphones, and listen to an album all the way through. Really… listen…. to…. the record. And good for them. But way more people listen to music while they’re doing other things.

I think the podcast audience—the true podcast audience that is steadily growing—functions more in that way.

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