Let’s Put the “International” in International Podcast Day

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Just over a year ago, I became an international podcaster. I moved with my podcast, and my family, to Barcelona, in search of a better life for us all.

Just kidding — kind of. Before we left, I wrote about the reasons why we had decided to live in Spain. We’d had enough success with Tumble, the science podcast for kids that I co-host with my husband, that we believed we could make a go of turning the show into a full-time gig. Soon after we got settled in Barcelona, I came up with a new reason we were there: To make the podcast more international.

For the ten years I’d spent as a radio and then podcast producer, I’d always had an unconscious bias against “international.” Navigating wide time differences seemed like an unsurmountable logistical nightmare, and I’d long been advised by editors to avoid strong (read: non-native) accents. Audio doesn’t have the option of subtitles, after all.

But once in Barcelona, international became the default. For a show that spoke to kids, increasing global awareness of people, places, and science outside North America felt like our unique advantage. We leveraged our location, and our rapidly widening perspective. We’ve now done episodes about astronomy from a clocktower plaza, ecological field research from the Spanish Pyrenees, and how we learn languages with a scientist recommended by one of our European listeners. Not once have we received complaints about accents. What we have received is a lot of positive feedback and connection with our international audience.

At the same time that I began to value what it meant to be international, I started to understand how little the concept was valued back in my home country. Here’s why.

The podcast industry is extremely Ameri-centric.

Only a month into living in Europe, I went to Denmark to attend MIRP — Meeting of Independent Radio Producers. There, I was introduced to a group of incredibly talented producers making incredible audio. I found out about the Danish 99 Percent Invisible, the Norwegian Serial, and met the Björk of Icelandic radio.

It was amazing to me how much high-quality audio was being made outside the English-speaking world, and yet I’d never once considered its existence. I discovered that there was pretty much one person who had taken on the job of making foreign-language audio accessible to the English-speaking with Radio Atlas, a visual podcast that translates foreign-language audio documentaries.

The podcast industry is not nearly as developed in the rest of the world as it is in the US. At the same time, at least in northern Europe, public radio is far better supported and experimental than in America. I spent an afternoon in a Copenhagen garden allotment listening to a weird Danish radio documentary from the ’70s, that the local producers told me was “canon” and reviewed in national newspapers after it aired like a TV show or a movie. I can’t think of an American radio canon outside of Nina Totenberg and Carl Kasell’s voice on your home answering machine. (Okay, “Serial.” But that’s it, and young for canon-status.)

Still, the European podcast makers gave me the sense of being left out and unrecognized. They had the impression that no matter how great their work is, it would always be lumped into an otherized-category of “international” by the podcast makers who were defining the industry — from America. Whether because of a language barrier, or just the fact that their subject was outside US borders, they couldn’t contribute to the conversation.

The podcast industry literally does not value international audiences

Turns out, listeners outside the US might as well not exist when it comes to advertising. Many major distributors sell advertising based only on a podcast’s American-based audience.

This makes a certain amount of sense: Many podcast advertisers sell products that can only be shipped to homes in America. (Think Blue Apron, Le Tote, a dozen other subscription product services.) I’m no expert in this field, but the business of selling products outside the US is total patchwork, making it seem like a low-return proposition for the podcast industry to geo-target country by country.

We know that 20 percent of Tumble’s listenership isoutside the US. The top countries are English-speaking (Canada, the UK), but we also know that people are tuning in to hone their English skills (Japan, Spain). We hear from plenty of Americans living abroad. And from personal experience, I know that international families spend a lot of energy to expose their children to English. Podcasts are a great way to do that. I’ve also had intense conversations about US politics with a Catalan friend who cribs his knowledge from shows like Slate’s Political Gabfest.

There’s got to be some way to value international audiences — not only to further monetize shows, but also to incentivize podcasts to have more of an inclusive, global perspective.

So here’s how to celebrate International Podcast Day this year:

Listeners: Globalize your podcast queue. Listen/watch some Radio Atlas for foreign-language greatness, then check out podcasts from the UK, Ireland, and Australia.

Creators: Reach outside North America for stories and guests. Use your platform to help listeners look up and realize that there’s more going on in the world, more voices to hear, and perspectives to consider. Don’t be afraid of an accent.

Podcast Industry: There’s a lot of potential in the international market. But it’s invisible. I haven’t seen any research on international podcast listeners. Let’s ask: Who are they? Why are they listening? And how can we value them with content and advertising?

So happy International Podcasting Day, everyone. Let’s do more with it than promote podcasts to the same podcast-loving audience. Let’s promote podcasts to the podcast-lovers outside our borders.