For my sins, I watch a lot of YouTube. I watch enough that, at this point, the algorithm is perfectly capable of serving me up a homepage buffet where I would willingly gorge myself on every item. Take now, for example, when I go onto YouTube.com I’m offered: Aliens in Fornite, extended highlights of the 2013 Wimbledon final, live World Poker Tour action, Europa League clips, and, perhaps best of all, a gorilla facing off against naturalist Steve Backshall.
But this is not a blog that will just wax lyrical about the brilliance of the YouTube algorithm (the same algorithm, sadly, that seems to shunt people down QAnon rabbit holes). The point is that the more YouTube I watch, the more cognisant I become of the blurring of the line between video and podcasting.
Rewind a few years and I was one of many podcasters who felt like they were spending a lot of their time explaining to friends, colleagues, customers and randomers on the street that there was “no such thing as a video podcast”. Podcasts grew as a cheap, practical alternative to video, when the pivot thereto proved expensive and difficult. Attempts to brand the hybrid version as a ‘vodcast’ had failed, and even though it is within the gift of RSS to deliver video, no-one was doing it. A video podcast was not a thing.
But simultaneously, YouTube was exploding with content that, if you closed your eyes, was very much like a podcast. It had a younger audience (and younger broadcasters) and very different consumption patterns, but in a raw content sense it was not a million miles away. It was only a few miles away. You could get an Uber there for under a tenner.
And in the last few years, it’s felt like there’s a degree of friction between these two mechanisms. Pale, stale, male podcasting, which increasingly feels like a bygone legacy product, and exciting, young, often female-driven, YouTube content. Because the comparison doesn’t flatter podcasting (in general) the temptation has been to push back, to calibrate podcasts as nouveau radio, rather than ur-vlog. And so it once again reignited use of the *insert claphands emoji* videos are not podcasts mantra.
But they are, aren’t they?
I was following the latest season of a podcast called Watchtime (which, if it wasn’t obvious or meta enough already, is a podcast about YouTube), which is run by the YouTube content creation agency Click. In essence it’s a plain two-hander podcaster hosted by siblings Grace and Elliott. It’s a very traditional set-up, as you can be below, and looks like everything you’d expect from a slick, professional podcast company.
And even though the above screenshot is from the YouTube presentation of the podcast, its primary audiences are, I’m sure, on Apple and Spotify. So in that sense, it’s not very interesting. But, in another sense, it’s interesting to me to see what a company that has been HUGELY SUCCESSFUL on YouTube (and we’re talking figures here that This American Life could only dream of) interprets as being a podcast. This is content that is entirely distinct, in the way they market and produce it, from their usual YouTube content; it has almost a B2B vibe that the, very silly, YouTube stuff lacks. And this is two professionals — the CEO and Director of the company, respectively — shooting the breeze.
It’s sort of a curiosity: a podcast by a YouTube company for fans, predominantly, of YouTube. But even as I call this a curiosity, I’m aware that this is an ever-enlarging sub-category of podcasting — podcasts that are auxiliary content for video-first producers. I think there is still a lack of specialist expertise in the way that many of them approach this (simply stripping your AV of the V and repackaging them as podcasts might be an exercise worth doing simply for its economy and marginal gains, but it is unlikely to create a big podcast brand) but the reality is that for video-first creators, podcasts will be a nice little side hustle; a cute little media Etsy project. When you’re dealing with 1,000,000+ daily viewers on YouTube, then podcasts are likely to be small beer.
YouTube (and streaming more generally) understands the incredible value that can be created from to-camera personality-driven monologues or dialogues. The fact that the dialogue is often with a chatroom doesn’t matter; it’s an interactive reciprocity that most of podcasting can only dream of. The camera serves to enhance the feeling of intimacy, and in a year (shit, more than a year now) when we’ve all had to get accustomed to the sight of our ugly mugs being broadcast to friends, family and colleagues via Zoom or Teams or Skype, the demand for that enhanced human factor is increased. Not to mention the fact that the technology for doing this has gotten simpler and simpler, and eventually will be hard to disentangle from any audio capture (as the latest iteration of Zencastr is proving…).
So here’s the point: as a podcast producer I don’t assume that I’ve refined my craft, technically, to the point where it cannot be improved. And as I watch YouTube, predominantly produced and edited by people much *sigh* younger than me, I’m always impressed by the technical and creative brio on display. They’re good at what they do; those millions of viewers aren’t an accident. And whilst there’s something comforting about getting two people into a studio to talk to one another, followed by a mix and edit — maybe a tinkle of music and a sprinkle of FX — this old school podcasting looks increasingly leaden-footed.
The reality is that if you’re a YouTube content creator right now, you might well branch out into podcasts. And you’ll probably make video versions of these podcasts for YouTube, because that’s the obvious thing to do. And when someone approaches you at a bar and says “you realise that there’s no such thing as a video podcast?”, what will you say? Oh, sorry sir, I hadn’t realised? I don’t mean no harm, please don’t call the Podcast Police!
In terms of current digital media delivery mechanisms, YouTube has the whip hand over podcasts. And so, where they go, we must, to some extent, follow. If they don’t see this distinction between podcasts and videos, then we’re going to have to relax the rigidity of our understanding. It’s painfully clear: video podcasts are going to get bigger and bigger in the next few years, and you can either rage against the tide or embrace the fact that podcasts are videos, and videos are podcasts.