Analyzing The Podcast Renaissance

By Niraj Pant

Before starting to analyze podcasting in its current form, it may be best to go back.

With the birth of podcasts in 2005, the popularity for the search term increased exponentially. Many things were happening at this time — Apple added support for podcasts on the iPod/iTunes, and many early podcasts were coming out with their first episodes. By 2007, there had been over 24 attempts to trademark the term “podcast”.¹

Why the significant drop in interest afterwards? In my eyes, podcasts went through a “false start” during this time period. Mobile wasn’t in full effect until a few years later, a low number of shows were available, and radio was still “good enough” for most consumers. However, since early 2015, the popularity of the search term has started clawing back. As all the right pieces are being put in place, podcasting is finally starting to go through its renaissance.

Source: Pew Research Center

It’s no coincidence that the number of Americans that have listened to a podcast has doubled since 2008 (the graph’s scale doesn’t do it justice). We’re witnessing a few problems from 2005 being solved today:

  1. Content! A big reason listenership was so low early on was the lack of content. Not only was the number of podcasts low, but variety and selection was also very limited. Now that the # of shows being added is growing exponentially, demand for podcasts have only increased. This is similar to Netflix’s growth: As more content is added to the platform, demand increases in response. iTunes has over 325,000 podcasts and expects users to listen to 10 billion episodes in its apps by the end of 2016.² There are never enough podcasts:
  1. In-car audio. Traditionally, people have listened to AM/FM radio for dynamic content on-the-go. With better sound quality, less obtrusive ads, and a greater range of content, podcasts are becoming the go-to source for in-car listening. As cars become increasingly internet-connected, there’s an opportunity for many new people to become regular podcast listeners.
  2. Growth of mobile. Since podcasts first came out, data speeds have increased 100x. Mobile has become much more widespread, and in turn, there are many more ways to consume podcasts on the go (but there could be better apps to facilitate this).
  3. Apple. They’ve spearheaded the efforts in creating a lot of early listeners. By providing a clean, usable solution to download and listen to podcasts, it reduced many points of friction for listeners, driving higher engagement. Additionally, iTunes is shipped on every new consumer device (iPhone, iPad, Mac, etc.) that comes, which are some of the most popular products of all time.
  4. Monetization is becoming increasingly profitable. Podcast is a lousy word, since many people equate it with the idea of being free. However, many new podcasts are actually profitable. New models for publishing and monetizing are starting to come out as the space matures (some good ideas here), making running a podcast more lucrative than ever before.

With all this growth, the tools used to publish and consume podcasts are stilllacking. More tools need to go into place to give consumers the A+ experience they deserve, starting with a better podcast player. The podcast industry is ripe for some new companies — the tools people use to share, listen, and discover new podcasts just aren’t there yet.

The perfect podcast platform has been attempted before. In fact, Ev Williams, before going on to found Twitter and Medium, worked on Odeo, a podcast creation and consumption platform. Ev has helped define both blogging (Blogger, Medium) and social networking (Twitter), and he knew that this space had big potential. Unfortunately, the team behind Odeo later decided to sell the company, due to not understanding the space as well as they had hoped. Ultimately, Twitter came out of this, so we can’t be too mad ;)

More recently, Google added a podcast feature to Play Music, which is now standard on every Android device (similar to iTunes being packaged with every iOS device). Spotify recently added support for podcasts, and are looking into adding hosting and streaming services. Audible, known for being one of the largest audiobook providers, also recently started bringing on new, original podcast content to its platform.

There are opportunities for both sides of the podcast experience, publishing and listening, as they are both still stuck in the 80’s. These days, to get a podcast published, you need to set up microphone software, audio editing tools, an RSS feed, and strategies to publish content to different podcast networks.

Getting a show on traditional radio networks are hard — creating a podcast, however, shouldn’t be. It brings a lower barrier to entry for getting your thoughts out there. I won’t go into the publishing side as much, since Ian Miles Ownbey wrote a pretty good post on it here.

Seriously, why hasn’t this been built yet??? The number of requests for podcast startups I’ve seen is at an all time high:

Literally applying any X for Y model would be better than what we’re currently working with.

There’s a lot missing from current podcast players. Aside from the obvious cross-platform sharing issue, here are a few features I would LOVE to see:

  • Ability to share soundbites from podcasts along with transcription. Similar to what Re/code has done here:

The idea of sharing individual soundbites from podcasts is great for leveraging its content. It’s almost like sharing a vine (small bits of audio), and it feeds back into the curation bit. There are so many quotes I’d love to share from a show onto twitter, but am limited to sharing an episode and time the quote occurs. If only I could just share soundbites with transcriptions onto twitter! (similar to highlighting on medium):

Pair this with an Twitter app modal, showing native content like Soundcloud’s modal (Twitter integration is crucial — it really helped accelerate Medium’s growth at the beginning):

Ooooh, look how beautiful this looks
  • Uniform sharing. I’ve seen people share links to podcasts hosted on Soundcloud, Overcast, and iTunes, but there needs to be one uniform platform. How do you share the link to a video? YouTube. Game stream? Twitch. What about a podcast? iTunes? Not so fast. Sharing the link to a podcast on iTunes doesn’t cut it for (obvious) cross-platform issues. The cross-platform solutions that do exist don’t have web players, social integration, or good recommendation systems.
  • Better discovery. Curation is a tough problem to crack. Most recommendations are done on a per-show basis, but it really should be on a per-episode basis. For example, I listen to Jalen and Jacoby and want to hear more sports episodes just like it (preferably from other shows). However, I’m still getting recommended entirely new shows, and not specific episodes within that show. I shouldn’t have to resort tosearches like this either. In iTunes’ case specifically, recommendations are currently hand-curated, and it’s often a mystery how shows are featured:

Additionally, the “Top Podcast” list within iTunes is also the subject of constant speculation among podcasters. An apparent change in the system this year resulted in small podcasts from Disney fans — and a show that hadn’t yet published its first full episode — being ranked alongside shows with hundreds of thousands of listeners (Podcasts Surge, but Producers Fear Apple Isn’t Listening)

The process could be improved greatly — Spotify’s Discover Weekly is a great model to follow, and is the best content recommendation system I’ve seen yet. To put it frankly:

  • A newsfeed. Twitter is my central place for getting news and updates in areas I’m interested in. The ability to see what friends + influencers are listening to/commenting on would have a great impact on the way I consume podcasts.
  • A better looking player. There have been many players over the years, but I’d like to see one that’s really well designed. It needs to be simple, beautiful, and something I keep coming back to. iTunes is a mess, but it’s the best we have. The most promising alternative I’ve seen so far isOvercast, but I’d love to see more well-designed apps overall.
  • Decreased friction. Listening in current apps take a lot of time and effort to find a new episode and start listening. A similar conundrum happened when video streaming services first started popping up. “Netflix was really the first streaming service for movies/TV that made people want to stream in lieu of DVDs. The podcast corollary is that, I think, a lot of potential listeners don’t want to have to ‘figure it out’ (same as a lot of potential streaming customers didn’t want to buy something on iTunes and then have to figure out how to get it on their tv)” (via /r/podcasts).³

Podcasts are not traditional audio, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. In fact, podcasts have more in common with written material than music. They require much more attentiveness, and being longer-form in nature, need different ways to consume and share. This requires a shift in vision from podcast companies, one which is clearly defined by leaders in other media spaces. i.e. YouTube was started on the premise that all videos on the web should be in one central portal. Or better put:

YouTube owns video consumption on the web, and is slowly starting to own creation as well. I think this accurately represents the mission podcast startups should look towards.

I’m stoked for the future of podcasting.

Written by Niraj Pant (email). If you’re interested in chatting more about podcasts, I’m @niraj on twitter!

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