Video may have killed the radio star sometime in the 1980s, but the podcast Serial seems to have resurrected him.
A milestone in podcasting came in October 2014, almost 10 years after the birth of the first podcast, on the Tonight Show. This American Life host Ira Glass sat on Jimmy Fallon’s couch in October 2014 and, with the help of his elderly neighbor, explained how to download a podcast.
Glass’ visit and kitschy video were prompted by the unprecedented success of Serial, the slickly-produced podcast that, over the course of 12 episodes, reported on and continued the investigation into the murder of a high school student in 1999 and her popular ex-boyfriend, who is in jail for the crime.
Serial was both a cultural touchstone and, many I spoke to for this story agreed, a pivotal moment for podcasts.
“I think it was probably Serial that put podcasting on the map for a new order of magnitude for audience reach than any other podcast had before,” said Chris Paul VP Media and Acquisition for Squarespace, which sponsors virtually every podcast (they say it’s around 150-to-200 properties, depending on the month, right now).
According to Edison Research, podcast listenership has grown steadily every year except 2013 (right before Serial). And Apple told me that there have been over 1.6 billion subscriptions and 20 billion downloads since Apple added podcasts to iTunes.
“Podcasts have always been a successful category for us,” Apple told me, and added that, as far as mainstream recognition for the medium, “if there was a starting point, Serial is it.”
It has been a breakout year for podcasts, the overnight success that’s been a decade in the making. The subscription and RSS-fed audio platform not only enjoyed unprecedented visibility thanks to Serial (a product of Chicago Public Media radio and This American Life), but was in the spotlight again in June when President Barack Obama joined comedian Marc Maron on his popular podcast WTF.
“President Obama is hugely important for the medium,” said Adam Sachs, CEO of Midroll a podcast advertising network that also has a stable of owned and operated shows (including Comedy Bang Bang, How Did This Get Made, and The Black List Table Reads).
“You heard his interview, people heard a President Obama they never heard before,” said Sachs, who also noted that Obama said “the ‘n’ word” on the podcast. “What other medium would he have said that word? There is none.”
‘I made up a bullshit sentence’
British technology journalist Ben Hammersley will go down in history books as the guy who cooked up the name “podcast,” but he’s casual about their birth, which was inauspicious even down to the creation of the name.
“Basically…I was late on a deadline, was short about 30 words, needed to add in a couple of sentences. [I] made up a bullshit sentence, ‘What do we call this?’”
The technocratic name reflected the abiding geekiness of early podcasts, which replaced the lost bulletin board systems (BBS) of the 80s and 90s and served as places for geeks and nerds to chew the technofat.
“At the beginning of podcasting, it was the amateur stuff, two white dudes sat around taking about stuff for 2 hours,” Hammersley said, “They were very flabby and not well done.”
I labored in that kind of obscurity myself. I worked on one of those podcasts, PCMag Radio, though, in my defense, we only recorded for an hour. (I’m now part of what I like to call the second wave of techcasts and record with cohosts Pete Pachal and Christina Warren a weekly nerdfest called MashTalk).
Even as they’ve grown, podcasts have kept their outsider identity.
“I don’t think there is a mainstream anymore,” Hammersley told me, adding, “Mainstream success is really a 20th century artifact.”
Podcasts have survived over the last 10 years not because they cater to mainstream tastes, but because they are built for very specific audiences. Edison Research puts podcasts “Share of Ear” (the percentage of American audio consumers who listen to a particular source) at just 2%. AM/FM Radio still has 56%.
Still, there’s history there. Podcasts have been around so long that aficionados bristle at the idea that they’re newly popular: don’t call it a comeback. Veronica Belmont, the doyenne of nerd tech, bristled when I suggested that podcasts are finally enjoying mainstream popularity. Belmont, who has been podcasting and producing podcasts since 2005 and currently hosts, among other shows, Sword and Laser explained, telling me she wasn’t aware that podcasts needed to come back from anywhere.
“For me, the understanding and acceptance of podcasting as a medium has only grown throughout the years. What we are seeing now are more established brands and names getting into the game, which obviously draws more attention. Shows like Serial … have caused a lot of people to sit up and take note,” wrote Belmont.
Belmont told me that the niche quality has been podcasting’s strength, “Many of these shows are very niche, and so (when you find one) it feels like you’ve found a huge group of people who just get you.”
Roman Mars, who runs the popular design podcast 99% Invisible is a benefactor of that niche devotion. Like a number of other successful podcasters, Mars comes from a public radio background. He said his success was partially luck.
“I did a show about design and architecture. It was niche enough that groups of people really took to it. The Facebook design team was one of my first sponsors. And Facebook doesn’t advertise anywhere,” said Mars.
Like other podcasters I spoke to, Mars agrees that even though the growth of podcasts has been slow and steady, this year is different. “It’s been a really good year,” he told me and said that he’s seen a sort of threshold effect, a level of saturation that’s led to greater awareness.
On demand, all the time
Another factor fueling the popularity of podcasts: audio, unlike video, doesn’t require a high-speed broadband connection and a beautiful screen. A podcast, just like listening to your favorite music on an iPhone, is as low-tech as high-tech gets.
When podcasts launched in 2005 — named in part for Apple’s iPod — the typical listener subscribed to podcasts through Web sites, podcast apps and downloaded them through iTunes; Apple’s own Podcast app did not arrive until 2012. If you wanted to listen to your favorite podcasts while out for a run, you had to dock and synch your iPod before heading out the door.
“You don’t have to worry as much these days about leaving the house without syncing your shows! That used to be a big issue for a lot of people,” Belmont says.
Now, here’s some irony: The podcast, which launched in 2005 and was named for Apple’s music-playing device, no longer needs the iPod to exist.
It’s the iPhone that gave the podcasting industry its ticket out of obscurity. “The same now dominant platform in which people consume Internet is also the dominant platform to consume podcasts: the phone,” Hammersley says.
While listening to Serial on their iPhones, few consumers know whether they’re enjoying a radio show or a podcast. The average consumer now expects all media to be available on demand. With platforms Netflix, “the ground has kind of softened for us,” Mars says.
It was basically the iPhone, plus good podcast software, plus 4G, plus cheaper data plans,” he says.
Another technology — the good old car, which still gives life to radio — has helped.
In Mars’ new car “my phone syncs to my stereo, so without me doing anything, my car starts playing my podcast.” Mars figures that as more and more people buy new cars with integrated Bluetooth and content systems like CarPlay and Android Auto, more and more people will bring their own listening tastes – and podcasts – into their cars. “I barely turn on the radio any more,” said Mars.
Making money off a niche business
If you are a podcast listener, you’ve likely heard these sponsors: Squarespace, MailChimp, LegalZoom. These are podcasts go-to guys and are all on Midroll’s list of advertisers (they say they have 200).
“We generally get first tap on shoulder when new podcast is launching,” admitted Squarespace VP of Media & Acquisition Chris Paul. However, it’s always been a symbiotic relationship. “A lot of Squarespace customers were podcasters in and of themselves and it’s a way to support some people who were supporting us.”
As popular as podcasting is — and will be — it’s not an industry where you can follow the money. With the exception of some big names and podcasts with more than a million listeners, no one is getting rich from podcasts. The medium lacks a Jimmy Fallon or Kelly and Michael.
Still, that can be a strength. An influx of interested advertisers are flooding into the space, attracted by the passionate niche following of some podcasts. Loyalty is a quality advertisers seek. “It’s not important how many people you reach, it’s reaching the right people.”
Consider the alternative: advertising on commercial radio has become so devalued that stations regularly run just 28 minutes of content an hour. With podcasts, there is no interrupting every few minutes. Shows have advertiser and sponsor support that they usually address two-to-three times in an hour or they are self-funded.
Podcasts are also building an enviable audience. Edison Research says it’s now split evenly between males and females (a stark change from the early days of podcasting) and that the majority of listeners are 25 –to-34 years-old and make at tidy $75,000 a year.
Adam Curry who, a decade ago, worked with developers to create the end-to-end infrastructure of podcasting, said that his twice-weekly podcast, No Agenda, makes enough to sustain “the Curry and [his cohost John C.] Dvorak families for a couple of years now.”
Belmont noted that online content creators have more financial support options than ever. And people are making it work. “I make a small profit, but most of that goes to hosting and other business expenses. But for other people, like [fellow podcaster] Tom Merritt, for example, their podcast is their primary source of income. That’s a huge difference from a few years ago. We now have the infrastructure to support independent podcasters via Patreon or similar services, and they no longer have to depend on sponsorships, which were often fleeting to begin with.”
Curry couldn’t tell me how many people subscribe to his podcast, but, like others, noted that you simply do not need huge numbers to sustain your podcast. For podcast advertisers, the key is a proven and devoted audience – and the ability to connect with them.
That’s why many podcasts use the personality-heavy style of advertising: the classic sports-radio style of promotion, meant to blend ads into the shows with either custom spots where the host talks about their experience with the products and services.
Still, counting listeners is a challenge. Traditional advertisers appeared to be afraid of podcasts because they couldn’t track them like traditional radio shows. Like other online ad companies, Midroll charges by the CPM (costs per 1,000 impressions).
Squarespace often got around that by using trackable promotional codes, instructing listeners to “Use ‘WTFObama’ when making your purchase.”
“It made it easy for Squarespace to be an early podcast supporter,” Paul says.
That, however, is changing, as Apple, iTunes, Google and Google Play start to offer more validated download numbers. “TWiT, for the first time, gave us validated download numbers,” says Paul.
The podcast, its adherents agree, is ready to go big.
“What’s happened is, to me, is incredibly obvious, podcasting is taking over broadcasting,” said Curry, an original MTV VJay who started in podcasting so he could broadcast on the Internet without having to deliver the news every hour.
Even if podcasts have not “gone mainstream” and the average consumer still doesn’t know what they are, there are people watching the industry and, in some cases, making moves. In July, the Scripps Company snapped up Sach’s Midroll for an undisclosed sum. In August Hubbard Radio bought a 30% stake in PodcastOne.
Mars told me he expect to see that kind of consolidation, buying and speculating. Still “those things concern me. I’m interested and concerned. I’m in love with independent media,” he said.
Independence and relevance to their core audience are things that define modern podcasts. They are community rooms writ large, with real-time engagement (when you listen to streaming shows) and weekly feedback from hosts that makes the shows relevant and real. And here’s another advantage: unlike TV, and radio, and traditional broadcasting, podcasting is nimble and flexible, without a lot of baggage from past failures.