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Technology Trends: Podcasting- Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Podcasting

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Podcasting

There’s nothing new about podcasts--in fact, after a surge in subscribable audio content about ten years ago, the furor in do-it-yourself programming moved to video, where it mostly still resides. For quite a while now, podcasts have been a niche section of online content, with a few stars broadcasting to small, specific audiences, and where podcasting once seemed like an unexplored frontier for creator-driven messages, it soon found itself, at least in the mainstream, the domain of already-aired, traditionally broadcast radio programming now available on demand. The iTunes podcast charts were nearly a public radio greatest-hits list, and while countless other radio programs, commercial and nonprofit, of varying geographical reach boasted subscriber numbers approaching a million, the mystery of how to monetize those listenerships in any meaningful way was mostly unsolved.

Within the past year, the mystery began to open up with some significant changes in the podcasting landscape. First, a podcast called Startup, produced by NPR veteran Alex Blumberg, documented Blumberg’s attempt to launch a commercial podcasting network on the strength of his experience and reputation. It was a podcast about itself and its creators’ efforts in seeking funding and developing a product. It was a hit, largely due to its host’s intimate transparency, some unique content, and production rivaling that of This American Life, the public radio stalwart that usually lives atop iTunes rankings. Where the overwhelming majority of podcasts is either an archive of live-broadcast radio programming or direct-to-feed conversation, Startup is carefully scripted and edited, with original music for the soundtrack and creative copy for advertising spots. On the strength of an excellent twelve-episode first season and a second season profiling another startup company, Startup’s production company, Gimlet Media, scored six million dollars in Series A funding, seemingly without effort. Gimlet now produces four highly rated, excellently produced podcasts, with plans to launch several more in the coming year.

The other landscape-shifting event was the Serial podcast, which exploded in a viral manner never seen for a podcast. Serial, also hosted and produced by former This American Life contributors, revisited the murder of a Maryland teen, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, with original interviews, commentary, and reflection. It sounded and felt like original NPR content, but it was pure podcast after its premiere on This American Life, with all content going straight to feed. Serial dominated the conversation for several weeks in places where usually were discussed the latest Jimmy Fallon shenanigans or viral cat videos on Facebook, quite an accomplishment considering the difficulty of sharing podcast content on the usual channels. A lengthy, oft-shared parody in the first half hour of an episode of Saturday Night Live confirmed Serial’s place in the pop culture lexicon.

Podcasts are a thing again. Slate has its own commercial podcast arm, Panoply, whose owner is a large investor in Gimlet as well. Like Gimlet, Panoply is branching into “branded content,” original content paid for by sponsors who also have editorial input. A Panoply production called The Message was branded content from GE, and came out of nowhere to be the most-listened to podcast for a time. And while many of the podcast hosting-and-analytics services launched a decade ago are still around, new services continue to emerge, including Clammr, a podcast sharing tool triggered by a web browser applet. With tools like these, fans can share short snippets of podcast content with the push of a button, a nearly impossible task a year ago, when sharers would have to share either a link to an entire podcast, embed a whole podcast, or take the time to edit a podcast to shareable sections using audio editing software most people have never used.

There’s little question that video still rules the media landscape, but there appear still to be realms where video is impractical or undesirable. The audio-only nature of podcasts works in its favor in these select areas, and as we grow even more mobile than we’ve ever been, the need for mobile audio content seems not to be going away. The result, as it appears now, is an increase in high-quality, intriguing content worth sharing and discussing with others.


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