Podcasting Won’t Kill Radio, But Something Will...And What Is A Podcast Anyway?

Why conversations about Clubhouse should really be about the future of live broadcast...and what surprised me when I conducted a listener survey asking “What Is A Podcast?”

Welcome to Issue #6 of The Audio Insurgent

So today I have a bunch of stuff. First, a big thing: Clubhouse and the coming revolution of “live.” Then a small thing about another writing project I have coming out. Then another big thing: A somewhat different approach to the question “What Is A Podcast?” And finally, a second small thing on comparing radio and podcast “ratings.” 

If you ever want to roil up a group of podcasters, just ask them to define podcasting.

Seriously. Within minutes, people will start yelling. Or typing in all caps. 

Why?

Semantic arguments are often less about what is right and wrong, but rather...who gets to decide.

So I decided to do something that people should do, but don’t, which is ask a listener. In fact, I asked 487 of them.

But first…


[FIRST BIG THING: EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT CLUBHOUSE...AND HAVING THE WRONG CONVERSATION ABOUT CLUBHOUSE]

Clubhouse. Clubhouse. Clubhouse. Everyone keeps asking what I think about Clubhouse, which really means that they want to tell me THEIR opinion about Clubhouse. And it seems everyone has a very strong opinion about Clubhouse.

For my Mom (who does read this newsletter, even though she understands none of it) and the two others who haven’t heard about Clubhouse, it is a new audio social media app, where you join in virtual rooms and people chat--audio only, no video. There are leaders, speakers, and listeners. Conversations are not recorded nor available afterwards--it’s all live and in the moment. You can do everything from a group meditation, to presentations and workshops, to debriefs on new TV episodes. Fun, right? Possibly.

Whenever I’m asked about my opinion of Clubhouse, which is daily, I tell them the truth: I don’t have an opinion about Clubhouse. It’s new. No one has really figured out how to best use it. And that’s okay--give it time. People will figure out what it is good for.

But I don’t think it is a “podcast killer.” Not at all.

What it might be, or might be a foreshadowing of, is the thing that might kill live radio.

For years I’ve heard speculation that podcasting will eventually kill radio as we know it. I find that conversation kind of boring.

Here is why: podcasting will never kill radio.

There are some things that podcasting is really, really bad at: such as live events, happenings with immediacy or that update or change, and things that are of geographically local interest. In short: things that are “live” and of the moment. Things like audio iterations of breaking news, sports, live events, political returns, weather, traffic, and rolling updates on all the above. Podcasting isn’t the choice for these things. In fact, podcasting is a terrible choice and it's pretty certain that it will be systematically difficult to get better at them. A podcast episode can take hours to work its way through the Rube Goldberg Internet audio machine to your device. Hours old content simply doesn’t matter when what you need is immediate.

Coincidentally, FM broadcasting is really, really, good at this same list of things. And for people like me, who have been slow to proclaim the inevitability of FM boadcasting’s doom, that has been the core argument. As long as there are things that broadcast radio does better or more easily than digital media, it will always have a place in the media diet of lots of listeners.

But Clubhouse starts to challenge that thinking, if not directly, then the idea of something like Clubhouse starts to raise an existential threat. And, like the growth in podcasting, it’s all about smartphones.

Radio’s main claim to primacy has been that radio broadcasting is ubiquitous, cheap, and easy. Rival technologies have not been able to match radio’s broad and comfortable role in American life, even podcasting. 

But as smartphones continue to close the gap and approach ubiquity, that equation isn’t so iron-clad. Could Clubhouse, or a Clubhouse-like service, broadcast live baseball games? Could it tell you the traffic in San Antonio? Could it offer live election returns or a candidate debate? 

Yup.

Some will argue that all those things are available today. You can listen to baseball games on a radio station app or the MLB app. You can get traffic and local reports from a number of streaming sources today. 

Well, you are forgetting the “easy” part. Listeners don’t want to go to different apps and press a bunch of different selections to make it happen. And while there are aggregator apps like TuneIn and iHeart’s app--these all lack the egalitarian ability for me to broadcast too. Look at YouTube and podcasting--where all content creators at all levels are available together. NBC clips from SNL and my son’s videos of video game play are equally accessible on YouTube. This American Life and my friend’s podcast about whiskey could (theoretically) show up in the same search result in most podcast apps. What audio needs is a smartphone-based live broadcast version of the same environment where everything is together.

Listeners want to go to ONE place for everything, be it Clubhouse or Spotify or whatever.

Once a company figures out an offering like that, and has the patience to elbow their way onto the car dashboard, then things get really interesting.

And by the way, I still have 7 Clubhouse invites if you are looking for one. Just email me. Before you sign up, you may want to investigate the shaky privacy standards at Clubhouse.


[FIRST SMALL THING: FREQUENCY BOOST] As of this week, I have a new monthly column starting in the public broadcasting trade newspaper Current. It is called Frequency Boost.

The first two people who wrote me about it asked: “Don’t you run a company? How are you finding the time to write a column AND a newsletter?”

Yes, I co-run a company with the best creative partner on Earth. And that work is super demanding and there is never enough time. But I probably use my time differently than most.

The bottom line is that my pandemic-sanity project was finishing a novel this summer and fall that I’d been plotting and working on for years. In order to finish it, while also co-running a podcast and consulting company, I built a routine that had me up obnoxiously early in the morning to write for an hour or two before I started my day. Working on it gave me an escape from all life demanded with the pandemic, the election, and the necessary reckonings our world was experiencing. 

So I finished the novel, which is great, but I had this routine that had me up early, wanting to write, and not having anything to write. Without a specific output in mind, I started writing bits and pieces that you see in this newsletter and now in the Frequency Boost column as well.

Frequency Boost is focused on a change point I see in public radio, where I spent my career until branching off into commercial media six years ago. I still do a fair amount of consulting work for stations and remain deeply committed to the idea and ideals of public radio. 

You can see evidence of this hinge point in audience data, listening to stations, and watching the strategic directions pursued by public radio stations and organizations. And, on the whole, they aren’t thinking big enough or moving fast enough. And if they don’t address it, public radio is looking at a deeply diminished future, both for the stations and for the national organizations like NPR, APM, and others.

So I wrote a note introducing the column, and here is the first bona fide installment. I’ll post here when new installments come out.


[SECOND BIG THING: WHAT IS A PODCAST?] So, what is a podcast? 

There have been a number of articles, newsletters, tweets, conference sessions, barroom discussions, and watercooler discussions all trying to answer this question. Most either interview experts or offer their own definitions. I think both are the wrong approach. There is a better way.

According to the dictionary, a podcast is “a program made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet.”

When I look at that, I ask myself “So, why is this so difficult? Why do so many people get so worked up about what is and isn’t a podcast?”

Because many people want to parse that with arcane qualifiers that are quickly becoming archaic qualifiers. To them, a podcast must use RSS as its underlying standard; a podcast must be readable by any podcast app or platform; and even weirder, a podcast must be primarily a podcast, not available on other media like radio.

Like many things, the qualifiers tend to include or elevate some and exclude others. They are also dogmatically rigid. Even dictionaries aren't dogmatic; definitions change over time.

I’ve written before (including in Make Noise) about how in the early days of podcasting, many “pure podcasters” rejected me because I was a radio veteran and that many of the shows I created and distributed were also available on other platforms. That exclusion still flares up even now (though they seem much more concerned about excluding me than I am about being included by them).

So, who gets to decide?

I won’t offer a definition myself, but I do have a strong feeling who gets to decide: Listeners.

So, that being the case, I decided to do what no one (to my knowledge) has done before: ask listeners to define podcasting.

I used SurveyMonkey Audience to poll regular people who know what podcasting is and have listened to at least one podcast in the past month (though many listen to many more). I received 487 completed surveys from a broad range of respondents.

What did they say? Well, that word cloud above is made from the answers.

Despite the cluster of words, when you start to stitch similar words and concepts together, you start to understand how listeners see podcasting.

By combining “audio,” “radio,” “spoken word,” “programs,” “talk show,” and “radio show” together; “online,” “internet,” “computer,” and “phone” together; and “specific,” “theme,” “various,” and “subject” together--you get something like:

An audio talk show about a specific topic that’s available on demand via the Internet.

That isn’t all that different from the Merriam-Webster version.

So, why all the drama about semantics? Again, I think they have much more to do with who makes the definition, rather than what it is.

To a listener, if something looks like what they describe, it is a podcast. Period. Otherwise, when it comes to parsing minutia, listeners just don’t care.

Some interesting sidenotes:

There was a significant difference in the language used by different age groups to describe podcasting. Those 45+ were much more likely to compare podcasting to radio. Those younger did make occasional references to radio, but not nearly as often. Instead, they used words that might describe radio (like “conversation,” “report,” or “stories”) without tying those things to the word “radio.” While this might seem like a trivial difference, reading through all the comments it felt really profound. These older listeners, who are the lifeblood of talk radio (including sports talk, news, and public radio), are the ones who clearly see podcasting as a viable replacement for some radio programming. Most younger listeners don’t even have a deep enough relationship with radio to use it in an analogy. 

A surprising number of respondents emphasized that podcasts are about specific subjects. It was probably the most common type of qualifier behind radio/talk and Internet/online. Podcasts are not for everyone and not for general interest listening. Podcasts are about specific things for specific audiences. Listeners intuit this.

There wasn’t a huge difference in the number of podcasts listened to by age. This surprised me. I asked everyone a few extra questions, including how many episodes they listen to every week. I’m not sure why, but I assumed older listeners wouldn’t listen to as many podcasts as younger listeners. Sure, there are more young people who listen to podcasts--but once you start listening, at least with my pool, you are neck deep. If you listen to podcasts, you tend to listen to a number of them. The numbers generally fell in line with what you see in the Edison Research studies.

Words matter. Definitions matter. But in this, as in so many other matters, success often lies in deferring to the audience.


[A SECOND SMALL THING: COMPARING RADIO LISTENING TO PODCAST LISTENING] 

Speaking of Edison Research…

With the upcoming release of the new Infinite Dial 2021, I am bracing for something that I hear every year from radio broadcasters when new podcast stats come out. Radio people say “only half the population listens to podcasts, but everybody listens to radio.” 

Technically (and loosely) true, but in practical terms that is quite a dishonest thing to say.

When I see things like this otherwise interesting and useful PDF from Nielsen, saying “RADIO REACHES MORE AMERICANS EACH WEEK THAN ANY OTHER PLATFORM” by comparing radio’s reach to TV, smart phones, and tablets, I die a little bit.

Podcast-dismissives regularly use this as the basis of their claim: 92% of American adults listen to the radio, including 90% of those age 18-34. See? No problems here. Everything in radio is great! 

The problem is that is an incredibly misleading figure. Radio ratings measure exposure, not intentional and attentive listening. If someone wants to listen to a podcast (or almost any media), they usually choose to listen or watch. It is an active choice. 

That’s not the way radio is measured. If you are in a place where a radio is playing, even if you don’t know it is a radio making the noise...or aren’t paying attention, you are lopped into that pool of radio listeners. Think of all the times you’ve been in a store, restaurant--any public place where a radio station is playing. You count.

I believe a lot of that measured radio listening, especially those young adults, is not intentional listening, but it just happens that they are in a place where a radio is playing.

While that may satisfy an advertiser, for a programmer, producer, or anyone interested in understanding the “how” and “why” of that radio exposure--it sucks. And that’s before we even get to the fact that younger listeners listen to way less radio than older listeners. Even those that listen—it isn’t all that central in their life.

Broadcast radio has a problem--all of broadcast radio has a big, existential problem: it is becoming increasingly irrelevant to more and more people. This isn’t new; this slide started back in the 1980s. But the thing is: that is still an addressable problem. But before you can fix it, you have to acknowledge it. There is no need to use misleading information to remain relevant.


That’s it for now. Again, if you enjoy this, please let me know. If you are getting this via email, you can simply reply to the newsletter and it goes straight to me (and doesn’t post your response anywhere, either, fyi).

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Make great things. I’ll be listening.

--Eric