What to Watch Out For at Podcast Movement Next Week
The year’s largest podcast gathering is happening next week in Denver and it will certainly be filled with a lot of inspiring people… and a lot of BS.
Welcome to Dispatch #47 of The Audio Insurgent.
As I mentioned last in Dispatch #46, I’ll be attending Podcast Movement in Denver next week. If you are coming, please make a point to say hello.
I both love and hate industry conferences. Since I started attending public radio industry events when I was still in my early 20s, I’ve always taken the attitude that if someone is walking around an industry event wearing a name tag, then it is perfectly acceptable for me to go up to them, introduce myself, and ask them about their work. I don’t try to push anything on them or ask anything more than a few minutes of their time to tell them I respect their work and ask what I’m curious about. I’ve met almost every mentor I’ve ever had this way, and some amazing friends too.
But industry conference agendas, across many industries, are notorious for containing a wide range of content, mostly on the underwhelming side of that range. Most gatherings are too polite to push back much on what’s said. A lot is shared that’s unvetted or completely wrong. A lot is humble bragging–or just plain bragging–and focused on show/tell rather than transferring experience and wisdom. Not all of it, of course, but a surprisingly large portion. So when I attend, oddly I often stay clear of the sessions and focus on networking.
So today’s dispatch is all about things to look out for in the Podcast Movement schedule… Well almost all, first a bit about this newsletter…
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: WHAT IS THE AUDIO INSURGENT?] This has been a huge period of growth for The Audio Insurgent. Perhaps the word is getting out better or perhaps more people are trying to make sense of this moment in time for the audio industry. Regardless, the number of subscribers has expanded by several hundred since Memorial Day.
I’m assuming that means a lot of people were drawn here by a specific post and aren’t completely sure what this is, or why.
My original “About” page contained seven words, “Podcasting, digital audio, and the spoken word.” I have gotten some feedback over the past two and a half years that I could do better. I was recently inspired by a limited edition t-shirt offered by Flow State, one of my favorite music recommendation newsletters. The front of the shirt is basically their “About” page explaining what Flow State is.
So I wrote what’s below. For newer readers, this kinda explains it. For longer term readers, I’d love your feedback on it.
The Audio Insurgent is a periodic newsletter that covers the evolution and revolution of the spoken-word audio industry today. We talk about podcasting, audiobooks, radio (both broadcast and streaming), and other related technologies. It is written for those working in these industries who want to see it grow and thrive: makers, marketers, producers, managers, editors, executives, interns, and salespeople. It contains no news, instead focusing on principles, commentary, and insight into this exciting era of spoken-word–we call the posts “dispatches” (mostly because nothing else feels quite right). We spend a lot of time on podcasting and, surprisingly, public radio. In all the areas we discuss, we look to the future. We don’t make predictions, but we speak honestly about where we are today, where that might take us, and how to make things better.
The introduction of the smartphone has revolutionized the way we listen to the spoken word across media and platforms, allowing more voices to reach more people, form communities of interest, create new business opportunities, and dramatically change how we share and receive stories, ideas, and information. The resulting surge in listening, listeners, new technology, and advances in new digital media, like podcasting, raises a lot of questions. We explore those. We emphasize the importance of solid, grounded leadership and building the leadership skills at every level of organizations to meet this moment. We explore that. These opportunities empower audio creators to challenge conventions and explore new ways of thinking and producing. We explore that, too. We see marketing, revenue, and distribution technology not as separate areas for others to take responsibility, but as central to our role as creators and leaders as well.
Our bias is toward audience: we center our thinking and opinions on the listener. What is good for them is good for us, too. Those who will succeed in the audio industry are those that delight, surprise, and build value with an audience and channel their resources and efforts towards building more listening from more people. We believe this approach is the key to growth, business success, and harnessing our medium to enrich both creators and listeners.
No Audio Insurgent t-shirts planned, but I could be persuaded. 😙
And please, no smartass emails asking me to boil this down to 10 words or less.
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR AT PODCAST MOVEMENT] Looking at the agenda, it seems very heavy on monetization, which isn’t surprising. But there is also a wide range of other topics and a lot of interesting people. Be skeptical of everything you hear, and don’t be afraid to ask “How do you know that?”-- and expect an answer. But if you are attending, I’d advise to hold on to that skepticism, but equally expose yourself to a lot of new thinking and ideas.
But with that in mind, there are some other things I’d suggest you keep your eye out for.
If someone starts talking about “AI,” run in the other direction. Generative AI is super cool and has a ton of uses. I use it almost every day for something. But it is also the worst of flash-in-the-pan buzz speak too, with people throwing “AI” into everything to make what they are working on (and themselves) more appealing and cutting edge. I find that 90%+ of people talking about AI have no clue what they are talking about… or have no idea how to make what they are talking about actually happen. Plus, this technology has been public for less than a year and far from bullet-proof. Anyone who is building products on top of wobbly AI engines is likely even further away from robust viability. So I think the best advice for creators is when someone starts talking about AI in podcasting, go listen to something else–or silence–it will be a more productive use of your time.
To be fair, I should be clearer: my concern is about AI and podcast content. There are actually a lot of great potential uses for AI in podcasting, but mostly around discovery, indexing, brand safety, and some other operational uses that will really help connect audiences with shows, ideas, stories, and creators they will love. But it is so early that no one really has this figured out at all–and if they claim to have it figured out, be very skeptical and avoid their breathless hyperbole.
Advertising! Advertising! Advertising! It surprises me how often conversations about podcasting this year have really been about advertising. Instead of talking about creative strategy, new initiatives, and accelerating audience growth–all our industry wants to talk about is the state of the ad market. It’s been a crazy year for advertising, but I think every person in podcasting, makers, executives–everyone would be well served by repeating this mantra every day:
“The podcasting industry is not the advertising industry.”
Advertising is an important component of the podcast industry, but they are not synonymous. Neither is their fate or fortune. If there is any lesson to take away from this year, it is the danger of depending too much on one revenue source. When you focus every metric for success around gaming for advertising, you start to lose the distinction between you and the ad industry. Advertising is a major source of revenue in this industry, but I think you’re going to start to hear more and more people talking about subscriptions and other listener-revenue streams amounting to bigger and bigger percentages of their yearly revenue.
If you want more evidence of the danger of focusing too much on advertising, look at the fate of commercial radio. Radio used to be in the broadcast business–the business of engagement, building community, a tastemaker, being a voice for local happenings and people, and leveraging a brand deeply connected to its listeners. That combination built significant businesses. But as radio consolidated, it slowly segued from being in the broadcast business to being in the advertising business. Stations existed simply to accumulate enough people to chase back away with ridiculously heavy ad loads. When that happened, local radio switched from being the “MVP” to being the “MVP”: switching from a community’s “Most Valuable Player” to being a “Minimally Viable Product.”
I get concerned when I see how synonymous conversations about podcasting and advertising have become. So, if you attend one of the many, many advertising-related sessions, pay the most attention to those with the blinders off: those who are viewing advertising as part of the larger show/organization revenue picture.
The One Solution. If someone starts off any proclamation by saying, “I think everyone should be…” immediately stop listening to them and exit the room. Even though podcasting is still in its infancy (or, arguably, its toddler stage), the industry is too diverse for any tool, paradigm, or way of working, monetizing, or distributing to work for everyone. There is always something to learn from the experiences of others, but that does not mean that if you simply repeat what they do, you will find equal results. Over the past year or two, I’ve heard a lot of “Everyone should be on YouTube,” “Everyone should have a TikTok account for their show,” or “Everyone should be putting all their emphasis on selling derivative rights.” Should some people do all those things? Yes. Should everyone do any of those things? No. It is better to find which solutions fit your show, and more importantly, your audience, and experiment to test your assumptions. There is no magic bullet or podcast panacea.
Focus on experience instead of product. Nothing wrong with this, but there are many people attending Podcast Movement, and speaking on its stages, in order to sell you something or promote something. Again, totally cool. But as the receiver, you need to be aware of this. One flag I always look out for is someone who talks about how great their product is, but doesn’t offer a lot about their experience. It can be their experience in creating the product, or honest conversation about the problems they encountered that lead them to create the product or become an evangelist for it. But if they just go on and on about how great and infallible their product is, I become less interested in ever using it because I feel it is a solution in search of a problem.
Blaming the external. When discussing podcasting’s challenges or challenges that teams have faced, I get very annoyed when I hear people at conferences blaming the external: macroeconomic forces, crappy distributors, the press, the ad market–or even blaming listeners! When people point to external forces, they are shifting blame and deflecting away from the important lessons they can learn from their own choices. It isn’t that “economic headwinds and changes in the ad market forced us to lay off 20 staffers.” But rather, “We misread what was happening and grew in the wrong directions too fast.”
The people worth listening to are those who plan for failure and make plenty of time to retreat, rethink, and articulate how THEY can do better.
In my book Make Noise, I talk about the importance of destigmatizing failure in a growth medium like audio and share a story about an exercise we did with our UK and US team at Audible. We all gathered and each shared something we’d screwed up royally.
Everyone on the teams did it and everyone had to answer five questions:
What really went wrong here?
Were there any cues/signals that I missed along the way that could have changed the outcome?
What other projects do I have going on that could immediately benefit from this experience?
How do I share what I’ve learned?
How did the failure make me feel?
If you see someone come on stage and do a version or parts of this–listen to them, their experience will be so valuable to you. If they do literally or figurative finger pointing, proceed with caution.
[COULD WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, PLEASE? THE INDIGO GIRLS AND EMBRACING THE MESS] This weekend NYT Opinion columnist Lydia Polgreen shared an amazing piece called “The Wisdom of the Indigo Girls.” You may remember Lydia as the former head of Gimlet for several years after its acquisition by Spotify. Since she has returned to the Times, Lydia has written some breathtaking pieces in her role as a columnist. The piece offers a great take on why “Closer I Am To Fine” was the absolutely perfect song to use in the Barbie movie as Barbie is leaving Barbieland for the real world. Great comedies hide important messages inside them, sometimes right up front, or in the case of “Closer I Am To Fine,” something complex and beautiful inside of a soft joke. Lydia scratches at why and completely nails it.
The reason I’m sharing it here is because, while I hope you read the whole thing, there is one quote at the end of the piece that reflects the reason a lot of us are comfortable striving for vulnerability in podcasts:
“To me, this is what the Indigo Girls are all about. Sincerity coupled with wisdom, which is a recipe for something durable: solidarity. A sense that we are in this together. The Indigo Girls are great. Cringe but true. That’s because the kernel of who we are is cringe. That is what it means to be open to the world. To be open to the possibility of a future different from who you are now. When we are young, we feel that way because we don’t know any better. Eventually you get to a place where you know all the ways it can go wrong and feel open anyway. Like Barbie, we choose to live our flawed, messy, human lives.
As the song goes, ‘It’s only life, after all.’”
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.