Podcasts: Old is the New New

by Charles Epstein

Don’t get me wrong, I love radio.

So yeah, I love radio and if given the chance could probably explain what I love about it. Still, I was perplexed by the unexpected rise in the popularity of podcasts over the past couple of years (in 2018, 48 million people listen to Podcasts weekly, up six million from 2017 — from Edison Research). To state the obvious, it’s old technology — it’s fireside chats, imaginary Martians, fast-talking gossip columnists and lugubrious daytime soaps sponsored by long-forgotten brands. Hell, it’s older than newsreels! And given the popularity of video content, you’d think most would view audio only as limited and un-involving. So what gives?

I was then reminded of my initial reaction to texting: why text when you can email or make a quick call, which in many ways is quicker and allows you to convey more detail, leaving less room for error or misinterpretation. Until I started texting and realized why it’s often the superior option. I’m not saying that podcasting — or audio — is a superior option to video; I am saying that it’s a good option for the type of content it lends itself to, in promoting a more intimate connection with an audience, and a practical option because it can be accessed so easily in so many ways.

Flexible Access

Here are some interesting findings from Edison Research’s annual Infinite Dial study:

· 64 Percent of Americans Have Heard of Podcasts

· One-Third of Americans Ages 25 to 54 Listen to Podcasts Monthly

· 69 Percent of Podcasts Are Consumed on a Mobile Device

· 23 Percent of Americans Have Listened to Podcasts in the Car (jumping from 19% in 2017).

Podcasts can be listened to at the office, in the car, when you’re on the treadmill, cooking or out doing errands. There are more access options than video and because your eyes are free to roam, close and gaze into the middle distance, it’s a far better option for multitasking. Additionally, if you’re on a train, a plane, a crowded eatery or on a park bench, no one can lean over and peek.

Conversational, More Engaging

“Podcasts are essentially radio on the installment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind.” (James Wolcott)

Podcasts, like radio, are more intimate than video or written communications. When we write we are attempting to find our voice, which is to say, discover and convey our authentic selves. It’s hard and takes skill to pull off. With a podcast it is your voice: your tone, inflection, timing, humor, quirks, energy, and passion. At its best, a podcast is an unfiltered (if strategically edited) meeting of the minds.

For these very reasons, podcasts lend themselves to storytelling, which makes them particularly effective for business leaders who want to give their publics a sense of what makes them tick. Depending on how it’s presented and produced, even a generally buttoned up personality will find it easier to relax and be more frank and authentic, possibly even funny!…which naturally makes for deeper and more meaningful engagement.

Production Values

“Content marketers spend most of their time on text (blogs, white papers, social media) and video. But what about Audio?” The audio landscape has changed dramatically in the last three years. Smart speakers and voice assistant technology have changed how millions of Americans access content. What is your brand’s audio strategy?” Developing a Holistic Audio Content Strategy, Tom Webster, Vice President, Strategy, Edison Research

While more marketers are adding podcasts to the mix, many still default to blog and website content, often because they simply lack the production resources, capabilities or experience to deliver a quality podcast. The thing is, podcasting is not terribly complex or expensive. It can be as simple as recording a conversation in a conference room or a garage, ala Marc Maron’s WTF. Though it’s seldom as simple as throwing two people in a room or connecting them via the phone and hitting record. For instance, if you ever heard an episode of WTF, you’d think it’s a pretty basic setup: two people in a garage that’s actually a finished room, talking. But when you listen closely — or, better, if you saw video of him with a guest, you’d see that there’s more to it than that…Maron is helming a fairly sophisticated radio production rig. Plus, he’s a professional perfomer whose intense, confessional style is a perfect match for the medium , so he makes it look easier than it actually is (it’s his listening audience that’s made uncomfortable. Excellent work, Mr. Maron).

Marc Maron recording an episode of WTF

Radio producer and host Tom Alexander speaks to this deceptive simplicity: “Some of today’s most compelling and successful podcast don’t seem to spend a lot of time on production values, but as a radio veteran I know how much time and technology goes into making them work. It turns out that sounding natural is a lot like trying to look natural — it takes a lot of time and effort!”

I listen to an eclectic bunch of pods — the aforementioned WTF, several political ones, Bill Simmons, Here’s the Thing (Alec Baldwin’s surprisingly good pod), Kurt Andersen’s great Studio 360, with occasional detours to pods like Frank Delaney’s mesmerizing Re: Joyce (perhaps it’s the hypnotic brogue), and a handful of others, most on an irregular basis. I listen in the office, in the car, when I’m creating havoc in the kitchen, even when I’m on the tennis court waiting for my partner/s to arrive. Each podcast is different, from production values to format to the topics covered. At the most basic level I listen because it fills up the space between my ears when I’m doing something else. I’m also drawn to the personalities and their takes on the topics of the day. But I’m ultimately drawn to them as I was drawn to the radio of my youth: there’s nothing quite like carrying around an assortment of (other) voices in your head, so long as they’re interesting and can be banished at the swipe of a finger.

I’m delighted that more people have embraced radio by way of podcasts, and that more marketers are using them to reach and engage their customers. Old is the new new. Which shouldn’t come as a total surprise — it is based on old technology, but then again, so is speech, which, while even older, is still useful.

Charles Epstein is President of BackBone, Inc., a PR and marketing firm specializing in IT, healthcare and HR technology. For more, visit www.backboneinc.com.

Tech, Workforce and Healthcare PR, marketing communications, bus development.

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