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Podcasts: Why big does not always mean better

Have podcasts really already enjoyed their Golden Age. Adam Batstone asks if a format which is less than 25 years old could already have peaked?

 


A recent article on HubSpot concerning the profitability or otherwise of podcasts made the claim that podcasts enjoyed their golden era between 2015 and 2022.

This struck me as a very specific, not to mention narrow, window for a format which is still relatively new. It was only 20 years ago that I helped produce some of the first podcasts for BBC News with a certain Ben Hammersley, who is widely credited with first coining the word podcast to describe a downloadable audio on demand format for spoken word content.

It is true that those early forays into the brave new world were pretty basic and really just radio programmes via a different platform, but the potential was evident right from the start. Like most good digital innovations they addressed a problem which had - and still does to this day - hamper linear broadcast radio programmes: how do you devote the right amount of time to a subject? Too long and people get bored, too short and enthusiasts feel short-changed.

Podcasts are the solution to that problem - no subject is too niche. If you have a lifelong interest in medieval farming, doubtless there will be a podcast somewhere dealing in fourteenth century crop rotation. And the beauty is that it doesn't matter if it only has a very limited audience, those who are interested will look forward to each new episode with eager anticipation.

I happen to be a fan of Bob Dylan and a supporter of Portsmouth FC. Neither particularly niche subjects but still not attracting the kind of coverage on mainstream broadcast media that a fan like myself craves. But in podcast world I am spoilt for choice (For those who care, I would point Dylan fans in the direction of Is It Rolling Bob? and Pompey fans will enjoy the Pompey Talk podcast)

The HubSpot article suggested that podcasts reached their zenith in 2022 and from now on it is going to be harder to make money from them. It cited the extraordinary investment made by companies like Amazon and Spotify and questioned whether that money will ever be re-couped? The answer is almost certainly that it is too soon to say. Latest RAJAR figures suggest a big drop in speech radio listening in the UK. Where are all those people going? It is safe to say a significant percentage - particularly among younger listeners - will be turning to podcasts for news, sport, gossip, comedy when they want it and how they want it, not interrupted by traffic news from the other end of the country.

But if your intention is not to generate revenue by monetising your podcast, I think the future is bright. As the habit of podcast listening spreads there is an increasing audience out there for niche content. If you are a business, university or not for profit organisation your motivation for making a podcast may be very different. In my experience the most successful podcasts are those which have a clear idea about what they will say and to whom they are saying it.

In my first post BBC job I made a podcast for a major pharmaceutical company. The intention was to talk about a rare health condition which affects a few hundred people in the UK. The podcasts brought patients up to date on the latest research, helped people connect and share their experiences and introduced GPs to a topic which receives almost no publicity. Among its target audience the podcast received over 90% penetration - a tiny figure in global terms, but that wasn't the purpose or the expectation.

I ask all my new podcast clients to go through a simple checklist of questions before we embark on a pilot episode. For some the process of addressing questions such as: 'Who is this for?' or 'Will you still have the time, energy and money to do this in six months' time?' is enough to put them off completely. Maybe not a great business strategy for me, but a worthwhile exercise for anyone who may be idly thinking - we should make a podcast....

Podcasts are not dying, nor have they even reached their peak. What is happening is a better understanding or what podcasts are for and how to make them work for you. Comparing all podcasts and declaring them to be one thing is pointless. Ulyssees and a Haynes motor manual are both books but it would make a difficult Phd thesis to compare them.


 

To find out more about making a podcast visit my website www.adambatstone.co.uk or email me at adam@adambatstone.co.uk





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