Are podcasts “dying”?

“Are podcasts dying? Have they peaked?” I wondered to myself when I saw some of the research presented at “Podcast Day 24” in Sydney. In relation to podcasts, the United States has always been a little ahead of the game. Compared with Australia, there has always been a greater awareness and use of podcasts in the United States until this year.

Australia now seems to be ahead of the United States, which made me wonder “Have we finally caught up?”, or “Have things peaked in America”. It’s hard to know for sure, though the vibe from today’s conference was that the industry was “maturing”, and that maybe some of the extraordinary growth in the past few years has come to an end.

I can’t remember who it was, but someone noted there was fear in the industry about the possible impact of COVID. As people worked from home, there was a fear there might be less podcast listening, as people stopped taking public transport. But they started walking a lot more. And there has been a significant increase in in-car apps from Apple and Google, meaning people have actually been more likely to listen to podcasts. And most people listen to podcasts from home!! Like seriously, most people.

“Being a radio guy, I know it’s all about routines”, one of the panellists said today, noting the challenge for podcast listening now was to re-establish routines. With radio, people get up, turn on the radio, and it sets them up for their day. The research around podcasts is that, on average, people listen to seven each week. Obviously, some people listen more and others less. The challenge is how you make your podcasts interesting/distinctive enough to be part of people’s lives. “You need a 50/50 rule”, one of the panellists today said, noting “You need to spend 50% of your effort finding audiences for your podcast, not just creating it”.

This was the second time I’ve attended this conference and actually enjoyed it much more than the previous one in 2021. “You almost had too much content this year”, I said to the organiser, James Cridland. By the end of the day, my brain was “full” of many ideas and thoughts for the futurue. “I haven’t been making notes, as much, as action points”, I said to a colleague who I sat with for most of the day.

She’s very active in the audio on-demand space, whereas my interest is very much around the state of the radio… um… er ah… I’m supposed to just say “audio” now, space.

As a “radio person”, I was especially interested in how some of the “rules” of radio apply equally to podcasts. For example, there was a presentation about the effectiveness of “live reads” vs “promos” in promoting further listening and advertisers (it wasn’t just an ABC conference, with lots of commercial people there too!). There were no surprises for me in the research: a presenter telling you to listen to something else, or to buy a product is more effective than an advertisement read by someone else. But for me, the “takeaway” was that we likely aren’t doing enough of this on podcasts. With the exception of someone like Leo Laporte who is a master at this, I think there is likely too much of a gap between the high-end “art” podcasts, and the more informal “two blokes around a kitchen table” style of podcast. “There is still a lot to learn from the middle ground lessons of 100 years of radio craft”, I said to someone.

Some research about promoting your podcasts. The impact of an unscripted live read from the host, a scripted one, and a pre-recorded read from someone else.
Some research about promoting your podcasts. The impact of an unscripted live read from the host, a scripted one, and a pre-recorded read from someone else.

Another highlight for me was a presentation by Siobhan McHugh, a “veteran” radio producer who now works in academia, but still keeps her hands “dirty” by making podcasts. I first met her maybe 30 years ago when she did a wonderful oral history project about the people who worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme. More recently, she worked on a project with Patrick Abboud about the “special” gaols for gay men in Australia. She spoke about structure and sound in the creation of podcasts. She is wonderfully inspiring with her enthusiastic love of sound.

Wonderful presentation by Siobhan McHugh about structure within a podcast episode.
Wonderful presentation by Siobhan McHugh about structure within a podcast episode.

From a different generation, there was the wonderful story of a couple of young people from radio backgrounds who fell “accidentally” into podcasting, and who are now working full time on a podcast that’s been picked up by Spotify.

Ryan and Toni

In particular, I loved how they spoke about their affection for their audience. “Do you think we should do the Spotify deal?” they asked them. Ryan spoke about the time it takes, but always responding to the comments from listeners. “I love their work ethic”, one of my colleagues commented. There was no sense of “privilege” that you sometimes/often find from people in the media.

Even though the conference is very much a “nerd fest” for those of us who work in the industry, I picked up a few listening suggestions along the way too.

The audience watches and LISTENS
The audience watches and LISTENS
Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly from The Minefield on video from Melbourne
Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly from The Minefield on video from Melbourne
With some of my colleages from "our part of the ABC": Blythe, Angela and Oscar
With some of my colleagues from “our part of the ABC”: Blythe, Angela and Oscar

9 Replies to “Are podcasts “dying”?”

  1. Seven a week would be about right for me. I did go to some extra effort by joining something and downloading an app to listen to Abboud’s gaol podcast. It was well worth the effort. I am lacking in comedy podcasts at the moment. I will get around to finding some new ones.

    1. I have never really got into podcasts, for the same reason that (sorry to say, nothing personal) I haven’t listened to “talking” radio for many years, other than as a last resort on a long drive alone.

      Basically it comes down to my preference to receive information at the speed at which it can be conveyed in writing. I lack the patience for the pace of oral impartation. There is also the bonus with the written word that you can go backwards and forwards as you choose.

      That colour-coded diagram of the episode structure on the whiteboard is just what would drive me mad about a podcast, with its judicious doling out of sonic nuggets as part of a real-time entertainment (“Are you all comfortable? Very then, well, I’ll begin.”)

      Yes the spoken voice and recorded sound can provide more information than the written word but for me the extra is generally not worth the time it takes. If I have listening time I would rather listen to music.

    2. Andrew – the research yesterday was that comedy podcasts are still the number 1, though I’m also struggling to find one. Siobhan will be pleased you enjoyed Patrick’s podcasts.

      Marcellous – know what you mean about plotting out podcasts/anything in such a structure, but it’s part of the craft. No one writes a novel or an opera or a movie without plotting it out in the first case. Understand it takes away some of the magic of it all, but this was a very inwardly facing conference.

      Siobhan – good to hear from you. I still remember vividly chatting with you on the radio when I was the morning presenter at the ABC in Wagga, and the Snowy was part of our territory. In a world where images/text seems to dominate in the minds of many, I love people focussed on audio. I will often aircheck radio packages, and ask the question, “can you tell the story without your voice links?” as a challenge. The answer is always yes.

  2. Glad you enjoyed my presentation, James! I love evangelising about crafted audio storytelling and audio’s famed ability to create theatre of the mind :) It was a stimulating day and a fun evening afterwards, with lots of laughs over wind-down drinks. Sorry I didn’t get to say hello – 30 years is a bit long between chats!

  3. I only started listening to podcasts at the beginning of the pandemic. I got the ABC listen app so I could listen to the radio while on my daily walk around the waterfront. Then I started listening to the podcasts and audio books available on the app. Loved listening to Trace and enjoy The Party Room every week. For a bit of fluff, I’ll listen to Bang On and sometimes Stop Everything. I really like Conversations and The History Listen. Lots of others I listen in to. A few issues with the app though. It doesn’t always keep track of what I’ve already listened to, even if I mark it as ‘already played’.
    Looking forward to new Innies & Outies and You Don’t Know Me.
    If I can figure out how Audible works, I’ll give Patrick a listen. Sounds intriguing. Thanks for the tip James.

    1. Good stuff Rod. I’ll drop a note to Alex who is the developer of the Listen App. What phone are you using? It helps diagnose problems. Any further intelligence about when it fails to remember?

      1. My phone is a Samsung S20 FE.
        For me the Listen App has been a godsend. I walk about 10km every day and for a lot of that time I’m listening. I don’t use earphones or buds (if that’s what they’re called?) because I also like to be aware of what’s going on around me.
        Another good thing about the Listen App is that I was able to listen when I was in Dubai for two weeks earlier this year. Amazing.

  4. A great and informative post, James. I hope podcasts haven’t yet peaked: I’ve just spent two years plotting out mine!

    Thanks for your like on my short story, James: it’s the first time I’ve experimented with getting the two main characters from my forthcoming podcast to speak to each other.

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