Digital Identities

Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai – May 28th to June 1st, 2018

So, you’re curious about podcasting, but aren’t sure you want to commit yet? Here are some ideas and examples from the podcast boom in the United States that will hopefully inspire you.

Podcasts have gotten ENORMOUSLY popular in the United States. Where I work at WNYC, everyone walks around all day apologizing to another because they haven’t listened to each other’s podcasts yet.

Really “podcasting” just means you’re downloading an MP3 file that was pre-recorded. We’ve taken the “live” out of live radio. “Podcasting” is a terrible word that we should have stopped ages ago, but alas, now it appears to be too late.

People had been podcasting for years, but it was generally for a small audience of people who already loved radio and just wanted to listen to their favorite show later, or on their commute. Serial is the big breakout star. With Serial, podcasting went from niche to mainstream. The first season has been downloaded 175 MILLION TIMES. Serial was even spoofed on the popular late-night TV show, Saturday Night Live.

Since its release in 2014, podcasting has gotten BIG: the percentage of people who know what a podcast is has gone up, the percentage of people who listen has gone up, the number of podcasts created has gone up – it is a booming industry.

And the places that produce podcasts has expanded from traditional broadcasters (i.e. public radio) to all sorts of media makers, from newspapers to independents to sports networks – everyone wants a podcast. And then we all throw our content into iTunes which (for now) remains the default platform for finding shows to listen to. Part of why iTunes is so dominant is that the podcast app comes with your iPhone – clearly connecting listeners to content is key.

American podcasters live and die by the iTunes chart. 

Now the trick is competing in what has become a very crowded marketplace.

Some of the standout podcasts of the past few years have been innovators in both form and content. Take for example, The New York Times’ The Daily. For years, public radio has had NYTimes’ journalists on their air. One of the many brilliant things the NYTimes did, was put the recording studio inside the newspapers’ offices. For the reporters, it is now less burdensome than going to an off-site studio and the reporters sound more like collaborators in the content, not just subjects. They also advertise “The Daily” on the front page of the newspaper every day. Plus the shows are also beautifully made. This is one of my favorites, produced by Paige Cowett:

Another example of a show that stepped out of a traditional radio station is Ear Hustle, recorded and produced inside San Quentin, a notorious prison in northern California known for having the largest death row in the country, and for this performance by Johnny Cash.

Another genre that is big in the U.S. right now is investigative podcasts (similar to the Serial model — there’s a reporter, and she won’t stop reporting until she solves the case!) These stories build their narrative from the perspective of a reporter on a journey to find out the truth. These take a lot of time and resources, but if done well, they will continue to be listened to long after they’re first released.

And speaking of President Trump, there has simply been a lot of news over the past couple of years, so the appetite for political and news-y podcasts is high. Crooked Media is an interesting example – it it was launched by ex-Obama administration staffers, who decided that political journalism could be done better by insiders. There’s no pretense of objectivity, and people (i.e. liberals) flock to their shows because the hosts are knowledgeable insiders who also happen to be hilarious.

So, how do people pay for all of these amazing podcasts? Many use a variety of models to help fund their work:

  • The listener-supported model: inspired by public radio, many organizations are asking their listeners directly for support, often in exchange for feeling good about oneself and if you’re lucky a stylish tote bag.
  • Subscriptions: this is an extension of the listener model, but this one asks for a commitment. The idea is that if you “subscribe” to a show or station you love for say, $5 a month, you will get goodies from the show, like additional content or perhaps (if you’re lucky!) another tote bag.
  • Advertisements and sponsorships: while there does not seem to be a set rate for running ads on podcasts, in the U.S. it’s generally assumed that if you can reach 50,000 downloads per episode, you can find someone to advertise on your podcast. This is very much like the traditional method of ad sales for radio, with the added advantage that tracking downloads is substantially easier than tracking radio listeners.
  • Grants and foundations: while many popular podcasts are primarily entertainment, the podcasts that are produced by not-for-profit news organizations can often apply for foundational support, if they serve underserved communities or bring light on an underreported issue.
  • Merchandise and live shows: why not treat your podcast like you’re in a popular rock band? Then you sell t-shirts and stickers, and take your show on the road.

Hopefully some (or all!) of this has been helpful. For me, it has been so exciting (and terrifying) to have the medium I have loved for so long go from being the nerd at the party, to perhaps still a nerd, but now a very popular one. Podcasts are now crossing over and inspiring books, TV shows and movies. Your main takeaway should be this: if you have a phone, you can listen to a podcast. So just imagine all of the people in India who have phones as your potential listeners.

Now you just have to decide what you want to make for them.

Before you go! a few more podcasts and episodes to check out: