I love podcasts. I love listening to them. I love doing them. There are times when I think they're the most perfect form of media ever invented. Gather a few people with views on something around a microphone and let them talk. Then put the finished product in a place where it can be found by the people most likely to appreciate it. People respond to the human voice in a way they don't respond to anything else and because people have pulled it towards them rather than having it pushed in their direction they'll give it slack that they wouldn't extend to anything else.
At the same time I think there are inherent problems with podcasts. They only appeal to people who listen to podcasts. Clangingly obvious, I know. I'll go further. People who don't listen to podcasts don't begin to understand them. They don't know how they work, how they reach people or what makes people warm to them. Mark Ellen has done hundreds of Word podcasts with me and I know he wouldn't mind me saying that not only has he never listened to one, he wouldn't know how to listen to one. It's just not one of the things he does and nothing is going to change that. He's not the only one. Recently we had a guest who asked "is it live?" That's a question I didn't know how to begin to answer. We did an interview with an artist on a podcast not long ago. Three weeks later the PR got in touch asking if we could send him the podcast and asking when it was going to be "released". I had to point out that it had been "released" three weeks before, within two hours of it being recorded. He was dazed. He was twenty-eight, which goes to show that it's not only old gits who don't understand how these things work.
Unlike Mark I now listen to podcasts more than I listen to music. I prefer the burble of speech to music as I walk to the station. I know from talking to Word podcast listeners that they're largely a question of habit. I meet people all the time who tell me where and when they listen to them: walking the dog, jogging, taking the kids to school, enjoying a precious sliver of private time that they don't have to share with anyone else.
Podcasts can't be promoted the way conventional media is promoted. It's little use pointing people towards the contents of special editions of them. You want the lot or none at all. You don't dip in and out. Adding a new podcast to your repertoire is like deciding to have a new friend. It's a commitment. As with friends, you don't expect them to be sensational or surprising. You'd find them a bit tiring if they were. You want them to be dependable. You want them to be there.
And as many people have found, they're a nightmare to sell advertising or sponsorship around because advertisers don't understand them, find them too fiddly and not quite mass enough. They're very quick to say that they want media which engages with an audience but can't be bothered to find out enough about podcasts to see which of them do engage and which of them are merely "subscribed" to after a lot of unpaid radio promotion and never listened to. A couple of years back I spoke to somebody at a digital advertising agency and he advised making the Word podcast an enhanced podcast so that we could get a sponsor's logo on the screen of your iPod. "The clients will never listen to it but that way they can show it to each other."