Sunday, February 28, 2010

Podcasts don't need polish and professionalism; they just need a groove

There have been some very interesting issues raised following my recent post about podcasting, particularly when it concerns advertising. Podcast listeners clearly don't have any problems with advertising. They accept that as long as there is no practical way of charging them to listen to podcasts then they may have to be exposed to some commercial messages. People who carp about this kind of thing have their heads in the sand. If you hold the view that in the future all media will be free than you must accept the concomitant erosion of the traditional division between editorial and advertising (what Time Inc used to refer to as "church and state".)

On the other hand it's not an issue as yet because most advertisers don't see how they can get value out of podcasts. As Phil says, they're afraid of being alongside anything the listeners have a powerful affection for. I'm determined to challenge that with the Word podcast. I can think of quite a few advertisers who ought to be able to see a benefit in having their product associated with the idea of private time. But it's certainly true that the few advertisers or sponsors I hear on the podcasts I listen to regularly (which are mostly football ones) are sports betting sites. They're not seeking to build up brand loyalty. They're trying to encourage people to place a bet and it stands to reason that the people who want to spend a lot of their time speculating about what might happen when Saturday comes have a greater than usual predisposition to do that. In addition these people are just as likely to bet if they support Tranmere Rovers as if they support Chelsea. And these companies' only cost is marketing so they have more money to splash out than anyone at the moment.

Far as I can see the BBC don't do podcasts. They just make their radio programming available to time shift. This is fine but it's not podcasting. Podcasting has an emotional tug that most radio doesn't. I have this discussion/argument all the time with radio friends like Trevor Dann of the Radio Academy. They think radio does most of this stuff and I don't think it does. Radio is organised to minimise the likelihood of people changing the channels. Radio is push. Podcasts are pull. At the exact moment you worry your podcast is getting too obscure or self-indulgent or detailed, it's probably just finding its groove. Face it. If you wanted a balanced diet there are no end of places to get it. Podcasts shouldn't be trying to be professional and polished. I can't abide podcasts that begin with a menu that tells us what's coming up. What's the point of that? It's more likely to make you change your mind about listening to it than persevere. I also hate the feeling that people are reading from scripts. I wince when I hear journalists trying to crack the same kind of jokes that look OK in print. We don't need any of that print or radio or TV baggage. Podcasts are punk rock. They're the first thing that comes into your head. They're an evening down the pub. They blitz the divisions between the speaker, the thought and the personality. They have little use for conventional professionalism. They're so direct they're hardly media at all.


  1. Fantastic entry, and I heartily agree. One of my students is writing an essay about the relationship between podcasting and advertising, and I'll send him this way.

  2. Despite adverts on the radio being a total put-off for me I've no real concerns about an ad or two on a podcast. I think just the way you have ownership of a podcast and control of the play button would make me more tolerant. Several ads in one break would be preferable to several scattered throughout, which would begin to replicate the experience of disjointed radio. I'd probably be grateful for them if that was the only way of getting a good podcast for free.

  3. Placing several ads in a "commercial break" sadly won't work in all probability. Just like I hit fast-forward or skip on my PVR when an ad break comes along on a previously broadcast TV programme, I would probably do the same on a podcast (depending on what I was doing at the time I was listening. The path of least resistance remains strong).

    In any case, finding those advertisers is a challenge. As you said in your previous post, they're just a bit too complicated for a media that finds radio and other "traditional" media hard enough to plan around. This will change in time, although I think that podcasting remains too hard for many to cope with. Again, as you said before, I come across too many people who've not even given them a go - and I'm talking about people who'd otherwise be attracted to the medium.

    Where I do disagree to a certain extent is the need for podcasts to somehow lack polish and finesse. I can listen to Guardian podcast with its theme tune, a run-down of what they're going to be talking about, and a presenter that's keen to keep the "programme" on track and pacey, and realise that, yes, the producer was probably BBC trained. But while it's true that the artificial time constraint of 28 minutes no longer applies, it does add some much needed discipline.

    Case in point: I used to love listening to TWiT - This Week in Tech. It was a long podcast anyway, often running over an hour in length. But in the early days there was an artificial constraint that meant it had to fit on a CDR. In other words no more than about 78 minutes or thereabouts. These days, there's no such constraint, and while they're obviously having a fine time making the show still, it's running time can be bloated at upwards of two hours. Along the way, they can meander off track. Result: I listen far less frequently than I did. I want something punchier. I don't think that this is because they're worried that you'll tune out so much as honing a structure.

    Even some of the most free-flowing podcasts actually do have an underlying structure whether or not they have printed running orders or whatever.

    The BBC, of course, doesn't make podcasts per se, because it's not allowed to. It can't produce something for the web that's not pretty much gone out on-air. Adam and Joe used to allude to this as they tried to determine how much podcast-only material they were allowed to include in their downloads.

  4. One of the reasons I'm a podcast junky is that people often say stuff that they would never put down in print.

  5. I love my podcasts and listen to a whole raft of them whilst at work or driving. Most of them are music based.

    Two that stand out because they do incorporate advertising are 'Coverville' - a nice twice weekly episode from a guy called Brian Ibbott. He is normally sponsored by the makers of Audio Engine speakers and he does a little chat about them during his show. Not intrusive at all so I never forward these sections on. A case of keeping it within the show and not over doing it.

    The second one that springs to mind is 'The Rock And Roll Geek Show' by Michael Butler. This is a great show, again he talks about his sponsors but builds them in to his show, both eMusic and get discussed in a witty way which is part of his show and works very well.

    I guess it is finding the right sponsors with a good attitude to go along with it.

    I'd welcome sponsors on The Word's podcast if it guaranteed continued excellence in the show content and supported the future of the magazine.

  6. I just listened to your Word podcast with Mark Hodkinson - one of the best yet incidentally - and immediately went on Amazon and bought his book. It would be interesting to see how many other listeners did the same, though obviously an hour long interview with the author is a bit different from an ad.

  7. When I spoke to Mark last week he'd sold twenty copies of his book off his own site as a consequence of being on the podcast. That's good to know but it's hardly going to provide a small publisher with enough turnover to suddenly start paying for marketing campaigns. Particularly if you bought it from Amazon who take more than 50% of the price.

  8. I didn't realise it was that much. Feel a bit guilty now but my decision was motivated by the fact that it was six quid from Amazon or a tenner from Pomona.

  9. I don't really agree with the Podcasts are punk rock bit. I'm tired of listening to podcasts that are unstructured, unfunny ramblings about nothing in particular (Smodcast, C&H).

    I'm quite happy to have menus at the start and find it doesn't detract from the excellent Slate podcasts, nor does their advertising for Audible.

    Maybe if podcasts weren't so horribly amateurish in so many cases (or punk rock if you like) advertisers might find them more attractive.

  10. I don't know the ins and outs, but isn't it odd that you get a lower price at Amazon and they take 50% than at the publisher? Shouldn't the publisher incentivise buying direct? Or are there issues with that? Do Tesco's et al complain that Word subscriptions bought direct are cheaper than individual issues?

    Great post BTW.

  11. Apple could overnight revolutionise the Podcast business - if they allowed you to charge, on the App Store model: Maybe 59p for an episode, £6.99 for a six month series, £20 for a box set of every episode ever.

    If people would pay for that - and I think they would - you'd have a tiny goldmine on your hands. And Radio 4 would make so much money they wouldn't need the license fee any more.

    The thing is, Apple haven't done that. Yet.

  12. Simon, I can live with the fact that you're "tired" of the podcast I do with Richard Herring ("unstructured, unfunny ramblings about nothing in particular"), but that's fine, you can not download it.

    We didn't start it with a masterplan or targets; we just fancied doing it, and the software was already in my laptop. So we did. Two years later, we're doing the same thing, and a substantial amount of people (around 26,000) download it every week. It has never changed; attracting advertisers is not an ambition.

    This does not mean we think doing it lo-fi is an act of punk rock. It isn't. It was originally convenience and it's now the format.

    We recently recorded four podcasts in a professional studio which we are releasing on a CD, as a commercial experiment. If a tenth of the 26,000 are prepared to fork out for them, it will be a success. If not, we'll have learned a lesson and it will serve us right for expecting recompense for our unstructured, unfunny ramblings.

    In short: the whole podcasting thing is in its infancy. I dip in and out of a number of podcasts and the Word Podcast is, I think, the only one I listen to religiously. Why? Good people, minimal editing and production, and it doesn't pretend to be a radio show. There are radio shows for that.

  13. Andrew, I was simply questioning the assertion that because you and David like doing podcasts one way, that's the way they should all be.

    The suggestion is that something like The Guardian's Football Weekly is in some way inferior because it's edited, produced and runs off some kind of script.

    I also question the attitude of yourself and David with the "poor us, we do this without recompense". There's no doubt more copies of The Word are sold off the back of the Word podcast. Likewise, you've sold numerous live events off the back of yours.

    As you say, it's my choice if I listen or not, I just wasn't sure about the slightly snooty attitude towards podcasts that are sharp, concise and produced.

  14. I agree to a point. The fact that James Richardson brings a certain structure to the Guardian's Football Weekly Podcast by running through the topics doesn't take much away from the free wheeling style that flows. And I love the non-mainstream edge of this too. My favourite moment was when serious journalist Paul Hayward joined in. After he gave a lengthy and articulate pundits reply to the speculation that Kaka was joing Manchester City, Barry Glendenning likened it to the lads in the pod inviting Girl's Aloud over to join them for a jacuzzi. I don't have to guess at Hayward's face but the tone of his voice was one of utter discomfort. He hasn't been back.

  15. I don't know why everyone has jumped to the conclusion I was talking about the Guardian football podcast.

  16. I didn't, it's just the most convenient example.