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The evolution of podcasts: ‘I hope that the industry diversifies’


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“I remember looking for podcasts hosted by Black people. I think I found four in the UK!”

Renay Richardson is the CEO of podcast production company Broccoli Content, and also a prime mover behind the ‘Equality in Audio Pact‘, an initiative encouraging the industry to tackle “the lack of opportunities for minority talent both in front and behind the mic”.

Starting Broccoli Content, and then launching the pact, was a reaction to that dearth of British shows hosted by Black people, when she was working on an NHS campaign during Black History Month to drive blood donations.

Have things improved? “There are so many independent POC [people of colour] fronted podcasts, but there was still a lack of opportunity among the professionals,” said Richardson, during a session on the evolution of podcasts at last week’s Sandbox Summit Global conference.

One of Broccoli’s shows is ‘Anthems‘, which the company describes as “a collection of original manifestos, speeches, stories, poems and rallying cries written and voiced by exceptional people, that celebrate and contemplate what it means to be human”.

“We’re on 150-ish episodes. That means we’ve commissioned 150 people,” said Richardson. “It’s getting easier, but people are also lazy! People will be ‘I wanna work with diverse companies’ so they’ll just come to me. Cool for me, but there should still be other people. It’s still the work of amplifying other voices.”

That amplification was one of the positive trends discussed during the session, which was chaired by Music Biz president Portia Sabin (who also hosts music industry podcast The Future of What).

“This year’s been monumental. The market’s becoming a lot more professional. It was a DIY industry: anyone could get behind microphone… as things have professionalised and there’s more money around, production values have gone through the roof, and the industry has grown,” said Mike Wooller, content development manager at Acast.

Sam Harris, insights and engagement director at Hook Research, said that the Covid-19 pandemic – and specifically lockdowns that have seen more people working from home – has been changing podcast listening habits.

“The different times in the day when they’re starting to listen. You’re starting to see these new series of patterns emerging in the landscape,” he said, describing this as “flattening the curve” of traditionally commute-heavy listening. “And people are open to different types of content, and different lengths of content.”

There are still challenges. Wooller noted that there has been an explosion in the number of shows competing for attention, meaning that “cutting through and finding an audience is really difficult”, and that making money from a show only happens once that audience has been built up.

podcasts panel

“You can make money, but we need to look at it as a platform. A podcast is a platform. What are the other things it can lead to?” said Richardson.

“People focus too much on ad revenue. ‘Can this podcast I’m putting out every week make money?’ Yeah, it can… but also podcasts can lead to other things. In the same way that for artists, you don’t just make your money on streams. You go and tour and sell merch. That’s what a podcast is.”

Harris talked about some of the trends shown in industry data, including that the demographic range of podcast listeners is “beginning to even out a bit”, even if in the US it’s still lots of 35-54 year-olds.

Some good news for the music industry: Harris also said that when podcast listeners are questioned “a lot of people are saying this isn’t eating into their music consumption at all… 33% say as they grow their podcast consumption, it’s not eating into anything else. They’re just finding time for it during the day”.

Cole Cuchna, creator and host of the podcast Dissect, which started as an independent project but is now a Spotify show, talked about the importance of niches in the podcasting world.

“It took me about two seasons to really build up a substantial audience,” he said, of the show that devotes each season to analysis of a single album. Even when small, that audience was “incredibly passionate” said Cuchna.

“That speaks to how niche a lot of podcasts are: you can find a podcast that zeroes in on what you want to be hearing and talking about yourself.”

The session finished off with some futuregazing from the panellists. Wooller was fresh off a call with a “massive, famous TikToker who wants to start a podcast” and suggested that these kinds of shows will “kickstart lots of younger listening”.

“I hope that the industry diversifies,” said Richardson, before talking about the potential for the music industry in making podcasts based on artists.

“When artists and labels get into podcasting, [I hope] they are a little bit more ambitious with the ideas they want to do and create with their artists,” she said.

“Use their artists’ creativity. You can still have the two people talking [format], but as we move into more produced with the creativity, that’s how we’ll start to catch up with America. Until we do that, we won’t ever catch up.”

Harris said that improvements to the discoverability of podcasts will be important, and praised the efforts of Spotify efforts (with algorithmic recommendations) and Google (with audio SEO). He also said there is plenty of room for new formats to emerge.

“I always talk about Chompers, a smart speaker skill / audio product that you play with for two minutes and it encourages kids to brush their teeth. Is that a tiny podcast? Are there other tiny things we can do?” he said.

Cuchna also saw lots of potential for the medium of podcasting to evolve and mutate.

“Podcasting is still very bare bones: it’s still an MP3 file you upload to an RSS feed for the most part. I know specifically at Spotify they’re thinking of changing that: how do we make the experience of the podcast more dynamic?” he said.

Spotify is already experimenting with video podcasts, while YouTube is already a big platform for that (“Podcasting on YouTube is huge, because people do like to see the creators speak, if they can,” said Cuchna. But that’s just one area for experimentation.

“It’s so archaic right now: just an audio file. I think you’re going to start to see people experiment with visual elements combined with the podcasts, that you can pick up your phone at any time and see,” he said.

“Technology has a lot that we can do in terms of innovation with the format, but keeping true to what podcasting is: pure audio.”

Stuart Dredge

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