Whither the Podcast? In Defense of Digital Media's Great Creation
When I sat down in a café one afternoon late last year with the members of Slate’s Culture Gabfest, I was transported ever so briefly to my gym. These voices -- members Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner, Dana Stevens and producer Andy Bowers -- are so familiar to me and my workout routines, it was jarring to have the podcast and weight lifting separated. I listen to all of them weekly on my iPod as distraction from pumping (well, nudging) iron.
That power of familiar voices that are woven into the routines of everyday life is formidable. Turner says they themselves saw this same sort of effect when the Gabfest had a live show for 600 people in Seattle. Bowers opens each show with a warning that the Gabfest contains explicit language, so all regular listeners know his distinct timbre.
Turner recounts that Bowers opened the Seattle show by introducing himself. “They gave him a screaming welcome,” she recalls. “And Andy said: ‘On behalf of producers everywhere, I thank you. I don’t think a producer has ever gotten a welcome like that.’”
But this sort of response -- this level of familiarity, intimacy, and (to invoke the tiresome phrase of the moment) engagement -- is a remarkable quality of podcasting. The on-demand and portable audio show is to my mind one of the great and underappreciated products of the digital era. The regularity of the programming, its self-selected audience, the reliance on voice and often conversation -- all coalesce to create intensely loyal constituencies.
Slate’s Culture Gabfest is distinguished by its very smart grad-seminar-like banter and eclectic menu of high, low and offbeat topics. They can talk literary canon or the Kardashians. They even did a bake-off of granola recipes recently. Metcalf observes that one reason podcasts can generate rabid fans like myself is that “over time you winnow out the people who dislike the sound of your voice.” He recalls in the early days of the Gabfest getting much more negative email than now, several years into the program. “You still get a lot of deeply engaged criticism –- and some listeners have, ahem, strong preferences from among the three of us -– but with the exception of a few masochists, the righteously offended, ‘you have no right to exist’ crowd disappears.”
Slate’s podcasts have proven especially compelling when they adopt this “Gabfest” style of exchanges among prepared and thoughtful personalities whose voice and perspectives become deeply familiar to the regular listener. Slate has similar shows on politics, sports and women’s perspectives. Bowers says that downloads nearly doubled in 2011.
Again, it is a story of engagement, self-selection and devotion among those who get it. “From what I understand, the overall number of podcast downloads has been flat in recent years.” But he hears from other producers of popular shows that their numbers are increasing as well. “My guess would be that listeners are moving away from some of the weaker podcasts that flooded the market in the early years towards the ones that have proven themselves to be quality programs.” The live Gabfest for several of the shows have been wildly popular, and Slate is planning at least ten for this year. They filled a large LA venue recently in the middle of the week.
I have tried for years to get family and friends hooked on the format, but too many find the process of subscribing and downloading the programming to devices too much of a leap. Bowers is hopeful that the smartphone will be one of the catalysts for further growth and adoption. Apps like Stitcher make easy work of finding and streaming podcasts, for instance, and he has been seeing more “holdouts” from podcast listening come on board via this new route. Increasingly, people are connecting phone or player devices to their car audio systems. This is one of the ultimate, natural destinations for podcasts -- since, after all, they are really time-shifted radio.
But podcasts are also radio of a highly targeted and intimate sort. There is an art to this kind of programming I think. In some cases, such as the repurposed NPR shows I also absorb in the gym, they are just parsed and on-demand versions of radio. But shows like the Gabfests are crafted a bit differently, I think. There is an art to the performed conversation. Metcalf, Stevens and Turner agree to the topic in advance and have in their heads talking points -- some of which they have shared with the others and some not. There needs to be a combination of preparedness and surprise.
Stevens says that the difference between a Gabfest conversation and a natural one “is very slight.” “The goal is to engage with each other in a way that makes us forget we’re in a studio with headphones on and really talk as we might over drinks in a bar.” The may well explain why meeting with this crew in a café sounded eerily familiar.
The live shows confirm for Turner just how intimate this format is for listeners. People drive in for these live events from other cities. “They talk to us like friends, because in a way, that’s what we are. We’re in their heads, week after week, chatting about news and culture.” A Gabfest listener ended up photographing Turner’s wedding.
I think the levels of targeting and user loyalty -- bred by voice, regularity, and routinized use -- give podcasts a special power that has to be conferred to any advertising partner that is aligned with the content and the audience properly. While podcasting seems “merely” to be time-shifted radio, there is another element in the use case. For decades the nightly network news and its anchors became an evening ritual around which many people structured their dinner and leisure hours. Drive-time radio, of course, also gets into our heads and hearts because its personalities are a regular part of a daily ritual. But in podcasting we choose where these programs should fit in our day.
I may be an unreliable sample group because I have been in the tank with this format for so many years. But I actually have podcasts I reserve for different use cases. Stephen, Julia and Dana are workout companions, while my NPR feed and audio snippets from CNN are for the car. We actively create situations for these podcasts and determine a place in our routines.
I think podcasting is a brilliant digital platform still waiting for its ideal discovery and delivery mechanism. Time-shifted TV is just a matter of segmenting out content that is in your ordinary stream of TV viewing. Podcasts take special effort to discover and manage. I would hope that smartphones and in-car devices will help move the needle. But even with targeted and select audiences, this is a format that creates levels of intimacy and engagement any marketer should covet.
For years I listened to the Onion News Network’s one-minute satire as part of my daily podcast regimen. For a long while they had one sponsor -- Chili’s restaurants -- that had a three-second blurb ending each day’s show. Three seconds! But it was every day four or five years later I still recall the brand and its ads because of the regularity, frequency and brevity those podcasts crafted. How many ad campaigns can boast that sort of brand retention?