Well — the short answer is neither at all. After spending my weekend at SXSW in Austin I’m going to share some thoughts and opinions with some of the wonderful things discussed on the subject of podcasting.
For a quick overview — I am a podcaster. I have two podcasts on iTunes at the moment that usually rank in the top 100 (the iTunes charts list in real time). I’ve been producing the Art of Photography since 2008 and this year brought back the show I do with Wade Griffith, the Photography Show.
Why Podcasting Is Important
Podcasting is extremely important to the media universe for three reasons.
1) The barriers to entry are very small compared to that of traditional media. In other words, anyone can make one and get it out there.
2) Podcasts provide free content available to anyone with a computer or mobile device. There’s no risk for anyone to listen so its easy to attract viewers/listeners. Providing good, consistent content keeps them around.
3) Podcasts tend to provide different relationships to their audience than what traditional media will do. Sure podcasts audiences are much smaller, but this makes intimacy between the audience and the podcaster possible. This in turn has a very positive effect on the quality of the content when implemented.
What Has Changed?
Since Apple included podcasting as part of the iTunes store back in 2005, things changed significantly. On one hand podcasting was brought to Apple’s audience which continues to grow every year thanks to their releases of iPods, iPhones and iPads. At the same time this is by far the biggest significant way people find podcasts. There have been some other distribution models that have come along — Stitcher, InstaCast, Apple TV, Roku, etc — but none have the built in audience that Apple has through iTunes.
Some of the frustration that producers have had recently is that iTunes is a walled garden. You can’t really subscribe to things through a traditional web browser and if someone doesn’t use iTunes it can be hard for them to find your show. This creates challenges of how to grow an audience and promote a show.
On the flip side though — Apple does a fine job of featuring shows. Sure, the cream does rise to the top, but if your show is good, Apple will promote it. They have a podcasting staff that does care and keeps track of shows that are listed inside iTunes.
Why I Feel Times Are Good To Be A Podcaster
This weekend I went to SXSW interactive in Austin, TX. I went down primarily with the focus of networking for the two shows I do. I met quite a few people and had some wonderful discussions of where we are in all of this business and where we need to go next. I’ll share a few thoughts:
This is a tough one, but I think it needs to be viewed in perspective. If you go through the top podcasts lists in iTunes, you will notice that they contain shows made by big traditional media. This is amazing because there’s enough audience there to make it important for them to be there. The downside is that its hard to compete with companies that have large budgets for their shows. I used to be very frustrated by this, but I have done well considering. This is what I’ve learned. The iTunes directory does a wonderful job of being fair. If you have a new show, they will almost always help you get going by putting you in the “New and Noteworthy” category. This will give you a ton of exposure since its the first listing. If Apple likes your show, you do have chances to be featured in other places as well. Apple does a wonderful job of keeping the shows listed in a way that lets the subscribers decide what they like.
Now back to the competition with big media. You can compete. I’ve done it. How is this done? The answer is simple — content. Apple doesn’t give the numbers out, but the current rumors estimate around 125,000 shows listed in iTunes. This sounds like a lot, but consider how many start and give up around 4 shows, but stay listed. Consider how many are poorly produced. Consider how many of them don’t communicate their own content well. Consider how many are on hugely obscure topics. This number starts weeding out pretty quickly.
You don’t need a big budget to produce something good. If you can communicate well to your audience, be personable, provide well recorded audio and you have something to say — you will do fine. Sometimes you have to be patient — people won’t discover you over night. My audience for the Art of Photography was pretty small the first 2 years. But even when it was small it was extremely meaningful for me to produce because I got to know the people who listened when they emailed with questions and kind words. I got good feedback and made constructive changes to my format over the years. Radio and Television don’t have this kind of intimacy with their audience.
This is an interesting subject. Podcasts are essentially free. If you are committed to doing a show you can make a living doing it. At SXSW I got to meet Adam Curry, Jesse Thorn and Roman Mars. All three of these guys have major podcasts on iTunes and all three of them do it for a living. But all three have completely different ways they earn their income. The take away to share with you here is that you have to find what works for you. You can run advertising, you can do kickstarter projects, you can do it solely on crowd funding. Every audience is different. To make your show profitable you have to know your audience and know what works. This takes time but is worth it in the end.
The Legal Dark Cloud
Right now something very unfortunate is going on with podcasting. About 15 years ago a company called Personal Audio LLC filed a patent for “podcasting”. In short this is common practice for companies to simply make money by owning patents and suing people for big money. We call this Patent Trolling. This is typically done by sending out letters stating someone is violating the patent. Now they don’t tell you you’re being sued because they don’t want you to pick the court. When they take you to court, they want to make sure its in a small town with a judge who’s history is in their favor and a jury who is largely uninformed about technology in general.
This group has recently sent these letters to several of the biggest podcasters on iTunes including Marc Maron, Adam Corolla, Jesse Thorn and others. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has stepped in, but the biggest concerns are that this will cost millions to go to trial and that people will start writing checks to settle out of court. This is sad and quite unfortunate. We shall see how this all unfolds. Its recent so there’s not a lot of news or data at the moment.
I mentioned this earlier, but people do complain about big media coming into the podcast arena. Does this threaten the user base on iTunes? Does this make it more difficult to get notices as a producer?
The answer is no. Podcasts audience subscriber numbers go up and down over time. If you want a successful show you want to see a climb, but you’ll still see small fluctuations month to month. This is because audience attention spans change. Think about your own tastes. Sure there are television shows you watch and are committed to, but there are others that maybe you loose interest in. There are only so many hours in the day and new things come along that grab our attention.
I personally have no problem with bigger media coming into the podcast world. They bring viewers. They have big budgets to promote it. And lets face it — we need this. Subscribing to a podcast is a commitment. You have to go to iTunes, find shows, subscribe, download, upload to a media device and then finally remember to actually listen to it when your on the go. This is a committed fan who wants to hear you. This is why every member of a small audience is significant and important. If you are a producer remember that and live by it. But big media bring big audiences and this only helps us all as a community.
Now’s the Time
Despite competition, big media and a scary lawsuit — I seriously think there has been no better time than right now for podcasts. Sure its not a buzzword, its not a new phone, its not Facebook and its not Twitter… but it is alive and well. Its an industry that allows anyone to jump in and give things a try.
This was a rather long article of thoughts and I’d like to hear yours — especially if you’ve read this far! Leave a comment below and lets discuss!