Issue 172,  published August 7, 2018

“Podcasting’s Next Frontier”

Last Thursday, Edison Research SVP Tom Webster — one of the principal front-men for the measurement firm’s Infinite Dial study, which gives the podcast industry its benchmark numbers — published a Medium post titled “Podcasting’s Next Frontier: A Manifesto For Growth.” It is an adaptation of Webster’s keynote from the recent Podcast Movement conference, and it presents a data-supported argument around what he views as the fundamental challenge for the podcast ecosystem… and what, broadly speaking, may be the way through it.

Webster’s argument contains numerous moving parts and side-theses (be sure to clock the bit about music podcasts), and at the risk of oversimplifying his perspective, here’s the main thrust of the piece as I understand it:

(1) Contrary to aspects of its public narrative, podcasting isn’t actually growing that fast. As Webster outlines: “Since we started tracking podcasting in 2006, weekly consumption has gone from essentially zero to 17% of Americans 12+. That’s 0–17, in 13 years, or less than two percentage points per year. Now, it’s grown a bit faster over the past 5 years, but can anyone look at this graph and call podcasting a fast-growing medium? It’s actually one of the slowest-growing media we’ve ever tracked in the Infinite Dial.”

(2) Raising the possibility (or, indeed, probability) that there will soon come a day when its annual reporting will show a flattening or decrease in podcast listening growth, Webster highlights the principal metric that should be the center of our attention: “17% of Americans say they listen to a podcast at least once a week. 64% of Americans say they know the term. That means that about three quarters of the people who say they know the term ‘podcasting’ are not weekly listeners.” To Webster, this data point suggests that the fundamental problem is as follows: lots of people have heard about podcasting, but they don’t actually know what it is.

(3) That knowledge gap is preventing those potential new listeners from either trying out or buying into the medium. Part of this has to do with simple under-education about some core aspects of the ecosystem — podcasts are generally free, the means to consume them are already pre-baked into your phone, and so on — but a bigger part, Webster gestures, has to do with podcasting ecosystem’s lack of collective messaging that elevates its public identity beyond being a mere technological curiosity. Which is to say: there hasn’t been a push to help podcast programming make sense within the context of the everyday non-podcast consumers, in part by evoking facsimiles of what they already know or channeling the things they are already comfortable with.

For Webster, this conundrum is best expressed through the podcast ecosystem still not having what he calls The Show: the one program whose innate draw simplifies, supersedes, or even renders irrelevant the entire narrative around the distribution platform. He writes:

There were once was a time when plenty of people didn’t think they had a Netflix app, didn’t know they needed one, and weren’t sure how to watch it without getting discs emailed in those red envelopes. So what did Netflix do? They didn’t spend a bunch of money on a “Got Netflix?” campaign. They spent a lot of money on Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards. What gets people to discover Netflix is curiosity, and what drives curiosity is the show. The killer show.

Technology and gaming enthusiasts can probably broadly equate this argument with the notion of the “Killer Apps” that moves new devices and consoles. Same goes as well, I think, with SiriusXM and the Howard Stern show.

I had originally planned to present a much bigger discussion around Webster’s post, more or less agreeing with the broad strokes of his argument while at the same time looking to do a couple of things: identifying its limits, interrogating its assumptions, expanding the scope of the conversation. Forgive me, but I’m afraid I have to postpone that to next week, both for the reasons of space and because I got caught up digging deep into the Audible and the Alex Jones stories.

In the meantime, I leaned on Tom for this week’s Career Spotlight.