In the wake of high-profile podcasts such as “Serial” and “Invisibilia,” the once obscure audio storytelling technique has moved to the mainstream.
As the selection of podcasts on services like SoundCloud and iTunes continues to expand, the future for the medium looks bright, according to the panelists at the “State of the Podcast 2015” event hosted by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and HUBweek, co-founded by The Boston Globe.
Panelists discussed the recent resurgence of the podcast, the possibilities of the medium, and the challenges ahead for podcasters.
Here are five takeaways from the panel:
- Podcasts thrive on mobile.
The technology, which was born in the mid-2000s, has experienced popularity in waves. We are currently is the third wave of the podcast, said panelist Jake Shapiro, CEO of the Public Radio Exchange, a nonprofit storytelling organization based in Cambridge.
“I think this wave is going to stick,” he said.
Shapiro said one key reason this wave is better poised for success than past ones is its integration with mobile, said Shapiro. While audio has historically struggled to gain traction on the web, services like iTunes and Apple’s Podcast app have opened doors for the mass distribution of podcasts, he said.
- Podcasts’ reach needs to continue to grow.
Panelist Christopher Lydon, of Radio Open Source at WBUR-FM, posed this question to his fellow panelists: “How do we aggregate great voices?”
Many of the better-known podcasts out there right now are linked to public radio shows or networks. This makes sense, said panelist Kerri Hoffman, chief operating officer at PRX, because the medium borrows a lot from radio journalism. At the same time, however, it limits podcasts’ audience.
The fact that the medium is primarily iPhone-based adds to this, she said, as there’s a lot of overlap between the public radio audience and Apple customers.
One technology development that might help expand podcasts’ reach is Android podcasts. That will open the medium up to different demographics, both in terms of audience and podcasters, said Hoffman.
On top of this, there’s a lot of work being done within the industry to help lesser-known podcasts gain traction, said Shapiro. He mentioned newsletters that feature podcasts and even a podcast about podcasts.
- Think outside the box when it comes to business models.
Now, the podcast is no longer just possible, it is financially viable. More resources are being plugged into podcasts, leading to larger-scale productions such as “Serial,” said Shapiro.
One financial model PRX has experimented with is donations, Hoffman said. PRX adopted the concept from public radio and television, but needed to tweak it for its audience. While public media asks for a prolonged commitment often followed by a series of membership questions, Hoffman found that podcast listeners responded to something different.
“People just give $5 or $10 because they are inspired in the moment,” she said.
Panelist Benjamen Walker, of the “Theory of Everything,” provided the example of “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” project, which asked listeners to donate to the project. After the project was completed, people who donated received a T-shirt.
- When it comes to audience, it’s quality not quantity.
Podcasting can sustain shows that are very good but have small audiences, Shapiro said.
“The joy of the Internet is the match between artists and the audiences, even if it’s fragmented,” he said.
Shapiro urged podcasters to utilize their network by sending out regular e-mail newsletters or running support campaigns.
- Be nimble.
The medium requires producers to be quite nimble, said Hoffman, both in the content they produce and the ways they monetize it.
“There’s going to be a lot more experimentations and a lot more fails in podcasting,” Hoffman said.