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The great podcast resurgence and the rebirth of radio

Like one of those birds that are attracted to shiny jewellery, I love new gadgets and new technology. As someone with the expensive Early Adopter Disease, I embraced podcasting in its nascence.

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About 10 years ago, I launched a commercial podcast with experienced broadcaster Tony Lankester at the Mail & Guardian Online called “Between the Pages. It was a relative success for its time. We secured sponsorship from BMW and it ran for about a year. The then-editor of the newspaper, Ferial Haffajee, embraced this journey into the unknown enthusiastically and we did regular weekly news wraps, interviews and behind-the-scenes chats with journalists and commentators.

It was a big moment for us. We were living the “convergence dream”: a newspaper company now producing its own quality audio show with a veteran broadcaster, using the internet to cost-effectively create and distribute multimedia content.

But it fizzled out, and began to feel like hard work. The audience maxed out at about 2 000 subscribers… and both ourselves and the sponsors started to question whether all the effort was worth it. So we ended it, and I wrote off podcasts as something that was best left to a hardcore set of geeks.

Read more: 5 savvy podcasts you should listen while building a winning startup

I guess the problem was that we were way too early, and the technology was far from mature. The “hassle factor” that surrounded getting a podcast going was too high: Just too much fiddling, faffing, syncing, not to mention limited bandwidth. The fiddling issue became particularly amplified in your car, in which we spend that most hallowed of times for audio media: Drivetime. It was just much easier to turn on the radio, be a vegetable, and accelerate. Radio: 1, Podcasts: 0.

But that was 10 years ago, and things have changed dramatically. Something is happening in the world of podcasting that is propelling the medium convincingly into the mainstream.

Podcasts overseas are starting to secure listeners in the millions, attracting world-wide audiences and in some cases promising revenue. The Guardian reported at end of last year that in the US the number of unique monthly podcast listeners tripled to 75 million from 25 million five years ago. That’s pretty impressive.

So why is this medium, which has been dormant for so long, experiencing boom time? The answer lies in automotive, bandwidth, mobile and general technology advances across the world. Or to be precise, here are SEVEN reasons behind this resurgence:

1. Bluetooth Audio
New cars allow you to play music and sound from your mobile devices via your car sound system via Bluetooth, which lowers the “hassle factor”. There are no cords and your smartphone device syncs with your built-in car devices (mostly) seamlessly. Some newer cars allow you to select and browse your podcasts via your car’s interface, which makes it even easier.

2. Bandwidth
It’s an obvious point, but let’s say it: Increased and uncapped bandwidth has made audio downloads negligible both from a speed and a cost point of view. There are also more areas with increased connectivity, which is important because drivetime audio consumption (that has not been pre-downloaded) would require you to be connected during your drive. The experience has just become a whole lot more reliable in the last five years.

3. Better content
I’ll focus on this a bit later, but there has been an increase in professional podcasters that are really, really good. This is in stark contrast to the early days where many podcasts were amateurish and often just a guy and a mic and his dog. They were kind of like those early bloggers that were really bad, but a whole lot more catastrophic. These days many of the large podcasts operations boast significant infrastructure, large budgets, and good advertising and syndication income.

4. Smartphones
Smartphones and tablets have made it easier than ever before to find and browse the best podcasts, subscribe, download and listen to them. The smartphone revolution now means everyone is walking around with a radio in their pockets.

5. Dedicated Apple Podcasts app
In 2012, Apple took the podcast functionality out of its Music App and made “Podcasts” a mandatory, “non-deletable” app. While power users have had their various, own favourite podcast apps for years, this change has been introducing podcasting to a much wider audience. It’s a small change that made a big difference. When I moved the podcasts app to my homescreen, it was a note-to-self that I was now getting into this.

6. Connected car OSes
Both Google and Apple have rolled out connected-car platforms. These and others have yet to hit the mainstream, but as these types of car interfaces become commonplace it will become easier to find, subscribe and listen to podcasts without your mobile device, which again raises the convenience factor.

7. Fitness revolution
This may be an arguable point — but I think plays a part. Fitness has gone mainstream. While some like to listen to music while they work off calories, others like to listen to talk. Enter the podcast.

An alternative to radio
So every day, I do a two-hour long commute into work from a countryside suburb in the outskirts of Cape Town called Noordhoek, and it struck me: What am I doing with this precious commute time? Generally I would listen to “mass-appeal” radio. Some days a show resonates, some days not. Radio is a linear, one-to-many broadcast and it becomes vanilla (and sometimes bland) because it has to appeal to a mass audience and be all things to all people (or most things to most people). It’s often a hit and miss affair. So how do I get high-quality content during my drive time that is relevant and will help me be more productive? Enter the podcast.

Read more: The great internet radio swindle

In the old days, it was you and your radio. Now it’s you, your smartphone, and millions of good, bad and brilliant podcasts all over the world (not to mention thousands of online radio stations too). The powerful thing about a podcast is that, much like all content on the deep, dark web, listeners are able to find their niche to consume relevant, targeted content, no matter how obtuse or popular. There is a show for practically every interest out there. Advertisers also love to target niches , because they allow better targeting and therefore more effective advertising. There is also an “intimacy” about podcasting that radio may find difficult to replicate as a mass broadcaster, making the medium really appealing for listeners.

Local podcasters and radio broadcasters, online and traditional, will also feel competition like they have never felt before because their audiences now increasingly have options that include some of the best international audio (and video) content at their fingertips.

Read more: The future of radio is online, device-driven and in your car

For example, I am subscribed to US and UK-Based shows like This American Life, Serial, Startup, Radiolab, TED Talks, Harvard Business Review, BBC Tech Tent, the Financial Times and a host of entrepreneur and personal finance podcasts — all offering quality, targeted and productive content. And it is these that I listen to every morning as I do my (now productive) hour-long commute. Many of these podcasts have sponsors, and they are viable, sustainable enterprises.

And if you are doubting that podcasts have begun to hit the mainstream, Sarah Koenig’s rather addictive Serial podcast — which can only be described as ridiculously good — saw its first nine episodes reach about 2.2 million listeners each, making it the most popular podcast in the world. In fact CNNMoney says it has become the fastest to reach five million downloads or streams in iTunes history, in just over two months.

Read more: ‘Serial’ breaks iTunes record for fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams

You should also listen to a series called Startup. The brilliant podcast by Alex Blumberg documents the creation of his startup podcast company, and follows his journey from conceptualisation, to finding a partner, to raising finance (now backed by VC god Chris Sacca), to scaling his company. The podcast has secured a healthy 200 000 listeners after around 10 episodes and raised upwards of US$200 000.

When it comes to podcasts today, you’re spoiled for choice

I was, and I still am, a voracious Cape Talk and 702 listener, but when I’m not listening to the amazing John Maytham show or the Bruce Whitfield Money Show, I listen to a host of overseas podcasts. It’s competition for radio that will intensify over the next 10 years. It seems strange to say of a 10-year-old-plus medium that we are on the brink of a “new” revolution, but we really are.

Radio’s revival
You may think this spells the “end of radio” as a platform, but if there is any traditional medium that could “own” the podcasting revolution, it’s traditional radio broadcasters. Indeed some of the best and biggest podcasts out there have the old broadcast companies behind them, and the lines between what is “radio” and what is “podcasting” from a content and advertising point of view (but not a platform point of view) are increasingly blurring.

Radio companies have the talent, the content pedigree, understanding of audiences, the equipment (although podcasting gear is largely inexpensive), the experience, the sales infrastructure and heritage to duplicate and adapt existing shows or create entirely new shows as podcasts. They can then cross-promote their new podcasts to their large, existing audience bases on their traditional platforms.

Read more: Nobody killed anybody: the case for radio and video in the internet age

Many radio broadcasters (like Cape Talk or 702) offer their existing shows as podcasts so users can listen on demand and in their own time, but one feels that these traditional broadcasters need to go further to really capitalise from the podcast revolution. It’s their backyard, and there are upstarts that are taking them on. For traditional radio, podcasts offer three major opportunities: 1. An extra distribution platform for existing radio shows, 2. an opportunity to explore an endless number of niche shows, 3. an additional platform for advertising, sponsorship and syndication revenues.

There are also opportunities for non-radio media such as TV, print and online publishers because this new environment genuinely allows them to create an audio product that can attract significant audience and revenue at a low cost. (The challenge here of course is to produce compelling audio in media companies with no audio heritage.) This spells even more competition for radio.

Solid revenue model
Media of all shapes and sizes, but particularly radio broadcasters, could cash in from expanding their offerings to podcasting platforms. And this time it is different. Radio broadcasters will not have the same challenges that print media faced when attempting to monetise their products online. The big problem for print publishers was that their advertising model was not directly translatable in the internet space. For example, the banner ad has not quite cracked it as a flagship advertising format. But probably the biggest reason why print companies are struggling with online revenue generation is the Google and Facebook factor. The advertising offerings from these Silicon Valley behemoths are simply formidable, and as a result they are grabbing a massive slice of the marketing pie.

Lucky for radio, there is no Google and Facebook competing for audio advertising. And unlike print, advertising formats for podcasts are practically identical to that of traditional radio broadcasts. An audio ad on a radio station, is an audio ad on a podcast. It’s a slam-dunk.

In the not too distant future…
So imagine this: In the not too distant future a car that is not permanently connected to the internet will be a strange thing. In this future world, almost all cars will have podcast functionality baked into their advanced, glossy digital interfaces, much like radio has been baked into cars for the last 80 years. In this future, podcasting will be fully mainstream, and will be as easy to activate by a “flick” of a button like radio.

Radio broadcasters are in a prime position to capitalise. It’s a kind of “radio is dead, long live radio 2.0” scenario. Let’s hope traditional radio broadcasters get it. If they do, both listeners and their owners will prosper.

Matthew’s favourite podcasts:

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