Almost two decades on from its creation, podcasting is open to listeners, content and huge growth potential.

Podcasting was born in July 2003, though it took more than another year for it to get a name. Nineteen years later, more than 40% of people in the US and the UK listened to and podcasts in the past month, according to research from Edison Research’s The Infinite Dial.

Podcasting is expected to be a billion-dollar advertising industry in the US, and globally is nudging $1.4-billion.

Online video has focused on a number of different platforms, with YouTube for user-generated content, with subscription content scattered around a variety of other apps and video services. In many parts of the world, households have more than one streaming video service: in Australia, as one example, many homes will have active subscriptions to Netflix, Disney+, Binge, Stan and Apple TV, each with their own catalogue of shows.

In contrast, podcasting has always been open. Technically, it’s pretty similar to the original podcast in 2003: an RSS feed with a link to an audio file. Apple’s adoption of the platform in 2005 added some much-needed consistency, with a requirement for images and some additional detail. To Apple’s credit, they didn’t close the platform off, keeping an open directory for anyone to use.

So, unlike the world of video, whatever podcast app you use will give you almost all the podcasts out there. If you’re a fan of National Public Radio’s (NPR) news quiz, Wait Wait! Don’t Tell Me, you’ll find it on any podcast app. Downloads come direct from NPR’s audio servers, which has the benefit of allowing the broadcaster to keep accurate statistics and monitor advertising on its own services, but also has the drawback of sometimes inconsistent listening experiences, since there’s not really anyone in charge.

It’s not radio-strength, yet

Podcasting may be popular, but it has a long way to go before it is as popular as the audio format that preceded it: live radio. Unlike podcasting’s roughly 40% weekly reach, radio still enjoys around 90% of people listening every week.

Radio has sought to benefit from podcasting by repackaging radio shows as podcasts. However, as the podcast industry matures in a given country, so the popular podcasts move away from reheated radio towards freshly prepared original content.

The future of podcasting appears to hinge on the lucky coincidence of a number of different things going on in the media. First, top 40 music is decreasing in popularity, as audiences splinter away from mass-market music toward more niche services. The amount of speech-based audio that younger audiences listen to has significantly increased.

Second, the mobile phone has replaced the radio receiver. While listening to live radio is perfectly possible on mobile phones through apps, it’s not something that appears to interest many people. You’d expect that to be the case: it’s the most interactive device we have access to, with a beguiling colour screen and always within arm’s reach, so it makes little sense to use it to connect to an unchangeable, immutable audio stream that you can’t control.

Third, younger audiences expect on-demand content. From YouTube and Spotify to Hulu and Netflix, the concept of waiting for a programme to start in a broadcast schedule is increasingly an alien one.

Podcasting, therefore, has seen significant growth, which will continue.

The rise of niche views

According to RAJAR’s Midas Audio Survey for winter 2021, headphones are now used to listen to podcasts (and their distant cousin, audiobooks) more than anything else.

Indeed, the same survey tells us that 94% of podcasts are consumed alone, significantly different to broadcast live radio, which is often listened to with other people.

There is also a lack of broadcast regulation on podcasts. They are still legally regulated, at least in terms of advertising law and that of libel, but since podcasts aren’t broadcast, the normal content rules that apply to radio don’t apply to them.

Thus, without regulation or overview, and knowing that they are unlikely to be overheard or commented on by others, podcasts can lead to more polarising views being given airtime.

The Joe Rogan Experience – a successful podcast that was exclusively licenced by Spotify for a reported three-year contract of R1.5-billion – has benefited from being comparatively invisible, in spite of apparently attracting more than 14-million listeners per episode. The non-mass-media views on this mass-media podcast took Spotify by surprise when musicians queued up to give the platform a kicking for carrying views widely dubbed misinformation.

Rogan isn’t alone, though. If you want an easy story, just search a platform like Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify for racially offensive terms or problematic subject areas. They’ll all be there, because of podcasting’s open ecosystem.

The future

Podcasting will continue to grow. It’s attractive to some companies because they can use podcasting as a content incubator and sell the IP of the shows that succeed to movie or TV producers (or books, or live tours).

The attraction for others is that audio can be easy to make: all you need is a microphone and some free editing software, and you can be on the same platform, and in the same app, as Joe Rogan or CliffCentral.

Podcasting’s history has been good to it and to audio in general. While we’ll see more big money in podcasting in future, that may just be hiding the true, grassroots nature of the platform.

Podcasting in South Africa

Most data will show you that podcast consumption in South Africa is currently behind countries like the US and UK. Part of this is due to the higher price of broadband and mobile phone data in the country, which has a cooling effect on all online services. Part of it may be the tight ownership rules for South African commercial radio companies, virtually guaranteeing a monopoly for them, though this could be seen as an opportunity for them to expand into the less regulated world of podcasting. However, South Africa is also relatively advanced in terms of having a number of podcasting studio networks making branded podcasts, which are wholly produced for individual companies and carry advertising for them. Former radio presenters are now making names for themselves as podcast hosts, like MacG, who is also similar to Rogan in controversial subject matter. For South African podcasts, however, perhaps the real long-term opportunities lie outside out borders. As podcasts continue to grow everywhere, content that is popular locally could find an audience across the continent, or even further afield. Particularly for English-language shows, which have the majority of listeners, the world could be listening.

James Cridland is editor of Podnews.net, a daily email briefing about podcasting and on-demand audio. He has worked in radio and audio since 1989, in the UK, North America and Europe, and now lives in Australia. Twitter: @jamescridland


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