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Podcast Survivor: 2013 – The year in podcasting

This was the year podcasting crested puberty and had its teenage growth spurt. Two statistics make this point clear. Apple reported the milestone of one billion podcast subscriptions through iTunes in July. A recent Pew Research Center poll says that 27% of internet users download or listen to podcasts. That percentage was just 6% in 2006, the year of podcasting’s first birthday.

This kind of growth is fueled by the work of producers, talent and entrepreneurs who are investing in podcasting as a sustainable medium, not just a diversion. Since launching the weekly Podcast Survivor feature this fall I’ve been giving a lot of serious consideration to the many factors affecting, driving and complicating podcasting’s future. This is important for Radio Survivor because, in the same way that platforms like Hulu and Netflix represent the future of television, podcasting represents the future of radio.

I was honored recently to be invited by Earwolf CEO Jeff Ullrich to be on an episode his Wolf Den podcast which focuses on the business of podcasting. He is asking some very well informed and challenging questions about what it takes to grow the medium. It’s only been a couple of weeks since we recorded that interview and already his line of inquiry has caused me to reconsider some of my thoughts about the speed bumps that lay in front of podcasting.

I will review the year in podcasting in two parts. Next week I will draw out the roadmap for where I think podcasting needs to go in the next year. In this week’s installment I look at the important developments in podcasting during 2013.

Building Sustainability

Like a newborn, podcasting got lots of attention when it first burst on the scene in 2005, but pretty much fell off the mainstream media radar for the next six or seven years. It’s not like they stopped being produced or people stopped listening. Rather, there just wasn’t a meteoric rise in production and audience of the sort that sustains constant press attention.

Yet podcasting continued to mature as a medium. More producers entered the arena, many forming networks of shows around topics like comedy and tech. In turn, this brought in listeners who could more easily find programs about their interests. When a critical mass of comedians–who are much closer to the mainstream media than tech bloggers–took to podcasting the medium was dragged back into the spotlight.

But press attention alone does not signal the maturity of a medium. As I argued earlier this year, podcasting’s future depends on it becoming sustainable. This requires that podcasters have the opportunity to make at least part of their living from their productions. It means podcasting has to go from being a hobby or an activity promoting some other media venture to being an end in itself. 2013 was the year when this became a more realistic expectation for podcasters, while listeners could depend on a rapidly expanding catalog of well-produced programs.

Networks Mark Maturity

Importantly, this year saw more talent, support and capital flow into the medium. Perhaps the biggest launch of the year was PodcastOne, the creation of broadcasting entrepreneur Norman J. Pattiz, who founded the original Westwood One in 1978, which grew to become the country’s largest radio network. The PodcastOne network brings in a long roster of mainstream radio and entertainment talent, from professional wrestler Jericho and author Bret Easton Ellis to sportscaster Pat O’Brien and fitness guru Jillian Michaels. One of the biggest objectives behind aggregating these programs together is to make them more attractive to advertisers, who currently provide much of the funding for professionally produced podcasts.

PodcastOne is far from the first podcast network to emerge. It’s notable because it marks the entrance of a veteran broadcaster along with the investment and well-known names he is able to bring. While a crucial element of podcasting is its very low barrier to entry, ventures like PodcastOne have the potential to attract wider audiences who might go on to discover other original podcasts from less well-known producers. Whether or not this becomes a reality is yet to be seen.

Another important development was the launch of the Midroll podcast advertising agency. Founded by Earwolf Media’s Jeff Ullrich, the Midroll’s purpose is to match advertisers with podcasts, while providing the kind of administrative support that advertisers expect but individual podcasters have difficulty providing on their own. While the Midroll was created by the CEO of a major podcast network, it provides service to both independent podcasts and ones on other networks. In the same way that blog advertising networks helped make blogging a sustainable medium, platforms like the Midroll can do the same for podcasting.

Just like publishing and broadcasting, all of podcasting cannot rely on advertising alone for support. There are many reasons why some podcasts don’t want to or cannot take advertisements. And so models like donations, crowd-funding and subscriptions will have to mature as well. Nevertheless, making podcast advertisements more accessible for producers and advertisers alike in a vital step.

The Apps Have It

We also saw fresh attention to podcast apps in 2013. The Swell app debuted this year, focusing on news programming and boasting partnerships with NPR and American Public Media, along with venture capital funding from the likes of paid blogging pioneer Jason Calacanis. Many in the tech community are anxiously awaiting a new podcast app announced by popular tech blogger, podcaster and Instapaper creator Marco Arment in September at the XOXO Festival.

Building on Foundational Groundwork

All of this year’s developments are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, building on the hard work of the pioneering producers and networks that steadily grew this medium. We wouldn’t have PodcastOne, The Midroll and Swell without the success of comedians like Adam Carolla and Mark Maron, comedy and pop-culture focussed networks like Nerdist, Earwolf and SModCo, or tech-heavy networks like 5by5 and TWiT. Public radio’s contribution has also been critical, whether its the podcast versions of popular programs like This American Life, or the hybrid approach of Maximum Fun.

Some commentators still see the complexity of finding and downloading podcasts to be a barrier to finding a wider audience. This drives the new generation of podcasting apps. But also many podcasters and networks have their own mobile apps to assist listeners find their favorite programs.

After talking with Ullrich about this on the Wolf Den podcast I’m becoming convinced that discovery isn’t as problematic as it is made out to be. I’ll be discussing this point more in part two of this review. Yet, further innovation on the listening side of the equation is important for podcasting’s future.

Next week, in part two, I’ll look at the hurdles that I think podcasting needs to jump in order to become a more widespread medium.

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