I reviewed the last year in podcasting and concluded that it was one in which the medium had a growth spurt in production, attention and investment. Looking forward to 2014 this is the year that podcast listening needs to become easy and ubiquitous.
I mentioned how I’ve come to think that the supposed discovery problem–that it’s hard to find podcasts to match your interests–is overstated. Rather I think that podcasting’s most significant hurdle is that there is still just a little too much friction in the system. While it is easier than ever to play your smartphone or tablet audio in the car, through a bluetooth speaker or your home stereo, podcasts are not as front and center, nor as obvious, as other online media.
Because the car is the site of so much radio listening, much has been said about making podcasts more accessible in the smart dashboard. I think this is an important step forward for podcasting, but it’s not what I want to focus on here.
I think podcasts have to be more accessible at home. Sure, they’re easy to find on a computer or smartphone, but they need to make the big leap onto the device that most Americans turn on for some 34 hours a week. This is not instead of better connectivity in the car or improved mobile device listening, but in tandem. Or, more precisely, synchronized, so that one can go from listening in the office, to the car and back into any room at home, pausing and restarting as necessary.
A Moment of Reflection
Thinking about the trajectory of podcasting in the coming year it’s important to reflect on the sheer wonder of being able to enjoy to Marc Maron on your morning commute, catch up with Welcome to Nightvale’s cutting edge radio drama on the stationary bike at the gym and learn about the latest in practical economic research while doing dishes listening to Freakonomics Radio. For those who love radio and audio programming, podcasting is truly phenomenal.
But it’s not just about finding cutting edge comedians, or the most talked about new shows. I believe podcasting truly has democratized radio production and distribution in the tradition of community and college radio, but going further. A producer can now reach the world, not just a city, without the restrictions of a schedule or broadcast license, using just a laptop (or tablet) and a microphone. It’s not perfect nor perfectly accessible, but this opportunity must not be underestimated.
That’s why podcast producers and fans are glad to see the influx of attention and investment in the medium, especially this past year. Quite simply, we think more people would enjoy and benefit from podcasts if they only knew about them and how to listen. Yet, it’s kind of vexing that even with 241 million weekly radio listeners in the US, it seems like more people watch online video with Hulu or Netflix than listen to podcasts.
This is the gap I would like to see podcasting bridge in 2014. The good news is that we’re closer than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that reaching the other side is guaranteed nor imminent.
The Hulu and Netflix of Podcasting
I use Hulu and Netflix as examples quite purposely. The simple fact is that we do not yet have the Hulu or Netflix of podcasting. We don’t have that nearly ubiquitous portal that lets us enjoy podcasts across nearly all our digital devices.
Now I can already hear the veteran podcast enthusiasts warming up their typing fingers to tell me how I must be ignorantly ignoring apps like Stitcher, Swell and BeyondPod, portals like TuneIn Radio and DAR.fm, or dedicated apps from podcast networks. Please, believe me, I’m not ignoring these and many other great tools, nor am I trying to understate their value.
But just go talk to a couple dozen people who own smartphones, tablets or laptops and ask them how you watch movies and TV shows online and nearly every one of them will say Netflix, Hulu or both. Then ask them how one might access podcasts. Unless they are already podcast listeners, my bet is that some iOS users will mention Apple’s own Podcast app, and maybe Stitcher will come up. Given a bit more time to think a few more folks will dip into the recesses of their mind to fathom a pretty good guess. However I seriously doubt that the majority will instantaneously tick off podcast apps or platforms the same way that Netflix will roll off their tongues.
The beauty of Netflix and Hulu is that you can watch them on a smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, Roku, Chromecast, AppleTV, TiVo or smart TV and get pretty much the same experience and content. Same thing with YouTube for cat videos. When it comes to online music I think Pandora has also accomplished this same level of ubiquity, with apps or channels on seemingly every internet connected device known to humans.
This doesn’t mean you can’t listen to podcasts on all of these devices. Any podcast fan can figure out how to pull up a ’cast one way or another. For instance, while doing research for this post I discovered that there are several ways to access podcasts on a Roku set-top box. The TuneIn Radio channel lets you search and hear podcasts in addition to live radio streams. DAR.fm is also available on Roku, as are plenty of network channels, like CNBC, which include podcasts amongst their program lineups.
Chromecast users with Android devices can access podcasts using the BeyondPod app, and Apple TV owners can use the iTunes Store or send audio directly from their MacOS or iOS devices using AirPlay. These examples are just a drop in the bucket of the many ways one might listen to podcasts on a device other than a smartphone or computer. Clearly, listening to podcasts at home, at work, in the car or on the go is not a problem for the podcast fan. Yet, it still seems like there is one step too many for potential podcast fan.
We need the Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or Pandora of podcasting. There are many candidates for this role, but none of them is yet prominent or ubiquitous enough to qualify.
Enter the Living Room (and Bedroom, and Kitchen…) TV
I emphasize these platforms because the television is the entertainment center for the majority of people, and these platforms are so widely available as to be nearly ubiquitous. Whether it’s part of a full-blown home theater, or just connected to a cable box and wi-fi, the TV has replaced the home stereo, and in many cases, the home radio. Most decent new TVs have Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Pandora built right in, so you don’t even need to buy another device.
In most homes there isn’t just one TV. It’s common to find sets in every bedroom, the kitchen and the garage (if not the bathroom). Therefore I think it’s critical to make podcasts easy to access on this most central of home media devices.
These platforms are also particularly good about remembering what you were watching or listening to, and where you paused or left off. You can start streaming a Netflix movie on your iPhone while riding the bus, then pause it and resume watching hours later at home on your TV. That kind of frictionless ubiquity needs to come to podcasting.
Bring on the Apps and Channels
There are a lot of ways that this might happen. An app like Stitcher–which has started being integrated in smart car dashboards–or Swell could make more inroads into smart TVs and set-top boxes, following the trail blazed by Pandora. Apps like these already do a good job of tracking your listening and keeping your place.
Or, perhaps podcasts could become available in an already familiar app like Hulu or Pandora, minimizing the number of different platforms a user has to manage. At least on Hulu, you already can find podcasts that have video versions, like Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, as well as short-form series content that is awfully podcast-like. On a platform like Hulu someone might search for a comedian or celebrity and find their podcast appearances listed beside their talk show guest spots.
Podcasters and podcast networks could take matters into their own hands by establishing their own channels and apps for TV-connected devices. Imagine if someone could easily find a TWiT.tv, Earwolf or even NPR podcast right on their Roku or smart TV menu.
Of course, steps like these require investment of both time and money. The likes of Pandora or Hulu are much better funded than any independent podcast network in existence. These companies have the resources to make deals with manufacturers and develop the necessary applications. And, who knows if there is an incentive for one of these existing platforms to take on all these other producers.
Still, there are new opportunities on the horizon. This week’s Consumer Electronics Show has brought announcements of open platforms for TVs and set-top boxes from Panasonic, LG and AT&T, based on Firefox, WebOS and Android, respectively. In theory this should make it easier to bring independent content into the living room.
Expanding Opportunities to Communicate
At this point I don’t think that downloaded internet audio programs are going to disappear, whether we call them “podcasts” or not. Podcasting can continue to survive as a niche medium, and I’m sure that there are producers and listeners would be just as happy for this to happen. Kind of like punk rock, sometimes you don’t want to share your media with the mainstream. And, sometimes an influx of attention and money threatens what you love about it.
I’m sympathetic to such a “punk rock” point of view. But it’s podcasting’s potential to put broadcasting tools into more hands to distribute programs to more people that makes me care about the future of the medium. This is why I think it’s important for podcasting to grow and thrive, not remain a niche for comedy nerds, tech geeks and hip NPR listeners.
When it becomes even easier for a Netflix, Hulu or Pandora fan to become a podcast listener, then I believe this increases the chances that a marginalized voice speaking through a podcast might be heard by someone new. Even with podcasting’s current popularity it’s not too hard for a single independent episode to reach more listeners than a show on a broadcast college or community station.
I only want to see this opportunity grow, and I think that more innovation, increased accessibility and more public attention the medium will bring more people to the party. Yes, there is also the threat that attention and money could spoil the game, too. But not if independent-minded podcasters work together and support each other. In that way podcasting isn’t so different from community radio or indie rock.
Closing the accessibility gap is not the only challenge podcasting faces, but it is one of the most important ones. I’ll continue to address and report on other challenges, ideas and opportunities throughout the year.
We cover podcasting news and analysis every Wednesday in our Podcast Survivor feature.
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