I started listening to podcasts in 2012 and the ones I’ve listened to most are all American. They include Stuff You Should Know, 99% Invisible and Death, Sex & Money. For the longest time, I didn’t know any Australians who listened regularly and had trouble sharing my experience. I felt like a silent member of a distant society of NPR tote-bag carrying American liberals, beautiful nerds who confound our podcast-muggle friends with our enthusiasm for long commutes.
This feeling changed slowly for a while until it was well and truly shattered mid-this year as I got involved with All The Best and went to Audiocraft’s inaugural awards night. And the change was completed when I attended OzPod 2016 (Australia’s first podcast conference) at ABC’s Ultimo location on Friday 30 September. This is my review of OzPod 2016 which, by the way, you can listen to in its entirety here.
First off, there is a true diversity of Australians out there listening, making and thinking very hard about podcasts – 1 in 5 of us, apparently, according to self-proclaimed ‘radio futurologist’ James Cridland who presented Session 1. The Australian and now The Age have followed the wildly successful Serial into the true crime genre, Mia Freedman’s Mamamia Podcast Network is well-established, even Hamish & Andy, Osher Günsberg and the NRL are on the scene. All have pretty sizable followings. I’ve clearly been living under a rock.
Perhaps an excuse for my ignorance is that no one put me on to Australian podcasts to me and podcasts are pretty difficult to share in the first place. As it turns out, all pod-fans grapple with the same problem: Getting friends and family to listen. Indeed, Manoush Zomorodi, OzPod’s keynote speaker (she knocked it out of the park, by the way, watch Session 4 here) and host of WNYC’s Note To Self, admitted to taking people’s phones from them to download her show for them*! Additionally, Serial, one of the most successful podcasts of all time, have a page on their website dedicated to educating people on how to listen to podcasts.
Main takeaway from #OzPod2016 so far: don't get into podcasting for the 💵 but, boy, isn't podcasting amazing!
— Tim Siow (@TimSpricht) September 30, 2016
A second theme is that the podcast industry struggles with explaining its value. The tendency is to focus on its monetary value, but this is proving problematic. Across digital media like display (e.g. page views), video (e.g. YouTube, catch-up TV) and social (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), you can easily track the unique reach and engagement of your content. You can even give advertisers in-depth demographic breakdowns of your audience. Podcasts are more complicated as there isn’t as much accurate data on what happens after an episode is downloaded. Was the podcast ever listened to? Did the listener skip through the ads?
Therefore, advertising on podcasts are often sold on the cheap if you do it programmatically (CPMs** can be as low as $6-22) and you need a large audience to even get it. Cameron Reilly (who produces Life of Caesar) cites Libsyn (a podcast hosting service) in Session 5: If your episodes can garner 1,400 downloads within 30 days of publication, you’re doing better than 80% of all podcasts that use Libsyn. With 4,000 downloads, you’re beating 90% and 10,000 downloads gets you into the top 5%. Advertisers don’t want to work with you unless you’re in this final bracket.
#OzPod2016 confession: I've never listened to a crime podcast. But I'm hearing over and over it's like steroids for investigative journalism
— Tim Siow (@TimSpricht) September 30, 2016
The natural follow-up question, then, is how do you make money from podcasting? Reilly asserts that podcasters who want to make money should move towards a freemium/subscription model, with advertising just supplying the cherry on top. This comes from twelve years’ experience producing podcasts and is the topic of his recent book (click here for more).
Matt Saraceni (writer, producer & performer and Head of Content at Omny Studio) takes a different view, one that’s more future-focused: Podcasters are not using the right analytics and are undervaluing their product from the get-go. Instead of downloads, they should perhaps be talking about engagement and the return on investment they can deliver. After all, this is the true power of podcasts: it is an intentional activity. As Patricia Karvelas illustrates it in Session 6, if you’re listening to ABC Radio in your car and they start interviewing Christopher Pyne, you might continue listening for a while and decide later if you want to keep going. But if you saw a Christopher Pyne interview come up in your podcast feed, would you press download and listen?
Podcasts are capable of creating strong, engaged communities that can have real-world influence. Take, for example, The Australian’s true-crime podcast Bowraville. Dan Box, the podcast’s dreamy creator, reflects in Session 6 on how they were able to impact on the official treatment of the Bowraville murders. The Age’s Phoebe’s Fall, which investigates the brutal death of Phoebe Handsjuk, looks destined to achieve a similar effect. It received about 180,000 unique page views for its first episode. Saraceni believes more podcasts should be able to sell advertising in the $80-100 CPM bracket like your Bloombergs and your Gimlets. Currently, advertising on Phoebe’s Fall prices in the region of $40-60.
— Meghna Bali (@meghnabali) September 30, 2016
The facts are that podcasting is still developing, there are still kinks to iron out and no one knows how much the industry will grow. Session 7 featured comedian Meshel Laurie, Triple J presenter Kyran Wheatley and was moderated by the ABC’s Zoe Norton-Lodge. The trio’s discussion was all about comedy, creating entertaining content and why they love what they do. They provided the perfect antidote to Session 5’s four white men talking about money (the Twittersphere suggests that didn’t go down well). They reminded us to keep dreaming, to keep trying and to enjoy the process. Content will always be king.
While it of course helps, you don’t need a lot of capital to get into the podcasting game (for now, anyway). Even without high production values, it’s possible to attract a committed audience if you fill a niche and do it well. The Outer Sanctum is six Melbourne women who love watching and discussing AFL (Alicia Sometimes, on the panel for Session 6 is one of them). The Worst Idea Of All Time is just two Kiwi dudes who watch the same bad movie every week for a whole year and podcasting about their experience. And, who knows, maybe you’ll get picked up by a major network like Science Vs (which was poached from the ABC by Gimlet) or Millennial (a passion project which got picked up by Radiotopia).
My final thought on OzPod 2016 is a bit of a curveball. At the bar afterwards, I was talking with a bunch of guys of varying podcast backgrounds. One of them was making fun of an eccentric older man who had come up to him and asked him this: “What does a podcast consist of?” “Talking, music and found sounds”, he replied. “That’s correct. But what are most podcasts made of? Think about it…”
The older man’s point is that the conversation about podcasts – indeed, the entire OzPod conference – is dominated by podcasts that are voice-driven. Music and found sounds might help set the scene but they’re rarely the principal storytellers in podcasts. As the other blokes around the table were too busy laughing into their schooners, I was thinking about The World According To Sound. As TWATS producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett describe themselves: “We’re a 90-second radio show that tells stories with sounds instead of, well, stories”. For more insight into their short and sweet podcast, listen to their interview on HowSound, which is a podcast by Transom and PRX on how to make great audio.
Lots of things were discussed on the day but these were the five things that stood out to me most at OzPod 2016. For more notes on the OzPod conference, check out Zacha Rosen and Evana Ho’s post on the Bello Collective or James Cridland’s OzPod highlights posted on Radioinfo. If you’ve got any feedback, I’d love to hear from you via firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimSpricht. I write intermittently, to never miss a post, fill out the form at the top-right of your page. And, finally, thanks for reading!
*I just did this for my Mum and she’s loving Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead and All In The Mind from the ABC. She also finally listened to my debut pod, which she was really proud of – gotta love mums!
**Stands for “cost per mille” or “cost per thousand” impressions. That is, the cost of delivering your ad one thousand times (Wikipedia).
— Peter Black (@peterjblack) September 30, 2016