Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
December 24, 201411:04 PM

The Thing About Serial And The Golden Age Of Podcasting

"Did you catch the season finale of Serial?"

If you're into podcasting (like I am), there is not a finer opening liner than the one above. Podcasting has arrived! (as some in the mass media are now proclaiming). Others (like me) could have told you that podcasting has been "arriving" for close to ten years. This week, people will be walking around with that same face of sadness and disillusionment that they have when it's the season finale of Sons of Anarchy. We have come to the end of the first season for Serial. Serial is an audio podcast series produced by the same people that bring us This American Life. While the podcast season was only nine episodes, it became a massive sensation. Depending on who you ask, the data looks something like this: over five million downloads/streams, with about 1.5 million listeners per episode. To put that into perspective, HBO's crazy popular new show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (which I love!) captured 796,000 viewers for it's season finale. The difference, of course, is that it cost the producers of Serial absolutely nothing for their distribution (let alone the marketing costs).

Don't think that those numbers mean nothing.

Mass media pundits will still look at these numbers with an air of disillusionment. Like they are still not significant when compared to the opening weekend of a big Hollywood blockbuster or what a brand can expect when advertising on network television during prime time, but the world is changing. Quickly. TV is not just about prime time. Hollywood is not just about big opening weekends. We now have specialty television and cable television. We now have Netflix... and all of their competitors. It's a new day, and the consumer has many more choices. This fragmentation and movement towards niche segments is not letting up. In fact, take one look at what's happening on YouTube, and it becomes painfully plain to see: even the most obscure of niches can now pull a significant audience. It's not uncommon to see a YouTube celebrity with a loyal subscriber base of over five million fans. Yes, we're seeing a mass audience in these strange niches.

Serial is not the anomaly.

If anything, Serial is simply a strong poster child for media's changing landscape. It's true, people like Adam Carolla and Joe Rogan have been pulling in some pretty impressive audience numbers - for some time - with their respective podcasts, but it's also well-known that even the biggest podcasting celebrities aren't making big coin from making their shows. The money - for most creative talent in podcasting - is in using the platform to sell the listener something else (a live event, a t-shirt, a book, whatever). This is where those serious media pundits cringe. They want to see real advertising revenue - and talent being paid - because there is so much money being made on this massive/captive audience.

It's coming. It's starting. It's happening.

There are two reasons why podcasting is starting to take off. I refer to this at "The Two 'T's of Podcasting":

'T' number one: Technology. The technology to find, subscribe and download to a podcast has finally arrived. Podcasts used to be a buried link - somewhere - on iTunes. Unless you knew what you were looking for (and what a 'podcast' was), it was not easy to find. Even if you could find them, subscribing, plugging in your iPod, synching your device, etc... was cumbersome and easy to ignore. For years, podcasting really was for the hardcore users (like ham radio). Apple now has a stand-alone app for podcasts and platforms like Stitcher and SoundCloud are familiarizing an audience with the power of this audio format. Smartphones and the cloud are also pushing this through to a much broader audience, because the experience is that much more seamless. As technology gets easier to use, so too goes podcasting.

'T' number two: Talent. As the medium gets more mature, we're seeing an influx of two types of talent. One, the people who have been experimenting with the podcasting format for some time have moved from being real indie players to getting very comfortable and clever behind the microphone. They're getting better at editing, building compelling audio and more. Two, serious talent from radio, television and the movie industry are stopping to sneer at podcasting as a negligible format and starting to realize what the potential truly is. Talent drives media. Nothing new to that, but we're now seeing the "serious" talent starting to take podcasting seriously.

Maybe it is the Golden Age of Podcasting.

It's hard to know if this is the moment. It's hard to know if the moment has already past. It's hard to know if it's still just around the corner. History will tell. But, here's what I do know - as someone who has been podcasting every single week for over eight and a half years: let's not allow podcasting to become too much like radio. We already have radio. The promise (and opportunity) of podcasting is our ability to use this format to experiment with audio content in a new (and different) way. My podcast, Six Pixels of Separation is a hour-long conversation with a leader in business. No commercial breaks. An hour. Pow. It's a commitment. A serious one. Especially, if you're going to listen to it every week. I do shows this long, because that's how long the natural course of the conversation goes. I'm hoping that this type of audio is not the type of content that you can get anywhere else. I'm also hopeful that other podcasters approach their shows with a similar ethos. Then, at some point in the future, we can look back and marvel at just how exciting and interesting the format is, instead of wondering if we're in the golden era or not.

What do you think?

By Mitch Joel

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