Perhaps the most common word that comes up in my daily life these days as senior arts editor at KQED is “podcast.”
Ever since the This American Life spinoff podcast Serial stormed the digital airwaves, it seems like my industry has been seized by the idea that the format will somehow do for public radio what Downtown Abbey has done for public TV.
But what role is public media likely to end up playing in the podcast arena? Will the industry ultimately serve as a producer of original podcasts or rather see the podcasting medium as a way to deliver content along the same lines as it’s done for a long time?
Along with many of my colleagues across the organization, I’ve been listening to a lot — and I mean a lot — of podcasts lately. We’re on the hunt for bankable material. Some of the content I’ve listened to has been produced in-house, and some has gravitated my way from the outside.
The podcast drive comes at a time when the future looks bleak for traditional radio as we know it. It may not be too long before we have an RIP FM situation on our hands. (Norway was recently the first country to announce that it would unplug in 2017.)
And just like iTunes proved that consumers prefer to buy music by the single rather than the album, so signs are pointing to the “a la carte” approach for other kinds of audio content: Listeners want to pick and choose what to listen to rather than be fed what’s what in the order that’s given. The development of NPR One, NPR’s online is a move to respond to this appetite for content delivery.
So, with the death knell potentially sounding for FM, it makes sense for public media organizations to be jumping on the podcasting bandwagon with particular verve. After all, professionals who produce content for our ears on a daily basis ought, by rights, to have the best handle on leading the podcast revolution, right?
Perhaps and perhaps not.
While we public media pros might have some advantages over non radio people creating podcasting material out there, such as access to professional recording facilities and engineers, it strikes me that we’re still at the very early stages of understanding the format.
One basic question that I’m grappling with is: Should a podcast be an extension of / interchangeable with what already appears on public media? Or should it be its own particular product? I mean, Serial could have worked just as well as a radio series, and in fact relied on the This American Life brand name and distribution platform for its launch and ensuing runaway success.
I’ve been of the basic opinion up until now that a podcast isn’t a radio show and that it should differentiate itself somehow in content and style. A podcast can cover esoteric ground that mainstream radio can’t so easily program; it can run at any length rather than having to be wedged into a timeframe that fits the NPR clock; its creators don’t have to adhere to the buttoned-up, family-friendly NPR style.
But the “secret sauce” of podcasting remains largely elusive, and we currently have a vast number of podcasts that are, frankly, tiring on the ear: Creators think that saying “like” and “sorta” and “um” every other word frees up the style, when instead the talk just sounds sloppy. Not having to adhere to a strict timeframe leads to long-windedness and an excuse to do little or no pre-production and editing. And podcasters don’t realize that it’s not enough to be passionate and knowledgeable about 1950s Georgia bluesmen, French cheese or Beyonce’s latest outfit; they need to be able to communicate this passion in a way that is meaningful to people other than themselves.
Many of the podcast ideas I’ve seen emerge in public media land doubtless benefit from high quality production and storytelling chops. The producers know to keep the uptick from their voices. And they know how to construct a traditional narrative and use a perky theme tune. But the fact is, I’ve yet to come across a project prototype or concept that truly makes my ears prick up. I fear that many ideas (both generated by the traditional public media mill and elsewhere in the podcast-o-sphere) appear to rehash old tropes like the variety show, the mini-documentary and the three-way conversation.
Which leads me to wonder how this will all shake out: Will public media be a major creative source for the audio content experience in the digital age, or will its greatest strength lie in offering what it’s always offered — the only major difference being the delivery method?
And if that’s the case, then maybe the innovation in terms of content and style will mostly in the end come from elsewhere. And perhaps public media will go on to act as a formidable launching and branding platform to get the ideas out to the biggest possible audience.