Why the second coming of podcasting is paying off
Not constrained by the straight-jackets of airtime or column inches, podcasting offers media brands additional ways to engage with audiences
On the night of December 28, 1978, Elizabeth Andes, a 23-year old college student from Oxford, Ohio, was murdered in her apartment. Some 37 years later the case remains unsolved after police investigating the murder targeted the wrong man, Bob Young, the victim's boyfriend.
Now Amber Hunt, an investigative reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, is looking for answers. Hunt's quest for the truth, however, is not to be found on the pages of the paper she works for or indeed one of the many indistinguishable "real-life" TV channels that lurk past number 150 on the electronic programme guide (EPG). Instead, it forms the compelling narrative of a podcast called 'Accused' which has been produced by Hunt, her photo-journalist colleague Amanda Rossmann, and the team at the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper.
For the past few weeks, 'Accused' has topped the podcast download charts and has been praised from the journalistic heights for its courageous investigative reporting.
But it follows in the footsteps of 'Serial', a 12-episode podcast in which journalist Sarah Koenig investigates the circumstances behind the case of a murdered Baltimore teen, Hae Min Lee, in 1999 and the possible wrongful incarceration of her boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
'Serial,' which completed its second series earlier this year, is a spin-off from This American Life, a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners.
While they may have a common whodunnit theme, they are also responsible for breathing new life into a media genre that has had more false dawns than the England football team.
Podcasting (or audio blogging as it was first known as) has been around since 2000, and ever since then the sheer amount of content that has been created is mind-blowing. When Apple added podcasts to its iTunes line-up in 2004, they went mainstream.
Apple still leads the way with about 65pc of all downloads globally, but the podcasting turf is shared by parvenu players like Soundcloud, Stitcher and, more recently, Google Play.
For media companies, podcasting opens up a new way of providing engaging content to-go that often complements what they are producing online, offline and on the airwaves.
Most Irish radio stations, for example, have been operating in the podcasting space for years. Not surprisingly, they have access to a ready-made reservoir of audio content which can be spliced, diced and pushed out through their websites and various distribution platforms.
In addition, all the main Irish news brands also have a fairly strong podcast offering. In the case of independent.ie, for example, the podcast armoury covers everything from business and sport to politics and celebrity interviews.
So where's the money?
Given the unicast nature of podcasting, they obviously lend themselves towards sponsorship and advertising. With the right metrics and user analytics in place, however, additional revenues may flow from dynamic ad insertion in the near future. Some of the bigger podcast players in the USA like Gimlet Media, for example, are already exploring this as a monetisation option.
According to Jane Madden, head of strategy with media agency Vizeum: "Most of the quality podcasts have some form of sponsorship from brands and their message is generally delivered by the podcast presenter in a low-key, minimally produced, personal way.
"It's a throwback to the early days of advertising in the US, where the presenter introduced 'a word from our sponsor'. The tolerance for these messages is quite high as there is a clear understanding that it is only with the sponsor's help that the podcast is possible. This commercial relationship, in my view, is not as overt as it is in the TV or video content arena."
She also points out that because of the relatively low cost of production, the quality of podcasts can vary considerably. "Niche interests can be catered to with a high standard of content, which can deliver hugely committed, however small, audiences. Brands need to tread very carefully when venturing into these territories to ensure the brand content they offer matches these high expectations," she says.
Although podcasting may never achieve the same reach as newspapers, TV or radio, there is every reason to believe that it will endure. Not only are podcasting firms in the USA attracting investment from the VC community, but more and more media brands are taking the format seriously as a means of reaching an increasingly mobile and audio literate audience. Add to this the arrival of the "connected car", where as much as 40pc of audio consumption takes place, and it's possible to see an even brighter future.
But more fundamentally, podcasting offers a return to the intimacy of words and sounds that are integral to good story-telling. For a nation that has story-telling woven tightly into its social fabric, this is a good thing.
Sunday Indo Business