‘You know the old saying, “Opinions are like arseholes, everybody’s got one.”? Well, podcasts are the new arseholes.’
So goes the best line from this excellent but scary Kitty Flanagan sketch. “Excellent” in the sense that it’s funny, and scary in that it neatly captures one of the main worries I’ve had about the medium for some time now.
So what’s the problem, and how do we change the game?
The democratisation of speech audio that podcasting brings is of course one of its main strengths –anyone can do it – whilst also being one of its Achilles’ heels – anyone can do it. Any celebrity who feels the world needs to hear more from them, any stand-up comedian who’s bored during daylight hours, any well-meaning hobbyist with first-world insights to share, and any pair of blokes who think they’re always the most fascinating people in the pub can get on their iphone in a reverberant room and knock out a podcast.
As with arseholes, most of these podcasts are really only of interest to their owners, and best kept private. [Note: that’s the end of the arsehole analogies*].
A constant stream of series involving two men talking to each other for a bit too long is not the future for a vibrant medium. Even if it's not a true reflection, the perception of delusional presenters and no quality filter is dangerous. However, now more than ever we have the chance to change this.
In some ways it will simply sort itself out. As with youtube, the delusional ones will carry on talking to themselves for free whilst the rest of us who know what we’re doing, with something to say, actual production skills, and hard-earned knowledge of how to build an audience will create a critical mass that takes the medium into the mainstream. But we can be, and have to be, more proactive than that.
Production really matters. One of the many astonishing things about Rachael Bland, aside from how much she was evidently loved by so many people, is that her national impact was largely achieved via a podcast. She combined the freedoms of the medium and, crucially, her own skills from 20 years as a radio broadcaster. Here we had a professional journalist with boundaries relaxed, a topic that grabbed you by the throat and a properly structured programme with planning, running orders, and an editor’s oversight. In the immediate aftermath of her death, this seem like a trite point, but Rachael didn’t accidentally make a great podcast, she produced a great programme. I hope she was proud of that.
The same is true of the corporate podcast work that my company, Fresh Air, makes for brands like The National Trust, Allianz Insurance and Deloitte. The audience might be niche, but in applying the rules of broadcast to podcasting and doing more than just a lazy message from the Chairman, we’re imparting useful information to a valuable audience in a professionally curated and crafted manner. This helps build perception of a quality medium with the podcast’s listeners and for those companies who commission us to make it.
As for the mass market, as this wonderful article from Tom Webster says, podcasts are a very long way from being mainstream yet, even in the US. His point is that Netflix’s breakthrough came through investment in must-see content. No matter what relative podcast successes we can point to, nobody in my local pub (the Hop Inn, Swindon) is talking about them yet. The next level demands something extraordinary.
And that’s where talent really matters. The way to get to the next level of podcasting’s evolution is to cut through the distinction between podcast stars and REAL stars. Don’t get me wrong, I love Adam Buxton as much as the next person, but he’s not going to change the game, and the Hop Inn regulars haven’t heard of him.
In the US, Spotify have signed up Amy Schumer for her own series. That’s more bloody like it. The moment that a proper British A-lister creates a podcast as their main project, not as a side-hustle, and, to be brutal about it, is paid six figures for it, will be the moment we see the dial move. The podcast purists might think it’s rather vulgar, but the halo effect will help everyone, and if you want to carry on making podcasts as a hobby for 40 listeners in Shoreditch, no one will stop you.
How do we do this? Teamwork matters. The industry is full of wonderful producers with great presenter contacts and barnstorming ideas, but who often either a) lack the full production facilities, structure and resources to make an epic programme; or perhaps more crucially b) lack the knowledge or brand/agency contacts that will take these ideas to the commercial market, convince a brand to buy the package and get the whole thing funded. The independent audio sector needs to stop sinking time into making free speculative projects on the off-chance that ad revenue that might eventually pay for it, and work together to create credible offerings for the big boys and girls with the big money.
At Fresh Air, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this, and we want to lead the charge. We think we have a plan, and, without being too grand, we think we can change the game. That idea you had in the shower but wouldn’t know how to get off the ground? We can make that huge. That chat you had with an agent but couldn’t get the money for? We want to work with you to make it happen. The time is right, and the conversations we’re having have never been more encouraging.
So production, talent, and teamwork. If you have those, get in touch and let’s create genre-defining stand-out content that’s more “shining star” than “chocolate starfish”.
*apart from the final line.