Podcasts have a serious discovery problem.
As a medium, it’s hot right now. It’s building loyal and potentially lucrative communities around niche topics. Independent producers are finding success, fame and even a little money. But as a technology and an industry, podcasting has failed at connecting people with content in a dynamic and efficient way. There’s no Spotify for podcasting.
When it comes to podcasts, people are just lost. They don’t know where to start.
Late this summer, a party-crashing podcast appeared. After about a year of modest growth, Welcome to Night Vale suddenly unseated This American Life from the No. 1 spot in iTunes’ Top 10 List. For a virtual unknown like Night Vale, this is a huge accomplishment.
So what, exactly, is so special about this show?
It’s been described as “NPR meets The Twilight Zone,” but that doesn’t do it much justice. Set up as a radio drama in the guise of a small-town public affairs program, Night Vale‘s host Cecil Baldwin’s genial baritone drives the show as its only speaking character.
In the titular, desert town of Night Vale, angels are real, and the world government circles above in black helicopters and mysterious lights above the Arby’s signify the sober truth that we are not alone. On paper, it sounds a little silly, but the feel of it is right: It’s funny, absorbing, sometimes frightening and utterly unique.
As a longtime podcast listener and occasional participant, I consider myself well-informed in the genre. And yet, I discovered the show just like most people did: I saw it sitting incongruously on top of the iTunes chart. After listening to (and loving) it, I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it before.
The Need for Discovery
Max Temkin is one of those guys people always ask for podcast recommendations. He’s a designer best known as an inventor of Cards Against Humanity. He told me about a time when he watched a conversation unfold over Twitter regarding podcast solicitations.
“Everyone was saying the same three podcasts like This American Life, Radiolab, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The ones that you’ll always see on the top of iTunes,” he said.
Frustrated, he created a website that would bridge this gap between word-of-mouth discovery and lists like those on iTunes. Podcast Thing is a simple idea with a crisp, pleasant design. You’ll see stalwarts like This American Life and RadioLab, but here they have to share space with lesser known — but very good — shows like Bullseye, Comedy Bang Bang and Re:Sound. To keep the list fresh, Temkin includes regular interviews with other podcast fans who bring their favorites into the mix.
It’s a refreshingly literal solution to the problem of having friends who all listen to the same few things. Expand that pool of people, get their answers, put it in a directory and voila: discovery.
Of course, Temkin knows that one list won’t disrupt the medium. Good numbers are scarce, but it seems clear that the iTunes store is still largely the main source of podcast downloads. Not long ago, Apple celebrated 1 billion podcast downloads through its podcatching software.
“I think iTunes has been the biggest boon in podcasting,” said Jeff Ullrich, who runs the popular podcast network Earwolf. Ullrich’s staple of podcasts include popular comedy podcasts Sklarbro County and Comedy Bang Bang.
RSS feeds with audio file enclosures (by definition, a podcast) have existed since 2001. But it wasn’t until 2005 and the wide release of iTunes that the medium really took off.
And yet, Apple has been uncharacteristically hands-off with the medium it helped to popularize. Publishers register their shows with iTunes, but they have to handle their own feeds, storage and metrics.
While iTunes ranks the most popular podcasts, no one outside of Apple knows exactly how it works. It’s almost definitely more complex than total downloads. If that were the case, Adam Carolla, who holds the Guinness World Record for most downloaded podcast, would be bounds ahead with more than 59 million downloads over a two-year period.
It’s more than likely a combination of recent downloads and comments that contribute to the algorithm. Although iTunes does feature noteworthy podcasts, most budding podcaster hope to gain notoriety by climbing the list.
“I would probably be checking the iTunes ranking hourly during the first year that Earwolf existed.” said Ullrich, whose ranking swung rapidly in those early months. “You have no other method of self-evaluation. It’s the only game in town.”
Now, Ullrich says he rarely checks the rankings. His podcast network can net 5 million downloads in a month, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to stop any time soon. Podcast audiences are loyal, a fact that advertisers are increasingly noticing.
Tackling the Issue
Still, audiences are not yet saturated with content. They still want more. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, has noticed this.
“The people who are listening to podcasts,” he said during an interview with NextMarket Insights. “They’re actually kind of actively looking for other stuff to listen to.”
A few players are also taking stabs at the problem:
The AV Club, which regularly writes podcast reviews
Stitcher, which is a Spotify-like solution
Player.Fm, a new app pushing the discovery angle
Swell, a digital audio app
AGOGO, another pusher of digital discovery
It’s not clear if any of these can be the iTunes of podcasting, but maybe that’s not even what the industry needs. Most promising is the news that Marco Arment, cofounder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper, is building a podcasting app for iOS that would compete with that of Apple.
For now, he seems primarily interested in playback and organization, so it’s not clear if Arment will tackle discovery at all. But if Arment and innovators like him continue to take podcasting seriously and work on its problems, things will turn out just fine.
Image: Morten Wulff