In a world full of screens, podcasts channel the power of the human voice
By Ken Wallingford
David Bannerman sits at the edge of his chair peering at a computer screen. He’s in a small audio recording booth at the Nova Scotia Community College Waterfront campus. A muffled echo fills the room as the black soundproof foam covering the walls absorbs his voice. Bannerman’s distracted fingers clack away on the keyboard. As he speaks, he pauses to type: r-a-d-i-o-i-n-k-(dot)-c-o-m.
The site loads, and a relatively bland magazine website appears: red banners on a white page. Below the top story are four feature tabs: headlines, blogs, back issue and podcasts.
“There it is,” he says, jabbing a finger at the screen. “Radio Ink Magazine, one of the leading radio magazines in the industry, with a podcast feature. But I continue to run into (program directors) that say, ‘Podcasts? What, why would we put podcasts on the air?’”
Bannerman teaches in the radio program at the Nova Scotia Community College Waterfront campus. He also owns an audio production company. While he teaches radio classes at school, he also incorporates podcasting into the class assignments. He says many of his students didn’t understand what podcasting was when he first assigned a pitch for a podcast show.
Audio: Bannerman talks about the podcasting assignment he gave his students
Podcasting is transforming the way people collect, consume, and discuss the news. The problem is, most people don’t know the first thing about podcasting.
|For more statistics on radio and podcasting listener habits, check out the CRTC Communications Monitoring Report 2012. Figures 4.5.3, 4.5.4, 4.5.5, 4.5.14 and Edison Research, the Podcast Consumer 2012|
In a 2012 Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission report, only 13 per cent of Canadians had listened to a podcast in the past month. In the same year, Edison Research surveyed 2,000 Americans over the span of a month, reporting that 17 per cent had listened to a podcast in the past four weeks. Almost 70 per cent of Americans have never listened to a podcast.
But they should. Many people don’t know about podcasting because few radio stations use it. Many that do listen don’t take it seriously.
In 2004, podcasting was just taking off. Ben Hammersley’s article first acknowledged the word podcasting in the Guardian, as a synthesis between iPod and broadcasting. Another boost in popularity came later the same year, when iTunes incorporated podcasts into its downloadable library.
Downloading podcasts is different than completing a one-time download because podcasting is a subscription-based service. Subscribers receive new material as soon as it becomes available. This instant delivery service uses Real Simple Syndication (RSS), similar to a magazine subscription being delivered to your doorstep every time there’s a new issue available.
Since radio’s inception in 1920 it has remained relevant, even with the advent of new mediums like movies, television and the Internet. And podcasting doesn’t threaten radio like television once did—in fact, it bolsters radio programming.
Podcasting can be used as a complimentary service to radio programs. It can revamp old radio shows in new formats, making them marketable to different audiences. It can supply listeners with extended interviews, “best of” episodes and downloadable versions of live programs. News corporations like CBC, NPR and BBC have been providing these kinds of services since 2005.
So, Bannerman repeatedly asks, “Why isn’t there a podcaster for more (radio) shows?”
He says there are two answers. First, upper management lacks vision because, in part, they are frightened by podcasting. They don’t understand what it is or how it works. Second, there isn’t enough money to assign people to convert radio broadcasts into podcasts.
Mark Campbell, for one, doesn’t think much of podcasting. As program director at the Halifax news talk radio station 95.7 FM, Campbell sticks to radio’s importance in the local scene.
“We are the only ones who did the story this morning on gas prices,” he says from his ninth-floor office on Young Street, overlooking the north end of town. “Local radio will always have a place.”
Podcasting doesn’t interest Campbell. The station only podcasts three of its shows, and Campbell doesn’t see much value in that service.
It’s not as though podcasting is taking over radio. Radio still has a larger audience and live radio broadcast is still the focus. Bonus services like blog posts, videos, Twitter feeds and podcasts offer different ways for people to get in touch with media content. They’re widening the listener demographics of radio stations.
Specifically, podcasting is attracting younger, tech-savvy audiences, says Angela Misri, a digital program developer at the CBC. Her voice is calm and she enunciates as she says, “People my age, in their 30s, don’t listen to CBC terrestrially. They only listen to podcasts.”
Without podcasting, the average CBC listener is 50 years old. Podcasts lower that average. They’re appealing to everyday working people who, as Misri explains, are busier than ever.
“It was 30- to 40-year-olds who started listening to podcasts,” says Dave Jackson, the owner and tutor of schoolofpodcasting.com in Cleveland, Ohio. Surprisingly, younger generations haven’t yet caught on to podcasting. “In the beginning (of podcasting), teenagers were hung up on video and YouTube.”
Jackson podcasts from his office, which is only a short walk from his home. It’s a plain space with a desk, a computer, a soundboard and a microphone. On top of the 10 podcasts he currently publishes and the website he runs, Jackson is a full-time teacher.
As he waits to order an ice cream from Wendy’s, Jackson explains over the phone how those in their mid-20s and younger are more video-oriented. They’re drawn to visual material, making it difficult to capture their attention with auditory media.
Integrating radio and podcasting into smart phones could allow the two sibling mediums to penetrate this younger market. CRTC reports a seven per cent increase in streaming audio on a cell phone, while streaming online radio has increased by 19 per cent.
The easier it gets, the more people we’ll have on board.
– Dave Jackson, schoolofpodcasting.com [/pullquote]
Some radio stations, like CBC, have an application for streaming live content. Meanwhile, iTunes is shifting from offering podcasts on the online store to an application compatible with both computers and smart phones. Podcasts can even be downloaded directly to a phone or MP3 player.
“The easier it gets, the more people we’ll have on board,” says Jackson.
It’s not just the method of delivery that makes podcasting valuable, but also the content supplied. Anyone can make a podcast; professionals and amateurs alike can cover a slew of topics.
Jackson says he listens to a show by Adam Curry, a former MTV host, who creates podcasts on current affairs and under-reported issues. The show is called NoAgenda. “That’s where I get the news,” says Jackson. “They’re covering news topics that should be in the mainstream media,” such as the under-reported gas pipeline conflict affecting the war in Syria.
Curry’s popularity is reflected in the donations the program receives, some as large as $1,000. Other podcasters have also garnered international success. When Adam Carolla was fired from his Los Angeles morning radio show, he started a podcast. By 2011, he had achieved a world record for the most podcast downloads ever, with almost 59.5 million from 2009 to 2011.
In Toronto, a popular podcast show started after two morning show hosts, Howard Glassman and Fred Patterson, were also fired. From this, the Humble and Fred podcast show was born. It is now available for download nationally on the Rogers media radio website.
In Halifax, the podcasting scene is modest, but progressing. Independent shows like It’s On Halifax are in their first year, while Background Noise, a weekly comedy and talk podcast, has been broadcasting for the past three years.
Derrek Ord is one of three co-hosts on Background Noise. The team enjoys sitting around and talking about recent news coverage while injecting humour into the stories. Ord says daily news depresses him, so his podcasting goal was to not let things get too serious. “So I said, ‘Let’s do something where if people were at work or on the bus, they could toss it on their iPod and laugh, or just think.”
Ord has been giving advice to other people around Halifax who are interested in starting up podcasts. He loves the fact that podcasts give people freedom to say what they want in as much time as they want.
Christina Fitzgerald agrees. On her podcast Side Boob and the Dude, which she co-hosts with a fellow Live 105 radio host, they spent the first half hour of their first episode talking about roommate etiquette—a relevant topic, considering they are both in their 20s, have roommates, and live in a city with seven colleges and universities. Fitzgerald’s podcast is recorded in the Live 105 studio, so its sound quality is better than Ord’s. But Fitzgerald’s shows don’t have the living room conversation vibe that Ord prefers.
One of the best parts of podcasting for Fitzgerald is being able to discuss topics in depth—something radio doesn’t always permit. “You’re trying to hold on to someone’s attention span (in radio),” says Fitzgerald. “If you’re looking to open up discussion and hear people’s opinion on things, podcast would be the way to go.”
This isn’t to say that radio shows can’t have in-depth coverage of current topics. CBC is a great example of long-form research and discussion about current affairs. The show Ideas, hosted by Paul Kennedy, asks questions on a wide range of topics, such as “Where is the Internet?” and “How do we live with uncertainty and make good decisions.” Each episode is an hour long, with interviews and narration, and the show is also a podcast. Misri says Ideas is currently one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes. The show was among the top 10 most downloaded audio podcasts on iTunes, along with CBC’s Q and The Vinyl Café.
If you’re looking to open up discussion … a podcast would be the way to go.
– Angela Misri, CBC Radio [/pullquote]
Since creating CBC’s first podcast almost 10 years ago, Misri says the ratings just keep getting higher. “Over a couple years we had a flat line where we weren’t really gaining, but weren’t really losing (listeners),” she says. “But I’d say in the last year or so we’ve started to move up in trending again.
As of two years ago, Misri says, the CBC started podcasting everything that played over the air. At this point, it was getting about one million downloads per month. “My ambition … after that first year was, ‘Why aren’t you podcasting? Why isn’t everything we’re doing being podcasted?’” Today, CBC podcasts are getting about 1.5 million downloads a week.
The numbers show how well CBC Radio is keeping up with ever-evolving technology. CBC continues to stay informed on the podcasting market, to maintain its complimentary podcast services. Misri is keeping in touch with car companies, such as Chrysler, that have already installed playback technology.
Bannerman compares this pause-and-play radio service to the same service that’s available on television. He says within the next 36 months this improvement will change how people listen to the radio, as drivers will be able to rewind radio by up to 20 minutes.
“I get out to my car this afternoon at four o’clock and get in the car at 4:05, I have no capability to listen to the four o’clock newscast I just missed. Well, with Chryslers, you can now.”
That’s a good sign for radio. Technological advances mean radio can stay relevant, just like it always has. Whether it’s through radio waves or digital binary codes, listeners will still want their local news. Podcasts can’t supply this instant location-based service, but it can keep right up with radio by supplying specialized content options. Podcasting is the one format that elaborates on material heard on the radio.
Misri thinks the audio format doesn’t matter, saying, “I think we are always going to be storytelling.” She reflects on the words of a CBC co-worker, Tessa Sproule, who believes just that. Sproule argues that it’s not about the medium, but the content; that’s what people talk about.
If Sproule is right then Bannerman is in luck. He’s excited about the future of podcasting and radio. In particular, he’s looking forward to buying a new gadget on the market.
“My Christmas present this year, I’m buying a beautiful clock radio, (an) Internet clock radio. It’ll have nothing but my clock and Internet signals.”
Click to hear what five podcasters have to say about the future of the medium