Radio vs Podcasts

For several months now, I’ve had an article in my drafts titled “Rebranding the Podcast”. I’ve not written more than a paragraph (if that) but the essence is that I hate the word ‘podcast’ and think its terribleness has contributed to the medium’s failure to launch. Now, this isn’t that blog post (which may yet, one day, materialise) but it shares a certain genetic spark.

Last week, for the first time in my career, I worked on live radio. This was at talkRADIO in London, which is a current affairs discussion station, home to an uneasy combination of right-wing shock jocks and fairly liberal, reasonable journalists. I was, thankfully, working on the latter, the drivetime show from 4pm to 7pm, produced by the excellent Studio Sixty Billion.

I’ve never given much thought to working in radio, mainly because I was interested primarily in print journalism as I transitioned from student into the world of work, and then used video as an inadvertent gateway drug into the universe of podcasts. And so radio just passed me by, mainly lodging in my brain as the darling that podcasts needed to kill (and something I leave on to stop the dog from getting lonely). But after years and years (and dozens and dozens of ‘lazy Buggles headlines’) podcasts haven’t killed the radio star. Radio is still in ok health (I’m not convinced its doing as well as some analysts will say, but we can fight that out in the comments (and, indeed, it doesn’t help the premise of my article to disclaim that, so forget it)); podcasts are still a sickly little child, like the kid who’s (spoiler alert) scared to death in The Turn of the Screw.

The couple of days I spent working in radio last week (and I’m not going to pretend that I got anything more than a puddle deep immersion in the medium) reinforced all the things that radio gets right. It has a distinctive personality as a journalism delivery mechanism. Its availability is regulated and controlled in a manner that encourages advertising rather than advertorialising. It has a base-level of professionalism that is fairly non-existent in podcasting. Drivetime on talkRADIO is a 3-hour show, last week hosted by veteran BBC journalist Gavin Esler, and it could’ve been chopped up into three high quality podcasts, or chopped more aggressively into a single very high quality podcast. It’s just easy when you’ve got an experienced, well-prepared host, a quality production team, and a broadcast level recording suite. The content just falls of the bone, like the tenderest suckling pig.

So why can’t (or why doesn’t) podcasting do the same? My main takeaway from last week is that this is, perhaps, not even the right question. The problems are quite obvious: i) less money in circulation means less experienced hosts, less experienced producers, ii) it also means that sponsors are more imposed on the content, iii) the absence of broadcast constraints means a lot of structure is retrofitted (as indie filmmakers would say, you fix it in post) making it needlessly forced, laborious and expensive, iv) the lack of curation in the podcast market means the average product is much more homespun, v) the best radio is repackaged as podcasts anyway, so why would anyone waste the time/money on trying to meet those standards for podcasts sole?

As ever, it’s easier to find problems than solutions (take it from me, a living, breathing problem-finder). But for all the glowing lure of a fancy studio and a blockbuster host, I still can’t help feeling that podcasts should already have kicked radio’s teeth in. Here’s why:

We are living in an increasingly digital world; that’s the route of all traffic, in every industry from healthcare to sports to the media (the possible exception being criminals, because the CIA/Russia/China can’t hack snail mail). And we’ve already seen this across all forms of entertainment media: television & cinema become VOD; books become e-books; magazines & newspapers become blogs; radio becomes podcasts.

Except, of course, they don’t. Cinema is in great health (five movies made by Disney have broken a $bn at the box office this year alone), books are in good health, radio is fine, even some newspapers and magazine are finding the current climate kind of profitable.

The most successful version of this digital crysallis is the way TV has turned into Netflix; the least successful is how no normal people use e-readers. And the difference is quite simple. Both Netflix and Kindle understand that the problem is not the content (a sitcom is a sitcom, a novel is a novel) but that there is an opportunity to utilise digitisation to enhance the content that people know and love. Netflix says “hey, you like TV shows? Well, here’s a way you can access hundreds of TV shows whenever you want them, rather than one at a time and when the networks have scheduled them”. Which makes sense. Kindle says “hey, you like books? Well, here’s a way that you can carry a thousand books in your pocket and download new ones whenever you want” which sort-of makes sense (though it overstates the fact that, for most people, the weight of their books has never been an issue, and also ignores the pleasure that most bibliophiles take from browsing in a nice bookshop).

But whatever — both Netflix and Kindle offer a tangible enhancement of the content they are delivering. The difference is this: if I’m watching Netflix at home and my mum (who doesn’t know her digital arse from her analogue elbow) sees the screen of my television, she thinks I’m watching TV. No mum, I’m actually watching it on Netflix, I might say but that doesn’t really make a difference, the activity is the same and instantly recognisable as watching television. The delivery mechanism has been massively enhanced but the content (the sacred content!) has been touched as little as possible (of course, you can watch Netflix on a smart phone (or even smart watch) though these are only further options to improve accessibility of the medium).

With Kindle (and look, someone will doubtless email to tell me that Kindle has been a great triumph for Amazon… yadda yadda whatever) you can’t say the same. The enhancements are clear; I can now download the latest Dan Brown whenever I want it and (yay) take his whole back catalogue to the gym with me. But the delivery mechanism has been completely changed — it requires you to have a specific, alien device, which looks and feels nothing like a book, requires charging, has to be taken out of your bag at security scanners…etc. The digitisation of all forms of papery content (books, newspapers, magazines) has spent two decades underestimating how much people like the texture, the smell of paper, not to mention their comfort with the way things are laid out on the page, the way their eye is able to take in information in an irrational, illogical or selfish order if it so pleases. Kindle’s enhancements are simply not enough to offset the fact that they have too radically changed the experience, the human design — wrought by hundreds of years of literary erosion washing the stone smooth as glass — of reading a book. It is UX by way of history.

Podcasts won’t kill their darling radio until they understand this. They either have to be something completely different — a new, emergent medium — or something which makes transparent radio’s paternity. At the moment, it falls between two stools. It enhances radio in all the ways (on-demand, huge catalogue, whenever you want) that Netflix enhances TV, and yet it is too tied to the iPhone, too tied to fiddly ‘apps’, too tied to headphone listening, too tied to 3G and 4G and fears that your data plan is going to run out, too tied to the joke about two white guys meeting and deciding to start a podcast. If it’s just radio’s free, low quality, unregulated (and thus sometimes appealingly provocative) little latchkey kid, then it’s never going to hit the heights that anyone who’s read this far in the article thinks it’s capable of.

Podcasts need to go to war with radio, but, first, we need to appreciate why, fifteen years after audio-journalism was objectively improved by podcasting, radio is still in such rude health.

All Rights Reserved for Nick Hilton

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