Audio killed the video star: The rise of podcasts
Are podcasts the new media goldrush and why are so many of them about crime? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports from the wild frontier of the audio renaissance.
Someone whispering in your ear, speaking quietly, one-on-one. How is it that the oldest form of storytelling is also, somehow, the most contemporary? Maybe it has something to do with the abundance of noise and stimulation out there. A single human voice is an escape.
"The more frenetic life becomes, the more people are seeking inquisitive, interesting, compelling, conversations," says Australian podcast producer Kellie Riordan. "As humans, that's just core to how we are."
Riordan's title at the ABC is head of Audio Studios. Her informal title is "podcast wrangler". That means she turns large pieces of ABC radio into smaller, bite-sized chunks of accessible audio and commissions podcast programming.
It might seem counter-intuitive that in a time of multimedia bells and whistles, podcasts should be booming. What is this really but old-fashioned radio renewed by the convenience of modern technology, the ubiquity of smart phones and headphones, as commuters binge on stories of murders or sport or even sex advice?
For Tim Watkin, executive producer of podcasts and series at RNZ, it is about confluence. Everyone is doing a bit of everything now. Radio networks produce video. We watch movies on our phones. Media companies that print newspapers, including this one, are launching podcasts.
RNZ's rebranding two years ago, from the more cumbersome Radio New Zealand (and you might sometimes find people who still insist on calling it the National Programme), was a signal that the wireless was just one of the public broadcaster's functions.
Watkin, a journalist, was appointed a year ago to produce new podcasts and other series for RNZ. The broadcaster had tested the waters with a successful series about ageing called A Wrinkle in Time, presented by Noelle McCarthy.
"It's been a very experimental year," says Watkin.
THE APP EFFECT
Podcasting is still in its relative infancy in New Zealand but public broadcasters in the US, UK and Australia have led the new wave. The US show Serial in 2014 has been credited with kickstarting the success of the medium, although it was nearly a decade old by then.
Part of Serial's luck was launching soon after a system update placed Apple's podcasts app on the home screen of its iPhones. Suddenly, access to a podcast was just two clicks away. Technology was instrumental in audio's revolution, as it has been for every significant step forward in entertainment.
A multi-episode true-crime story, Serial became as big a hit as any blockbuster film or book. Host Sarah Koenig's investigation of the jailing of Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed for strangling his high school girlfriend followed leads and allowed listeners to take part in the detective work. That the podcast didn't present a conclusion barely mattered as discussing whether or not Syed was guilty became part of the pop-culture conversation.
Serial's co-creator, Julie Snyder, expected to see a modest 300,000 downloads; the first series notched up 175 million. The show was developed for This American Life, the flagship magazine programme of National Public Radio (NPR) in the US. Its successor on NPR, S-Town, began as a murder mystery before morphing into an exploration of an eccentric loner from Alabama. It has had nearly 60 million downloads so far.
The numbers tell the story. In 2014, Apple devices recorded 7 billion podcast downloads. In 2015, it rose to 8 billion and in 2016 it soared to 10 billion. There are now more than 350,000 active podcasts in the world, with content in more than 100 languages, according to Apple figures.
Due to the ease of entry into the medium – a microphone and a smartphone are all you need – the variety of podcast personalities and subjects offer a range of alternatives. For some, they replace reading as a way of diving deeply into serious topics. Dan Carlin's Hardcore History and Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History bring new perspectives to important events. Some of Carlin's "lectures" stretch to five hours, while Gladwell delivers information in a more conversational style.
That said, one of the most popular recent podcasts in both Australia and New Zealand is the British hit, My Dad Wrote a Porno. In it, TV writer and director Jamie Morton recites chapters from his father's erotic novels, which are then affectionately parsed by his mates James Cooper and Alice Levine. The simple set-up highlights podcasting's basic intimacy.
But why this and why now? Serial caught the same wave of 21st century binge watching that saw people consuming box sets of Breaking Bad or The Wire in one sitting. Watkin supports the comparison.
"It's the Netflix of audio. That's why it's popular at the moment. It fits into the new habits of media consumption. Podcasting is an activity you do while you do something else."
Commuting is one of those things, and the relatively short New Zealand commute is why Watkin tells his podcast makers to aim for 30 minutes of audio, not the hour that is more customary in the US.
'THE NETFLIX OF AUDIO'
RNZ's podcasts page offers a Netflix-like range of choices. As in other markets, politics, history and true crime are popular. One of Watkin's hits is The 9th Floor, which gave host Guyon Espiner the chance to ease into long-form interviews with five of New Zealand's former prime ministers. Watkin says it has been listened to more than half a million times, even before he counts the downloads on podcast apps.
"I take all the podcast app metrics with a grain of salt at the moment," he admits. "Everyone's a little bit wary of the numbers."
But still, The 9th Floor hit number one for several weeks on the New Zealand podcast charts that Apple compiles. The whimsical historical series Black Sheep, the politics podcast Caucus, which Watkin hosts with Espiner and Newshub reporter Lisa Owen, and the sex podcast Bang! have also topped the charts. Great Ideas and Healthy or Hoax have reached the top five, which indicates the growth areas of thinking and lifestyle.
The seven episodes of Bang! have ranged from teens and sex to, well, the elderly and sex. Was it hard to get this over the line at a respectable public broadcaster? Watkin laughs: "It was actually really easy." It helps, he says, that presenter Melody Thomas has the relaxed, conversational manner he looks for in podcast hosts.
"It is 10-20 per cent more intimate than your average bit of radio. It's not like having the TV on in the room or the radio on in the car. You're right in their head."
THE APPETITE FOR CRIME
A true crime podcast is not far away. RNZ started on one but it fizzled out – "Certain people were in prison" – and Watkin turned down a chance to host the Black Hands podcast about the Bain family murders that has been a big hit for Stuff. It wasn't "our style", he says, but "it's great that it did so well because it helps people discover how good podcasts are".
Black Hands' executive producer Kamala Hayman agrees: "I think Black Hands has created an audience for podcasts that wasn't there before."
Christchurch journalist Martin van Beynen had written a book on the Bain case but a publisher got cold feet. In the wake of Serial's success, former Press editor Joanna Norris suggested he convert it into a podcast. It was an experiment that paid off: the 11 episodes have been downloaded nearly 3 million times, with around 1 million downloads coming from overseas listeners who lacked prior knowledge of the case. Van Beynen has since become known as the "podfather" of New Zealand crime.
"There seems to be an insatiable appetite for crime shows," he agrees. "True crime is especially good for podcasts because you can do the research without having lots of people on video."
Stuff has two more podcast series coming and fresh ideas are being considered. Other media companies are also understood to have true crime podcasts in various stages of production. Will there be any controversial New Zealand murders that have not been considered by a would-be podcaster?
Watkin gets approached at least once a week by someone with a podcast idea who wants to partner with RNZ, as "we're probably the gorilla in this space for now". There is a sense that the goldrush will really start now that public funding body NZ on Air is set to support podcasts under its new NZ Media Fund.
"Goldrush is the right word for it," Watkin says. "Some people will strike gold, other people will figure out how to sell the shovels and jeans and other people will figure out how to run the pubs. Because there is all that infrastructure around it."
Other local producers include the new media company the Spinoff, whose lively politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime gives RNZ's Caucus a run for its money. But even a cursory glance at the Apple charts reveals there is little New Zealand-produced material available. "Apple is desperate for more New Zealand content," Hayman says.
As Black Hands shows, podcasts are often serious journalism. But Mia Lindgren, head of the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University in Australia, believes that academia is largely ignoring this audio revolution, remaining fixated on screen culture. She argues that podcasting has pushed audio from a secondary medium listened to in the car or the kitchen, to a primary medium – almost without anyone noticing.
"It's not in the background any more," Lindgren says. "It's engaging you. It's very intimate, it goes to a very deep place in us, a very reflective place."
Change is coming to the world of podcasts. An update of Apple technology will allow producers to see exactly how many plays a podcast receives and, crucially for potential advertisers, whether people listen all the way through. The latest estimates by Australia-based radio futurologist James Cridland are that only 47 per cent of listeners get to the end.
When he addressed a conference on podcasting in Sydney in September, Cridland wondered if the improved measurements could even create a new age of podcast click-bait. Would there be a certain loss of innocence? Could the downhome, amateur DIY podcasters operating from garages be elbowed out of the market by bigger, slicker players? Or are there enough ears for everyone?
Johanna Zorn, co-founder of the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, is confident that podcasting can survive the inevitable goldrush and will diversify even further.
"You can't deny the big players can leverage their brand but there is a great leveller," Zorn says. "There are still examples of people who've come out of nowhere, and I'm thrilled the boundaries keep getting pushed."
SO YOU WANT TO START A PODCAST?
Anyone can make a podcast, although levels of professionalism, audio quality and general listenability may vary.
Apps such as GarageBand or Podbean enable users to record, edit and upload podcasts on an iPhone for no cost, whereas RNZ has good studios and sound engineers in-house.
But making a podcast is the relatively easy part. The harder question is how to distinguish your podcast about cooking tips, cats or an episode by episode analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the more than 350,000 other active podcasts hosted by Apple alone.
Organisations such as RNZ, NPR or Stuff have media reach and established audiences, but smaller players can and have relied on word of mouth to push podcasts beyond a tiny circle of listeners.
As the Black Hands producers learned, to become one of Apple's featured podcasts is an enormous boost.
There is no charge for episodes, so can you make money from podcasting? Yes, if you sell ads or sponsorship. Serial was sponsored by MailChimp.
RNZ's Tim Watkin says the company would have to think very carefully about ads or sponsors, which it could allow on other platforms but cannot do on RNZ itself.
But without ads or sponsors, even a successful series like Black Hands does not return any revenue to its producers, although a sponsorship arrangement with Tandem Studios in Christchurch reduced the costs of professional recording.
A journalist's time is also a major cost: Martin van Beynen estimates he spent three months of his day job on Black Hands.
When media companies start applying to NZ On Air from this month for podcast funding, this is one of the costs they will hope to cover. How much can they expect?
A NZ On Air spokeswoman says that the level of funding depends on such factors as "the budget for the content, the audience size, the significance of the platform and how much investment there is".
Ahead of the first podcast funding round, the question is hypothetical: "We will just have to wait and see what applications we receive."
* Additional reporting by Michael Bodey/Good Weekend.