Podcasting: what goes around comes around

I am intrigued at the extent to which podcasts are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity because it was podcasts that first got me interested in social media all those years ago.  In the time before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, podcasts were the first vaguely commercial looking manifestation of the thing we now call social media.  Before podcasts there were only blogs – which at the time were simply (and incorrectly) seen as online personal diaries and personal diaries are not serious or sensible things.  Podcasts, however, looked a lot like radio shows – and radio shows are (sometimes) serious and sensible things.  The claim behind podcasts was that now everyone could make a radio show – which seemed highly intriguing, and potentially highly disruptive (at least to radio shows).

But two things happened which stopped podcasts delivering on their potential.  First was the assumption that now everyone could produce a radio show – because it very soon became apparent that the people who had always produced radio shows could do a much better job of it than couples in their kitchens.  This was a classic confusion of information and distribution.  A radio show is basically a form of distribution not a form of content.  The means (and expense) of radio distribution dictate and constrain what the content of a radio show can be – as with all forms of traditional media.  What the social media revolution has done is liberate information from restrictive means of distribution.  Content doesn’t have to conform to the rules of mass media.  Radio (form of distribution) becomes audio (form of content/information).

Audio producers (podcasters) therefore didn’t need to constrain themselves with the distribution restrictions associated with being radio producres – but no-one really realised this.  Instead everyone tried to replicate (and unsuccessfuly compete with) ‘old-fashioned’ radio shows.  In fact podcasting became swallowed-up by conventional radio broadcasters who used it as a way of creating an on-demand distribution option for their existing, mass-produced content.   Thus audio never found its optimal place in a world of unconstrained distribution to the extent to which video, image or text based content did.  Which brings us to the second reason podcasting never took off: the rise of competitors in the world of unconstrained video, image and text based distribution – i.e. YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and then Twitter.

YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter attracted much more attention because they looked like ready built media channels which you could stick a message within or an ad upon.  It was easy to establish a Facebook page or a YouTube channel and then dump your content within it, but there wasn’t – and still isn’t – a podcasting place you could dump audio content within. Podcasting was much more difficult – both in terms of production but also distribution.

This difficulty may well have been podcasting’s saviour.  The relative ease of producing other forms of content has lead to an explosion in ‘brandfill’ – with content strategies being seen as exercises in filling up the channels – simply because it is easy to do this, combined with the misplaced belief that this activity constitutes some form of meaningful activity such as ‘participation in the conversation’ or ‘creation of an audience’ or maximises the opportunities for ‘engagement’.  In reality much of this activity constitutes little more than a fruitless attempt to fill-up an infinitely large and ever expanding digital sink-hole.

You have to think more carefully about how you ‘do’ podcasting and I therefore hope that it’s resurgence indicates that more people are thinking more carefully about social media.

Podcasting also has the advantage in that it is an ‘ing’.  Any noun that has ‘ing’ on the end becomes a process rather than just a thing.  A fish is a thing, fishing is a process and success in social media is all about process.  Podcasting is naturally a process and this inclines it to be more aligned with what it is you need to do if you want to be successful in the social digital space.

That said, I have noticed that there still is a lingering belief that a success in podcasting is still defined by producing something that looks like a radio show.  There may also be a risk that what we are seeing is simply a spill-over from the current obsession with content marketing and content strategies – with audio simply being seen as the last piece of territory to be colonised.  Hopefully not.  Instead I hope that we are now finally waking up to the opportunities that audio information can deliver when it is not constrained by the need to sit within radio distribution.

And I will just need to revisit all those ideas I had ten years ago to remind myself precisely what those opportunities might be.


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