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  • Katharine Kerr

10 Predictions for Podcasting in 2020

The other day a friend pointed out to me that we’re about to enter a new decade. Yikes. Again? This made me reflect upon the last one…




Winding back to 2010


On New Year’s Eve 2010, I couldn’t with any certainty have predicted the path my own career in audio would take, namely because the past decade has once again seen a transformation in the nature of the radio and audio landscape in the UK.


At the start of this decade I was grateful to have a decent job at a radio network when station production roles were diversifying and disappearing at pace. At the turn of 2010 phones were still a bit rubbish, Instagram wouldn’t launch for 10 more months and nobody seemed to talk that openly about their anxiety problems.


Ofcom were yet to adjust their section 10 regulation around commercial references, and radio co-location was about to be signed-off as part of a Digital Economy Act, squeezed in before the year’s general election. This was the year that Netflix had just begun to launch in markets outside the U.S., but it would be 2 more years before the service arrived in the UK.

I’m sure some smart cookies could have predicted the way this decade would go for audio, but for me? I was just in the flow, enjoying my little bit of radio and grappling with how to best integrate brand, audience and commercial partner in a 30 second trail.


Well, here we are then.


And then it was now. Now audio content is a consumer-curated experience: it’s enjoyed on their own terms. They say when, they say how, they say how long.


Audience lifestyle has never been more central to audio strategy, brands are turning out sophisticated, high-quality content and placing engagement and trust high on the agenda, eschewing hard-sales messages in favour of valuable connection with customers. And we all are (most of us) connected, most of the time. The generation born into the internet age is now earning money and ready to spend it where it feels right.


I’ve been working exclusively in on-demand, digital and and podcast audio since 2015. The market is vibrant. We’ve gone through the difficult conversations with major agencies used to buying audio airtime versus audio content, and brands have moved beyond the tipping point of understanding and have converted to business. Now we’re starting to see how there’s a place for all of us commercially, and it looks set to be an even more vibrant, even more diverse industry: big media players are standing shoulder to shoulder with shoestring indies in delivering content for a steadily growing audience.


Testament indeed to the power of the human voice, that most intimate and truthful of mediums.


I’m sure every decade since the invention of the wireless can claim incredible transformation. Indeed as far as tech goes, it’s human nature to tamper with the status quo and sometimes quite accidentally stumble on the future. In the words of William Blake, “what is now proved was once only imagined.”!


I’d love to hear what my colleagues think the next decade holds for the audio industry and indeed what these volatile political times mean for communications and the media in general, but as a starting point, here are 10 ideas for the following year:


Not being in possession of a crystal ball (I think they’ve all been upgraded to environmentally-friendly LED smart-balls anyway), I’ve reflected upon what 2020 holds for podcasting.


1. A(NOTHER) NEW BREED OF PRODUCER


I thought I’d start here, because this is one of those titles that seems to span a wealth of different experiences, skillsets, techniques and expertise. Sometimes there’s uniformity between businesses, in what they expect of Executive Producers, Mixers, Editors, Assistant Producers, Show Producers, Researchers, Recordists, Tape Syncers et al. But it’s often tricky to get an insight into the depth of a canditate skillset without exhaustive examination!

As podcasting expands to include direct client partnerships with freelancers and individuals in an expanding gig economy, just how are those clients to find the right audio person for their gig? Do they experiment with the cheap option first, then hit Google for the “Award-winning”, “Experts” for round two?


In the search for better work-life balance and autonomy over your the future in an ever-changing industry, every man and his dog seems to be setting up a production company (myself included!). That can mean for twitchiness amongst even the most established indies, as they see former staff going head to head for the same business. Their fears of undercutting on price and people they’ve invested in taking the tricks of their trade with them are perhaps logical. On the other hand, an established reputation and track record with the BBC goes a long way with clients outside the podcast world, and there sure is something to be said for big talk and a big portfolio of hit programmes to back it up. You can’t buy the trust of an established name, but on the other hand some smaller businesses can’t afford to work with them.


There is a wealth of eminent indies now asserting their credentials as podcast specialists. But is there a business case for indies wanting to scoop up good projects from clients with smaller budgets? A freelancer-based model that scales up surely entails higher prices in order that the company may make a profit after paying a fair freelancer day rate anyway…right?


My guess is that individuals and freelancers will continue to do well in the small business sector, and the indies and more established organisations will require higher budgets from clients with deeper pockets, creating natural segmentation in the market.


As a reflection of increased budgets on the client side, I anticipate clients will also demand a higher level of service in the coming year. Whether this is in production value or auxiliary campaigns, this will require the independent podcast producer and indie alike to be agile not only in broadcast-standard programme production, but digital integration and marketing as well.


2. MORE OF WHAT YOU’RE BORED OF!


Confessional celebrities, Daily News programmes, gory True Crime, Instagram influencer marketing, ham-fisted branded content, superlative branded content…. Just because you’ve heard it all, doesn’t mean the wider world isn’t waiting to discover Griefcast, Porno or even Serial (is it banned to mention Serial now?).


The same goes for platforms. I predict we’ll continue to see loads more startups joining the fray, all keen to host, market or otherwise distribute your hard-crafted content. The only difference is, they’ll start to compete for tastier product features. More on this later!


3. DRAMA AND SITCOM GO MAINSTREAM


Until fairly recently, the phrase “radio drama” might have called to mind breathy RADA types, quaint accents and not much more… no longer so!

It was only a matter of time before the UK shrugged into action at the call for narrative podcast content.


Our neighbours over there seem to have been a step ahead on this. Hats off to Spotify’s recently acquired Gimlet for “Homecoming”, “Sandraand “The Horror of Dolores Roach” all of whichhad me hooked like no TV show ever could. CBS’s “Alone: A Love Story” broke my heart and fixed it and stamped all over it again last year and Eric Dizzy’s “The Black Widow” kicks down any barriers left in this format. And it’s not just the production houses that are at it. The agency Endeavor continued to leverage talent across Endeavor Audio in a partnership with with QCode this year, putting out supremely polished and gripping fiction in the likes of “Blackout”, starring Rami Malek. And what about the audibly euphoric “Carrier”, also from QCODE? Over here in the UK we have Rusty Quillquietly putting out inventive writing in the likes of the “Magnus Archives”. As the UK listener expectation of what Audio Drama can be expands thanks to top-notch programmes like these, I imagine we will see a wealth of talented writers, performers and producers emerge from the woodwork.


(As an aside, this is something Podcast Pioneers is particularly passionate about, as we work to develop new writing talent alongside our main business. If that’s you, then please go ahead and get in touch — we’re more than happy to talk!)


With Netflix’s “Daybreak” shortly to launch, I can’t wait to see what happens when things really pick up in the UK. And crikey do we have a wealth of talent out there capable of taking this to the next level.


“Forest 404” showed that the Beeb is leading the charge into diverse, immersive and inventive narrative content on demand and more than capable of breaking its historic mould. Imagine that production value smooched together with own particular brand of UK humour: I’m peeing my pants with excitement. Let’s see the Monty Python of podcasts! Let’s have the contemporary audio equivalent of Only Fools and Horses!


Take a listen to the gloriously enjoyable “Wooden Overcoats”, for a start and then maybe dip into the “Beef and Dairy Network”, a podcast that makes me cry laugh like only Adam and Joe used to…. I’d push a raft of Podcast Pioneers sitcoms on you but (if that horse hasn’t already bolted) it feels a little like bad form, you know?


I have a feeling that sitcoms and podcast comedy content in the UK has suffered from a ‘geek’ label too long. My suspicion is that discoverability has been the real issue in preventing the mainstream and less-tech savvy enjoying all the superlative humour available in UK podcasting. And we know that “discoverability” is rapidly receding as a problem in a medium that has never been easier to access nor had its benefits so heavily promoted in traditional media.


Please post your recommendations for great UK drama and comedy in the comments section of this blog and let’s stoke the fire under this one a bit!


A brief word on original content too — we’ve already seen moves from the likes of Spotify, Audioboom and Acast to make in-house content. On that note — and it’s hardly a crystal ball moment — I think we can hope to see a highly competitive tier of top of the range productions to ‘monster’ platform credentials for exclusive, “won’t-get-elsewhere” content. I mean, need I mention Amazon Originals / Netflix Originals for your TV equivalent. Surely this is set to raise the bar for production value, investment and top drawer talent across the whole medium.


4. A TECH BATTLE TO THE DEATH!


Oh, a new hosting platform. Great. Let’s have a look. Lovely interface. What sort of analytics can you offer? And what is your user base like for that logged-in listening? And can I insert dynamic ads myself? Oh you can do chapter markers? Fab. Embedded players? Check. Marketing service for an extra cost? Audiograms? Transcripts? Comments? Social integration? An integrated Kickstarter platform… ambassador, you are spoiling arse. How much is it? Oh there’s a paywall? You want my first born child AND my content? And that hefty share of ad revenue? And I can’t opt out of ads about cat food?


Decision atrophy.


Ohhhhh baby it seems there’s a new hosting platform landing every day and whether you’re the producer or the listener, my bet’s on the one that continues to offer the best customer service and user experience to both. Of course, value for money matters, especially given that this is a medium born out of people’s spare rooms, but that never stopped Apple owning your ass in exchange for a nice computer or phone, did it?


I think the greatest leaps and bounds can be made in integrating the hosting and distribution platform with aggregates or wider media, permitting greater interactivity between the publisher and listener through social, blog and lifestyle apps. In that way a publisher can diversify their content and audience by serving them the things they want in the right places, not just one place.


Transcripts wrapped into show notes and metadata are the next logical step for improving episode SEO, but not every provider is in the practise of doing this time-consuming practise, so will we see further moves to integrate this with host platforms as standard practise? Or will we just let Google / Apple do it for us?


And what about improving attribution for commercial partners? At the moment we have offer-codes and one-click advertisement within platforms such as Acast which allow publishers to design effective audience funnels and offer agencies trackable campaign solutions. What new ways will platforms invent as customers demand reach to complement the unrivalled engagement stats offered by this medium?


Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself thinking there will be just one triumphant leader in the coming years (Netflix-Hulu-Blockbuster-LoveFilm etc anyone?) Perhaps we’ll eventually find a handful of leaders respectively cornering their markets in consumer and creator experiences, leading ultimately to a clash of mergers and buyouts? Will data still be as powerful this time in a year, when we’re lighting a single candle on bonfire night, just to save on our post-Brexit heating bills?


Basically I can’t wait to see the delights this hugely competitive tech wonderland has to offer for my listening experience this coming year, and who’s going to win the hearts and minds of team creator, but the bottom line is, innovation doesn’t sleep!


And on the data note, there’s still some disparity between reporting metrics on hosting and aggregator platforms, yet more continue to work for IAB approval. As more podcasters seek to make a commercial case based on downloads or streams, consistent standards here will continue to be essential. Given that your standard audio dork isn’t that content to just take the nicest number and leave it unchallenged, I imagine a selling point in this competitive environment for platforms and aggregators will be better transparency for their customers.


5. ANOTHER BITE OF THE APPLE


This year we saw an adjustment to Apple’s traditional categories, causing developers dependent on their genotype to trip over themselves in rebuilding to keep up. Regardless of the politics of this very personal medium, it’s clear that when the impassive titan takes a moment to shift its weight Apple can remind us just who holds the power here. Will we see independent moves to develop outside this?


With the announcement of the new Mac platform to replace iTunes, and better search optimisation from transcription and automation, in addition to features allowing listeners to search audio for guests or keywords Apple is joining Google in making search standard for audio content on the web. Which is great news for anyone selling digitally-integrated campaigns and seeking to increase reach.


And of course this entails that Voice Activated speakers will be better equipped to provide podcast streaming too, perhaps boosting the 1% share podcasting takes (according to the latest MIDAS stats) to a bigger share of listening!


6. LIVE AND LOUD


With the Podcast Live Events Series forging the way, I predict we’ll see a growth in live experiences. Perhaps not always on the scale of the Sydney Opera-house filling My Dad Wrote a Pornobut definitely a lively addition to the lecture, club and pub scene.


It’s been said that in a response to digital isolation, or a strange political climate, people are seeking experiences that allow them to reconnect in person. Whether that’s phone-free parties, cinema trips or live shows, a night away from the little screen can be fortifying… but still, don’t worry if you can’t make it in person.


Let’s face it, gone are the days of going to a show without it being recorded for posterity, but what sort of formats will this entail? In-depth talk shows, topical comic discussions, interactive game shows and improvised comedy all seem ripe for translation, but perhaps this will prove trickier for stand-ups and writers, who refine their set to a tee and don’t see the same return on their investment from a podcast episode as ticket sales for a touring show. I imagine they’d sit alongside one another, perhaps with comedians using live podcasts and panels as a marketing tool for their main live show? Oh the possibilities.


As a producer I’ve recorded a couple of sitcoms in Central London theatres in recent years. All I can say is that putting on a live show, working with unique sound environments and not forgetting to do your health and safety documentation adds a whole new dimension to the business of podcasting…. So get ready to expand your skillset (and your budget!)


Beyond that, I had an interesting experience this year when a retail conference decided to experiment with live podcasting at their event via my colleagues at Webvid. A rudimentary (but nice-looking) sound dampened booth was provided and we worked with what we got, but the access to industry experts and key thought leaders made it an unrivalled opportunity for the provider to capitalise on the day and extend its reach beyond the physical moment by creating podcast content.


7. BETTER, BETTER BETTER


Podcasting hasn’t been the spare bedroom baby for a long time now. Good mics are getting more affordable, forums and support communities of producers are livelier and more abundant and tech suppliers are creating simple, integrated products purely for the enthusiast with a non-broadcast background, such as the RodeCaster mixer.

In addition, my bet is that greater investment and promotion by big platforms and broadcasters in their own original content will raise the bar for innovation, production value and sound quality further still. I don’t think this will stem the vibrant home-podcaster community by any stretch, but a rising tide floats all the boats and I imagine more care and greater knowledge will become a part of every provider’s experience, in line with listener expectation.


The vibrant freelancer market means that time-poor or skills-short creators are able to outsource production easily.


If you’re an internet-millionaire type leveraging platforms like UpWork, Fiverr etc., that’s not to say you won’t be able to find someone in a different economy able to do the work on a tiny budget and be grateful. However, my hopeful suggestion for the home-grown market is that freelancers will get livable wages as day rates coalesce and as a consequence will be more willing and able to provide a high level of service, raising standards across the board.

For this to happen it’s crucial that the big beast media companies help set the tone. Very few freelancers can afford to work free days for the prestige of a name, and those with a little more experience and confidence may turn their backs on such deals.


Audio and content quality is not the only thing that looks set to improve. Better service for podcast-specific needs and budgets will continue to evolve, from quality FX and music libraries cutting more affordable packages (without undercutting high-end composers), to more affordable and workable archive access from the likes of Getty.


All of this informs a growing market of auxiliary services that cater to needs very different to those of TV and radio.


8. BRANDS PUSHING THE ENVELOPE :-)


I’ve heard it said that marketing is first to go and last to return after an economic downturn. Whatever happens politically though, the branded podcast market has been burgeoning throughout the last two+ years of uncertainty. If budgets are slashed, no doubt the case for branded content will become harder to make, but I think the time is ripe for a more sophisticated conversation around this.


At the moment a branded podcast can be as simple as a corporate client’s key staff sitting in an echoey office talking about niche factors in their sector. Very interesting, I’m sure, to their internal staff and some existing customers, perhaps even punching above its weight in a thought leadership space. However, I think this sort of brand-funded content sits more in the category of corporate comms and engagement than marketing.


Similarly, public engagement and digital outreach is still a vital aspect of organisations that were quite early to create sophisticated content in this space. This kind of content can sit in places where marketing departments either do not reach or do not exist and delivers on-going engagement whenever they may choose to promote or implement it within broader campaigns. Take the Houses of Parliament’s evergreen(ish, in these times!) “Parliament Explained” series made by Fresh Air Production, or the National Trust’s raft of productions. These award-winning series were not made to drive tourists to visit institutions, but as a vehicle to share information about the important work they are doing.


In my experience, these sorts of content are not measured or valued in isolation of other goals and the production itself can have value as a communications vehicle for the wider organisation. On the other hand, podcasts for the sake of having a cool podcast, and creating feeling and alignment between and brand and a certain audience, is probably more of a marketing and advertising budget, so perhaps we can expect to see them drilled harder for innovation, talent and measurable goals in the face of an economic downturn. My solution for getting round that is not just in the standard and originality of content itself, but in its own promotional strategy and integration with other media. Hence my bet for clever commercial podcast providers is to offer a solutions-led approach, plugging into organisations with an integrated digital strategy, able to deliver the complementary assets in video, social, events, design as well. It’s certainly what Podcast Pioneers is offering going forwards in our partnership with digital agency Webvid. Alternatively my colleagues at Fresh Air have partnered with Markettiers to offer bespoke strategic development for effectiveness and measurement in branded podcasts.


My feeling is that PR, Public Engagement and Comms will all remain a vital part of traditional organisational structure, and I hope this will continue to create opportunities in audio content in 2020.


9. NEARLY AD THE END OF THIS TOP TEN


I haven’t talked much about ads here, have I?


For a good while, podcasting seems to have smashed around its own terminology regarding advertising content, which can be confusing for agencies or clients used to trading in commercial broadcast radio terms when buying audio.


In radio, certainly when I was working as an imaging and then S&P producer, the 30 second trailer was a work of art. Sometimes it was a challenge to make art when you had to integrate a creative concept that celebrated baked beans, but lo! did we try. Pro Tools artistry and bard-like aspiration collided to make that perfect ad for tomorrow morning’s breakfast show, live from the roof of a hotel.


Now shall we talk about podcast ads? I’m as guilty as any of popping my presenter behind a microphone at the end of a long-day’s recording and flinging a script into their hand.

But now that clients are PAYING for this stuff, it’s time to take a look at how we value them and what they are! I predict a more sophisticated terminology around sponsorships, advertisements and presenter-reads, as well as deeper clarity on how they are valued. The fact that it is becoming the status quo to dynamically serve this content also creates a bit of inconsistency with the radio market, where some commercial integrations still take place in “programming” time as opposed to “airtime”.


In radio, a presenter-read endorsement (call it a live read or client-fudned read or whatever) might have specific key messages and a pre-agreed number of client mentions to avoid it sounding 1) insincere or 2) making the presenter and the station sound just a bit off. Not to mention your Ofcom-compliant signalling of the commercial integration. Crucially, this is not an advert because it does not happen in airtime. It has higher value because in theory your regular, beloved presenter is adding a little sincerity and personal interpretation of the product and you trust them more than Jonny Voiceover. Listeners are savvy enough to know when they’re being sold to, so let’s not be too brash about it either!


Ads, on the other hand, are there to make the transaction. You have a set amount of time to make the impact and we’re all agreed that at the end of it, the target listener should know what you want them to do and why, and then hopefully take some action. Listen to an American radio station and you might curl up into a ball for the brashness of their advertising, and for some reason it seems that podcasting across the board has followed this model, even in the UK. It almost seems to be a point of mockery amongst listeners.

It’s true that ad-selling platforms value presenter-reads differently to produced adverts for this personal, valuable endorsement, but I do question the value of this in cases where presenters are a) given a detailed and restrictive script or b) instructed to be creative around a product they have no experience or engagement with.


As for sponsorship, whatever package you’re devising, it’s confusing to traditional audio buyers if it doesn’t match what they’re used to buying on the radio, so perhaps some clarity on terms between the mediums will soon be required. I’m sure it would help agencies with their sell!


Simply put, if a script is involved, to me it feels like an ad. If you want your presenter to tell something, give them a script, but if you want them to sell something, let them sell themselves. I imagine that this definition will become clearer in the coming year as seasoned commercial broadcasters put momentum behind this sort of monetisation.


In terms of who is selling this stuff, too, I think we will a growth of boutique agencies offering more tailored-media options incorporating podcast advertising, sponsorship and marketing, perhaps even coming to arrangements with existing platforms. This will play into the burgeoning SME market that have smaller but more agile budgets for their media campaigns.


10. BIG MEDIA JOINS UP


Gawd bless you if you’re still with me. My years away from commercial radio spots have clearly allowed a little indulgence to creep back into the word counts. Hopefully you made it to number 10 before the new year itself, anyway.


My final idea for 2020 is that we’ll see Big Media start to get a little more sophisticated with its audience funnels across radio, print, online and events. Aggregating existing content into sponsorship and advertising packages seems like a no-brainer for those already generating audio, but we’ve seen a large investment in podcasting from traditional media organisations into audio in recent years too. What do they hope to achieve? Clarity, I imagine. Then prestige and subscriptions after that perhaps. Can they have a little hope for reach, too?


Engaging, tracking and retaining audiences within one provider ecosystem requires clearly defined strategies within media companies that have all the moving parts. Their first challenge has been to educate sales teams internally on how best to implement this and take it to market, the next challenge will be in delivering the data.


And I don’t just mean by adding podcasting as an afterthought or as added value: I’m talking audio-centric campaigns that gather audiences in this highly-engaged reservoir via a data-rich journey across multiple other channels.

Whaaaa? I mean all the right things in all the right places.


Podcasting has more than direct commercial value to media houses too. News organisations are still vying to have the edge on one another for being the authority on daily news content in their sector and there is a PR piece to be done for creating news-making, hit programmes about contemporary issues. In short, it may yet be difficult to measure how this drives subscriptions directly, but the case has already been made for their PR and brand engagement value.


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So there it is. A few starter ideas / guesses for 2020 which I will no doubt wish to expand upon in this blog in the coming months!


Hopefully it’s sparked a few thoughts in you too, and you’re already planning something innovative for your own productions. I think it’s going to be one hell of an exciting year in our expanding industry, and hope that whatever the weather, we can all ride out the changes and developments with goodwill and enjoyment of this very special medium. Sharing skills and ideas from our varied backgrounds, be those in broadcast radio or other media, is also essential. There is certainly plenty to go around on this unlimited platform, and so many pairs of ears waiting.


Let’s make sure we give them a good show!

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