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From Airwaves to Online Radio to Podcasting: What’s Next?

By laura musselman duffy

Photo By laura musselman duffy

At The Super Times, our mobile audio start up, we really believe in the power of the internet and the current podcast revolution. We’re audio story geeks and love how stories can transform thinking, illuminate minds and bring people together. From lectures, to interviews, documentaries, dramas and fiction there’s so much out there.

Internet Radio 1.0

I believe that the recent paradigm of subscribing to podcasts was internet radio 1.0. It actually hurts listener discovery and does not help many podcasters create more of what they love and maybe make a sustainable living. I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done online

A Brief History

Here’s a brief history of audio story telling. Back in the day, stories were broadcasted solely on Radio. Listeners tuned in to a scheduled broadcast where the quality was determined by the channel. Radio channels could only broadcast a finite number of programmes per year - so listeners actually missed some awesome programming that never saw the light of day due to bandwidth constraints. Stations included BBC Radio 3 and 4 in the UK, NPR in the US, CBC in Canada and even RTÉ Radio 1 in Ireland.

Today, we’re online. That’s infinite bandwidth. Not only can you hear stories from the same old broadcasters but a new breed of storytellers have emerged. They have an awesome ear, a freedom to follow their heart with cheap tools and razor sharp production skills that rival the old broadcasters. On the internet they can podcast: the shows can either be listened to as they are broadcasted online, but mostly downloaded for offline listening. Even traditional Newspapers like the Guardian and magazine publishers like Wired have got in on the action producing brilliant audio content at low costs. A new listenership is now addicted, downloading all they can and listening when they can.

But somehow they’re voices are getting lost. Bar a few, the same distribution network that empowers them holds them back. It’s not just a question of quality, I’m sure there are tons of crap shows out there but the opposite is equally true. There are tons of great quality shows and stories with almost no listenership. I guess you can equate this with the Self Publishing revolution that has been taking off in the pushlishing industry over the last few years.

Aggregators - They Suck 

A quick answer to this problem was the ubiquitous RSS Feed, after all its what podcasts were all about. As long as a show had a feed, any listener can point a podcast catcher at the feed and start downloading content directly to their desktop or mobile device. Podcast directories started popping up everywhere.

For a podcast producer you had to get your feeds in as many catalogues as possible. As a listener you had traverse these catalogues and figure out what to listen to. Even with charts, evaluating content became a tremendous chore. Listeners thirsty for content subscribed to popular shows and when they got bored they either gave up or started asking for recommendations to no avail.

This is the problem inherent in podcast aggregators. Listeners have to find and pull in content, otherwise the software is useless. These days, podcast aggregators bundle some form of catalogue becoming a sole source for finding and listening to content. If you succeed and subscribe to the right content, you are now in catch up hell. The efficiency becomes you’re worst nightmare, suddenly you have so much audio that you need to listen to that you’re simply overwhelmed!

Getting Found on Radio

Podcast aggregators, when and if they work are a great tool for listeners. However, podcast producers including popular ones still have to figure out how to make a living. A recent phenemonen has started happening. With the help of organisations like PRX, some podcasts like The Moth have crossed over to traditional radio.

Meaning, they get paid for every show that is broadcast with exposure to a new audience. This is really awesome, the rebels have taken over. But this is not a scalable solution. Radio bandwidth is finite, a small number of shows can only be aired at a certain time.

Although, for listeners the convenience works. They tune into a trusted channel and experience a new kind of programming. They can even download more of the same if they wish. A subdued win-win.

The Offline Internet Channel

Funnily, I think there’s a weird happy medium. Specialist channels that can broadcast high quality internet content. Bonus points if the content can be offlined and consumed whenever and whereever. This may include programmes from traditional brodacasters as they’re content is also found online.

Basically, we can harness the power of podcasts with the simplicity of traditional radio and its push model. This is nothing less than a revolution for a new listener landscape.

Even though the idea may sound grand, the implementation could be as simple as publishing a brilliant list of podcasts for recommended listening on a regular basis.

Twas an Accident

We stumbled onto this when building the 1st iteration of The Super Times. Back then we had a website called Said.fm (as in I said, you said), we thought there was a gap in the market for a Spotify of audio stories. Listeners would use the app to find content by mood or topic (we built expensive algorithms that categorised and linked programmes).

We then employed curators to pick small recommendation lists that can be easily offlined to help make the content accessible and give listeners a good starting point. The content in Said.fm was constantly montiored for quality and we had a niche.

To our great suprise, the only feature that really mattered were those recommendation lists. Simply, they were convenient and more than good enough. Listeners visited the site, found the latest recommendation and synced ignoring everything else!!

They trusted us and that was enough :)

Others, have also picked up on this. PRX has Public Radio Remix which is “programmed with the best work from the hundreds of independent producers and stations on PRX and beyond, featuring  great storytelling, edgy podcasts, cutting edge lectures, interviews and more.” - the content is nothing less than awesome.

New Tooling

To make this work, the current crop of podcast aggregators and catchers just don’t cut the mustard. Its not about alarm clocks and double speed listening. I just want interesting stuff at the click of a button. I may spend a small amount of time performing minor configuration but that’s it.

This is the new challenge - its about filtering, discovery and distribution. You could argue this is more than tooling and you’re probably right. I’m also talking about new channels that can harness the web for a specialist theme and perform the broadcasting. Whether the channel and consumption end point are one and the same could be debated.

In fact, this is what we’re truely striving for at The Super Times: a specialist channel for amazing thought provoking audio conversations delivered as podcasts for offline consumption. We control filtering, discovery and distribution.

We could branch out with more channels like the best tech talks or even the best sports programming. The more I think about it, the more I see the similarities with Apple’s Newsstand.

Possibly Getting Paid

Like Apple’s Newsstand, this creates a simple market place for podcast producers to get paid. With enough listeners, even if a programme is played once that producer could see a one off distribution to millions of listeners.

If those listeners are paid subscribers, the producer can receive a paycheck to see them complete at least a single series. With simple segmentation and a good UI, listeners can fine tune their listening making them great supporters for the content they love!

If you’re in the US, how would this change Public Radio and all that pledging? There’s a new generation of listeners that is becoming accustomed to internet level choice and they’re hungry for awesome audio - we need to help them out!

The End

In closing, I’m really excited about this: The possibility of creating a self sustaining and accelerating ecosystem that serves both listeners and producers with internet level bandwidth!

Now, let’s get on with it.

P.S. I’d be really happy to meet you on Twitter: here