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Podcast, smartphone, earbuds

Local podcasters navigate unique paths in an emergent medium

Radio is supposed to be dead. So is print. In fact, television is also supposed to be on its last legs, too—all supplanted by different, newer, better forms of media.

But, as anyone who’s ever listened to the radio broadcast of their favorite sports team in their car, watched the Olympics live on television or, say, read this magazine can attest to, that’s not exactly true. New forms of media continually enter the market, pundits proclaim the death of the media that came before it, and then, to the surprise of everyone, the different forms of media play together relatively well.

Podcasts entered the market as a hallmark of the Web 2.0 movement, a 2003 mashup of an RSS feed and the iPod, integrated into the iTunes platform. The development of free, high-quality audio production software made podcast content trivially easy to generate and many quickly did so—but, without a sustainable revenue model, these early adopters mostly dropped out. Yet the public’s demand for niche audio programming pushed to their portable devices only grew, awaiting a second generation of content producers whose path to revenue was more clear.

For some, that meant latching on to traditional forms of media. For others, it meant tapping into an existing fan base, like those for sports teams or entertainment culture, already hungry for more information about their obsessions. For others, it meant finding an unexplored niche that the public didn’t even know they needed.

A built-in audience

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all things considered, a first enduring home for podcast content was as a supplement to traditional radio, despite the many predictions that radio was doomed to be unseated by the scrappy upstart.

“We were automatically uploading Nightside Project on air segments as podcasts,” says Ethan Millard, host of the popular KSL talkshow. “We treated the podcast as a show archive for a couple of years.”

This allowed for a deeper level of fan engagement, Millard says, as diehards were able to easily catch-up on real-time broadcast content they’d otherwise missed. Such was the level of acceptance of the show’s podcast content, in 2016 KSL management decided to experiment with moving the Nightside Project to a purely digital format, taking advantage of the dramatically lower overhead.

“It made sense because the show had been popular on the air. We felt like we had a good chance of seeing some digital success and very quickly brought a large portion of our on-air audience over the try it out digitally. For a lot of people, the Nightside Project was their first podcast,” Millard says.

According to Edison Research, in the 13 years since their invention, podcasts have become a key component of the media consumption habits of 67 million Americans each month.

Enthusiasm for media is one thing, but translating that to the money that will sustain the endeavor is another, and this is where it gets complicated. While flawed, terrestrial radio does have accepted methods of tracking and placing a value on listenership, which podcasting has famously lacked. This has not been a problem for the Nightside Project since moving to digital.

“It’s challenging but not impossible to show,” Millard says. “You can’t use the same language that you use in traditional radio advertising. But there’s still lots to show, like movement in social media activity or ads being listened to. It can be done.”

42 million Americans listen to podcasts weekly

 

67 million Americans listen to podcasts monthly

 

Podcast fans on average listen to five shows per week

 

21 percent of weekly podcast listeners listen to six or more shows each week

 

85 percent of listeners hear all or most of a podcast

 

Source: Edison Research, The Infinite Dial 2017

Learning curve

Today broadcast radio and podcasting have grown inseparable.

One of Utah’s best-known podcasts also has its roots in broadcast radio. David Locke came to Utah in the mid ‘90s to help launch a nascent sports talk radio station. As talk show host and program director, he became aware of the limitations of broadcast media.

“When I first started as a program director in radio, I was dying to find a way to communicate with the listener one on one,” says Locke. “Suddenly we had these tools for going one on one with the listeners—social tools like Facebook and Twitter and podcasting, making it a much more direct fan experience.”

This fan engagement imperative became as much a means of self-preservation for Locke as an effort at loyalty building. And while the Utah Jazz’s fan base makes for an instant audience to a Jazz-centered podcast—there are several others, including The Salt Lake Tribune’s Weekly Run, as well as SLC Dunk’s SLC Punks—Locke knew he had to differentiate his own podcast from what fans expected from a radio play-by-play caller.

“The podcast originated six years ago because I’d stopped my talk show, was replacing Hot Rod doing play-by-play, and I thought if I just did exactly what Hot Rod [Hundley] did I’d get fired in three years. Maybe two. There was no way I could do his job as well as him and keep the fan base active.”

Locke says the learning curve leading to what eventually became the daily Locked on Jazz podcast was a steep one.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing, just felt like this was something that had to be done,” Locke says. “We didn’t even run ads for a long time.”

Unlike Millard, Locke didn’t have a built-in sales force trained in pitching audio content to advertisers. But by the time he was ready to start monetizing the show, podcast ad networks were well-established. These take raw podcast content and dynamically insert ads they sell for either an individual show or across the entire network. Locke found a good fit with Panoply.fm.

As bullish as Locke is on podcasting, he’s also very aware of the limitations of the medium, most notably the inability of podcast content to react to major events in real time, as terrestrial broadcast outlets often do, to the incalculable benefit of society.

Uncharted territory

While the Nightside Project used podcasting in parallel with the broadcast show, Kerry Jackson, co-host of the iconic Radio From Hell on X-96, used the medium to offer programming that ran perpendicular to his show.

“The Geek Show started on the radio, before geek was mainstream,” Jackson says.  “We did it only about four times a year, on an as-needed basis or when [Radio From Hell co-host] Bill Allred was sick or something. I’d bring in all of my friends to do it.”

As geek culture gained acceptance, demand for quirky, long-form radio programming on traditionally geeky topics grew as well, prompting conversations in the halls of X-96 on the feasibility of adding such a show to the station’s weekly line-up.

“I came to realize that this needs to be a regular, weekly show. But there’s no way I was comfortable with its chances on the radio since the geeks were still a minority,” Jackson recalls. “One day I was talking about it in the office and our internet guy heard me and said, ‘You know you could do a regular show as podcast’.”

Jackson and his fellow travelling geeks made their case to X-96 management.

“We went in and said we need to do this Geek Show in podcast form and they weren’t convinced, and then we said it can be monetized and suddenly they were very interested.”

Following a yearlong pilot, Jackson returned with some respectable Geek Show podcast numbers in hand to learn what was next.

“So management turned it over to the sales staff to go sell this thing, and after that happened, I had salespeople coming up to me saying ‘Now, how do we sell this?’ and I said well, you sell it like it’s a radio show. But we didn’t have the usual figures radio sales people use to sell radio. So we were in a Lewis and Clark kind of situation trying to find our way. The National Association of Broadcasters wasn’t interested in helping because they saw podcasting as competition, not as a companion to radio programming, but we figured it out.”

iTunes released a suite of souped up podcast engagement analytics tools that some industry watchers worried would reveal nobody was actually listening. Instead, the data affirmed even more listener engagement and enthusiasm than expected.

Deep connections

As popular as digital content tied to major institutions like professional sports teams, newspapers or iconic radio stations is, the beating heart of the medium remains the same amateurs whose spirit of media democratization brought podcasting to the forefront in its earliest days.

In Utah, few podcasters better represent this ethos than Chris Holifield who, inspired in part by Kerry Jackson’s Geek Show podcast, decided to launch his own in 2012.

“I knew I wanted to do a podcast but didn’t know what I wanted it to be about. I listened to podcasts that interviewed a lot of big celebrities and thought that sounded like fun, but back then we weren’t getting many major celebrities coming through Salt Lake,” Holifield says. “My now ex-wife made women’s clothing and I’d help her out at farmers markets, and looking around at the random people there it hit me: Why don’t I interview these people who are doing cool things? I could ask them how did they get there and what obstacles they had to fight. We all make up this community and so why not interview these people who are in our own backyard?”

With that, Holifield launched the I am Salt Lake podcast, still going strong over 300 highly conversational, minimally produced episodes later.

Lacking a direct link to a larger organization with deep promotional resources to lean upon, Holifield quickly discovered the key to growing an audience was to instead lean on the social networks of his interview subjects.

“The people who were coming on the show were excited to be on it and shared it with their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and this led to some really quick momentum,” says Holifield. “And people were into podcasts but there was none like this in Utah. It made people feel instantly connected and made them want to spread the word.”

The path to monetization has also differed substantially for Holifield. “Monetization is the age-old question. It’s been a tough road. I’ve figured out how to make money through a bunch of avenues,” explains Holifield, whose manifold revenue strategy finally permitted him to leave his full-time job last July. “I have sponsorships which help, but will never become the sole income of a niche podcaster. What I have is people contact me to help them. I edit and produce their podcasts and do podcast coaching. This is the sort of thing that can provide a living. I also use Patreon, which lets the listeners donate monthly. I sell merchandise and do paid speaking gigs. It takes a little of everything.”

Radio is supposed to be dead. So is print. In fact, television is also supposed to be on its last legs, too—all supplanted by different, newer, better forms of media.

But, as anyone who’s ever listened to the radio broadcast of their favorite sports team in their car, watched the Olympics live on television or, say, read this magazine can attest to, that’s not exactly true. New forms of media continually enter the market, pundits proclaim the death of the media that came before it, and then, to the surprise of everyone, the different forms of media play together relatively well.

Podcasts entered the market as a hallmark of the Web 2.0 movement, a 2003 mashup of an RSS feed and the iPod, integrated into the iTunes platform. The development of free, high-quality audio production software made podcast content trivially easy to generate and many quickly did so—but, without a sustainable revenue model, these early adopters mostly dropped out. Yet the public’s demand for niche audio programming pushed to their portable devices only grew, awaiting a second generation of content producers whose path to revenue was more clear.

For some, that meant latching on to traditional forms of media. For others, it meant tapping into an existing fan base, like those for sports teams or entertainment culture, already hungry for more information about their obsessions. For others, it meant finding an unexplored niche that the public didn’t even know they needed.