The historical trajectory of mass media content is often characterized as one of decreasing attention spans. The relaxed televised conversations and long-form reporting of fifty years ago has steadily given way, decade by decade, to a reliance on ever shorter sound bites. The ‘MTV Generation’ toward the end of the 20th century pushed this trend even further, making rapid video cuts and reality TV the norm.
Yet even those days sometimes seem like a mere prologue for the internet age, where think pieces turn into tweetstorms, op-eds give way to memes, news cycles are radically shortened, phones distract from books, and newspapers lose influence to ascendant social media monoliths.
Although the above narrative has more than a grain of truth in it, a promising countertrend has begun pushing back in earnest. Long-form content isn’t dead, or even dying; it is simply evolving, as all formats must do in a rapidly changing world. Podcasts now pick up the market share that short-form media has largely left behind, and often do so with very well produced content. Although social media content spreads more visibly – showing up in other people’s newsfeeds every time someone clicks the ‘share’ button – podcasts have already begun taking the world by storm.
Everything Old is New Again
A podcast is very much like a radio show, except that it can be downloaded and played on demand. In essence, what Netflix did for TV and movies, podcasts are doing for audio content. A typical podcast runs anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, and sometimes even longer – and is normally free of charge. It may cover anything from news and current events, to sports, music, history, true-crime, self-help, comedy, and business topics. Sometimes (but not always), the content is broken up by occasional advertisements.
The appeal of podcasts rests largely in their portability and flexibility as a format. By downloading an episode at home in the morning, a person can listen to parts of the show while commuting to work, taking their office breaks, waiting in line at a café, shopping for groceries, preparing dinner, and cleaning the dishes. A well-curated list of podcasts can keep a person informed of news and events, entertained by popular culture, and educated about other items of interest. Many podcasts actually function as audiobooks or feature-length journalism, with the host (or guest) delivering the bulk of a book’s text over the course of a podcast, or speaking in great depth about a given topic.
If people’s attention spans were truly getting shorter, as many of today’s cultural critics lament, then the market for podcasts would be tiny indeed. Yet the reverse is true: Their rise in popularity has been nothing short of sensational, marking this new kind of audio content as a major medium for reaching consumers across society. Consider some recent statistics from America, where data is most readily available:
- One year ago, there were 18.5 million podcast episodes released to the public. Today, there are more than 29 million – an increase of over 50% in the last 12 months alone.
- Content is available in more than 100 languages.
- More than half of the population over 12 years old has listened to a podcast. Nearly a third of the population listens to podcasts at least once a month. Nearly 1/4 listens to them at least once a week.
- Podcast listeners are far more likely to have a higher education degree, and earn above-average levels of income.
- Podcast consumers listen to an average of 7 episodes per week.
- 80% of audiences listen to most or all of the podcast episodes they download – far more than most other kinds of media.
- Those who listen to podcasts every week are very devoted to the medium, listening to an average of 6 hours and 37 minutes of podcast content each week.
- 67% of the total audience for podcasts is between ages 18 and 44.
- 94% of podcast listeners are active on social media – a much higher rate than the average for the population at large.
- Podcast listeners are more likely to follow companies and brands on social media.
- Among podcast listeners, 69% of survey respondents said that podcast ads made them aware of new products or services.
- Annual podcast ad revenue totaled $69 million in 2015. By 2020, that number is projected to be $659 million.
- In America, more people know what a podcast is (64%) than know who the vice president is (40%).
Similarly impressive statistics have been compiled for the podcasting industry in other countries, such as the UK. Despite (or because of) the ubiquity of tweets, memes, clickbait and perpetual outrage, there is a growing market for content that goes in depth to explore the nuances that often get lost beneath the surface in the conversations of the day.
Video therefore yields ground to audio once again. Short-form turns back to long-form. Ironically, this audio-based revolution is happening in relative silence. When rock music took over the airwaves, people used to roll down their car windows and blast it from the speakers. By contrast, the growth of podcasts has largely gone under the radar because they represent a quieter, more private listening experience.
While most content is aimed at getting people to share, comment, and otherwise interact with it, podcasts take the opposite approach. There are no ‘share’, ‘like’, or ‘comment’ buttons on most podcast players, yet the format is growing exponentially nonetheless. To understand why, we must consider the value and the possibilities that the format creates.
The medium – and how to use it
Content works when it is created as a win-win exchange. The consumer is entertained, or learns about a topic of genuine interest, while the creator gets a chance to send their message out to a mass audience. The theory works the same whether it applies to social media posts, blog articles, or podcasts. Consumers accept that there may be light advertising interspersed with the main content – and may even look forward to the sales pitch, if they are happy enough with the other parts – and creators can build their brands while promoting products or services that they or their advertisers are affiliated with.
Ads can be and often are integrated smoothly into the content of podcast programs. When a guest comes on the program, they typically have a long-form conversation about their field – and then, at the very end of the show, the guest puts in a plug for whatever they are selling. The experience tends to benefit everybody involved; the host builds their brand by having prominent public figures or business leaders come on their show, and the guest gets a kind of free advertising to an audience of interested listeners.
Unlike YouTube ads, which viewers tend to skip as fast as humanly possible, podcasts deliver similar messages to an audience of willing listeners. Moreover, podcasts can be indexed on the major libraries for free, so virtually anybody can set up a new podcast channel with minimal investment.
The medium of podcasting is a perfect fit for a city like Bangkok. Office workers in the central business district commonly take 1-2 hours a day to commute to their place of work, each way, every single working day. Much of this time is spent alone, without the opportunity for much conversation, or even human interaction. Podcasts let commuters consume content while they are focused on the road in front of them – or if they use public transportation, then they can wear earphones and listen as they rest their eyes.
Bangkok’s professionals could use the medium to talk about their business in a more relaxed format than networking sessions typically allow, and learn about new services being promoted by other companies around the city.
The sizable foreign population in Bangkok would also make for a natural audience. Foreign businesspeople might enjoy a short weekly podcast about Thai cultural norms, together with business tips for managers trying to navigate them. Such podcasts could also give pithy and up-to-date commentary on the business landscape in Thailand and Southeast Asia as a whole.
However the format is used, it works best when it is carefully thought through. Rambling and unstructured conversations quickly lose subscribers, while well-produced efforts – which have good production values, respect listeners’ time, and value their intelligence – quickly gain a dedicated fan base that is grateful for the content.
The internet is a magical place that has much going for it, but occasionally the cacophony it inspires can start to feel overwhelming. Podcasts have carved out a modest (but growing) corner for themselves, where the satisfying experience of deep conversations remains alive and well. Being part of this world, or indeed helping it to expand, can be a richly rewarding experience for consumers and content creators alike.