We Need To Talk About The Future Of Podcasts

As a netizen of the 21st century, it’s hard to not know about podcasts. Those lovable audio on-demand shows that make commutes so much more bearable, while beaming all new information and humor straight into your brains. I’ve been pretty late to the podcasts bandwagon, I began listening to most podcasts in 2015. Yeah, I know, I’m a total noob. Nowadays I’m always on the lookout for great new podcasts to listen to, besides my existing favorite podcasts.

The current podcast scenario is pretty interesting. In a time when attention spans seem to be on the decline (Disclaimer: It’s not), podcasts are growing ever more popular, attracting thousands of devoted fans and millions of downloads. The number of podcasts available has also sky-rocketed, with Gimlet Media rising to the top as possibly the first podcasting unicorn. So how are these podcasts monetizing?

That’s a good question, but the answer is pretty obvious. Ads, specifically sponsorships by websites and companies. It’s not a really clean method and the ads present aren’t really relevant to most listeners. Stamps.com ads for me, a guy in India, is just irrelevant. But sponsorships keep the lights on for now and keeps the content free. The podcast has to have a pretty big audience to even qualify for sponsorships by most companies. But there’s a future problem that everyone is turning a blind eye to, or worse, ignoring.

Call it general human psychology, but when something is available for free, its perceived value decreases in our perception. If, in the future, a podcast creator wants to ask listeners to pay for podcast episodes, users will find it strange and often decline to pay for something that was free until this moment. The same thing happens with freemium Web services, which reserve certain features for paid users. Often times, there isn’t enough incentive to convert free users into paying members. Or worse, most users become habituated to the features that are present in the free version.

Hunter Walk, partner at VC firm Homebrew, laid this out in his recent post on Medium. He points out that the first step the podcasting industry needs to take, for the money to start flowing in, is to stop calling their shows ‘podcasts’. There are several podcasts shows that are high-value, filled with rich information that are essentially ruining their future by using this terminology. He says

We’ve been trained that podcasts are free and highly substitutable. When a term becomes synonymous with “free” it’s very hard to convince people to pay.

What needs to be done, is that these shows need to be marketed just like books are. We naturally tend to associate a value to books, and we are happy to pay for books. One-off, 30 page stories on the other hand, not so much. We attach so much value to books that we even pay for audio narrations of books. Aren’t serialized podcasts like Serial, Welcome To Night Vale and Star Wars Minute a story for our ears? If yes, don’t the creators deserve to be compensated for all the work they are putting in?

Now, let’s talk about the future. The future of podcasts. Moving forward, I think, podcasts should strive to be more interactive. I don’t mean adding in visuals. Most podcasts deal with extra data of some kind, maybe a link to an interview or a news article that was relevant to the episode. Those links are added in as the show notes on the podcast website. But what if those notes were presented exactly when they are referred to, in the episode.

TapeWrite is a startup that is tackling this very problem and it already has a very promising product to offer. Cards of information, called Tapes, are displayed on screen along with the audio. Relevant information is presented on the card, which can be commented upon, or shared with friends. So if you’ve found a great discussion going on in a podcast, you don’t have to pester your friends to download and listen to it anymore. Just send them the card, and the part you wanted them to listen to is made available.

Not only does this increase engagement on podcasts, but it makes it easier for listeners to return to parts they like, by bookmarking the card. TapeWrite already has an amazing roster of podcasts on their site, including the awesome 99 Percent Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars and TED Talks. Through its cards, TapeWrite has opened up a new level of interaction with podcasts, be it links to relevant information or funny side notes from the creators.

A couple of podcasts I listen to, especially Serial provide documents about the story and sometimes flyover maps of areas on their website, which are mentioned on the episode as a generic “You can find them on the Serial website.” Think about how easy it would be if Serial posted its episodes on TapeWrite. Cards would pop up on-screen whenever geographical information was being discussed, with links to those maps. The cards could also be multimedia rich, allowing you to view and navigate those maps. Court and government documents could also be linked to from the cards.

Remember the first problem I mentioned, about monetization? TapeWrite feels the same way and has features that allow podcast creators to be paid for the work they put in. Basically, creators can opt to put their content behind a paywall that only subscribers can access. This keeps TapeWrite in business and also provides a revenue stream for the podcasts, who don’t have to depend on ads or sponsorships anymore. For the listeners, it’s time saved because you don’t have to listen to those ads anymore or even skip them.

Podcasts are a great phenomenon of today’s Web. They provide entertainment, news, discussions, opinions and even offer real gripping narratives that become a part of our outlook on life. Podcasts are very much a part of our current Internet culture and I want them to be around for a long long time. Hopefully most podcasts will start evolving as we move into the future, to become even better and more relevant.

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