It’s been a few weeks since my last blog post, we’re all now more used to Covid ways of working and I am in the engine room section of my Clwstwr R&D Project looking into SMART Podcasts. Here are five things I’ve learnt this month:
ONE - R&D like a kid
The juxtaposition of home schooling and an R&D project has led me to some interesting insights. I was observing how my kids played with their toys. The youngest played in a more experimental way - wanting to know all the different things the toy could possibly do before deciding which way to play with it. The oldest was a bit more set in their ways - a car should move, a Nerf gun should be fired, it’s unlikely to suddenly start talking to the other toys. But the youngest just spent time with each toy, pairing it with others, taking it to a different part of the room, standing it upside down, exploring its boundaries. You get the picture, and the analogy is obvious. My “toy”- a podcast - should not just be played with in its usual context - audio, smartphone, headphones, probably Apple Podcasts - in fact it is important that it’s not.
This idea relates to an insight that emerged from my desk research, that young audiences are very likely to consume podcasts (thought of traditionally as audio) on YouTube, which of course is a visual platform. This highlights the importance of the simple question that one of my interviewees - Alex Lawless from Somethin’ Else - posed eloquently: “What is a podcast?” It’s just content really. Different things to different people in different contexts. Yes it can be Serial listened to on an iPhone. But it can also be a YouTuber doing a stream of consciousness into the camera. So, I made two resolutions. Firstly, in terms of exploring what is possible in future functionality, I want to stay open to every possibility of what a podcast is and what context it should exist in. Secondly, I need to play around with my own context. So, I accepted an invite to be a guest on a podcast. I took the opportunity to train someone how to make podcasts. Each context gave me new insights useful to my R&D project. Now I’m off to talk to a Nerf gun and turn some Lego minifigures upside down.
TWO - Radio, react
I spoke to someone who is a bit of a radio industry legend and has worked for some huge media brands across 3 continents. She’d just spent time working with one of the big podcast distribution platforms and, as a former radio industry guy myself, the insights she gave me were quite scary. The podcast (and music) distribution platforms look at radio audiences and see future paying subscribers. They see what radio does as something they can emulate then improve on. The rise in podcasting popularity has just given them another tool to take ear-time away from radio. They are throwing vast resources of finance and time and staff at this area, we knew that already, but I came away from the conversation with a bit more understanding.
The approach is different. These are tech companies coming into a media space. I’ve produced big daytime shows on BBC Radio 1 and Capital and as a Producer you’re getting the show on the air, you have limited time to really research the audience, do R&D, innovate and play. You’d love that time, but you don’t get much of it. You get very good at understanding and serving your current audience, yes, but major systemic innovation is unlikely - you adjust and adapt as you go. Conversely the big tech companies are used to spending years in development before launching a bit of functionality. Which approach will be more successful in the fast-changing media landscape of today and tomorrow? I sense a slightly dismissive tone from some radio industry figures and that could be dangerous. There’s a belief that only radio can carry on serving audiences in the way radio currently does. I’m not so sure. As we have all learnt in the last few months, never assume that the normal rules will always apply. Podcasting is on a seemingly unstoppable rise. Looking on the graph below, from RAJAR’s Spring 2020 MIDAS survey, the sharpest rising line is that of podcasting (note, live radio is not on the graph below, it's part of the main RAJAR survey). It’s a great time to be active and innovating in the podcast sector. I think radio needs to react - positively, creatively and quickly.
**I wrote the above BEFORE Spotify went and splashed a reported £82m signing the Joe Rogan Experience podcast exclusively. Some analysts reckon - once ad revenue and other income is factored in - this deal makes Joe Rogan the highest paid broadcaster in the world, eclipsing Howard Stern, a radio host.**
THREE - Work with your audience
I’ve spent most of my career working with and for brands which try to serve young audiences. When I started out, I was young, now not so much. I knew that as I got older I needed to meet with, listen to and understand young people more and more in order to still have a chance of serving them properly. I didn’t spend enough time doing it. Fortunately, in the last few weeks, I made a small step towards putting that right. I was lucky enough to be asked to collaborate with 10 young co-creators as part of Yvonne Murphy’s brilliant ‘The Box’ project (also a Clwstwr seed-funded R&D project). I learnt so much from the experience. One big lesson, right on cue given my current R&D focus, was to 'learn, evolve, act' quickly. It felt like the teenagers and people in their early twenties I was working with would grab a concept, throw it around, take it on board and then do something with it all in fast-forward, displaying a natural creative confidence. It energised me and helped me a lot.
On reflection, I think it is so important that anyone aiming to serve a particular audience spends time actually WORKING with them. That means actively doing something with them - collaborating, creating, producing - not just interviewing them, observing them, or worse, reading ‘trend reports’ about them. It’s a positive two-way street. The co-creators seemed to enjoy picking my brain for advice and experience and I came out energised, informed and inspired. Young audiences are the key growth area for podcasting, so the time I spent with these young co-creators was really valuable. I created a very quick ‘mini-podcast’ (previously known as a ‘package’ for any radio people reading) for Yvonne with some of the reflections of co-creators plus part of a brilliant podcast pilot created by one of the participants, a 17 year old who just emailed his local MP and interviewed him using a slick and effective format. Learn, evolve, act. Quickly. You can listen by clicking the Soundcloud image below.
FOUR - Podcasts should listen
One of the new skills I have learnt in this R&D project is to actively encourage my mind to wander in a positive way. It doesn’t mean disappearing down a Twitter black hole for an hour (OK, that might have happened a few times) but it does mean being open to creative breakthroughs in unpredictable contexts. I think in the past I have kept things in their boxes too much and haven’t been open enough for an experience in one part of my work to give me some learning in another part. In this month of the project, I experienced the joy of someone else (Steve Gill from Cardiff Met, one of my Jedi Masters, plus his colleague Gareth Loudon) running a brainstorm for me and my project. It was great to be a creative session participant for once (usually I’m the one running it) and during it there was a moment where the discussion turned to how and why people listen to podcasts. Some strange combination of that familiar ground, plus my mind wandering to previous brainstorms where I might have been explaining the classic creative concept of reversing what is the current norm (e.g. get kids, not trained presenters, to interview celebs, as done recently by Radio 1’s ‘Kid’s Ask Difficult Questions’) led me to a strange thought - what if podcasts could listen to us, listening to them?
This relates to a conversation I had with Adam Mart from Wise Buddah, who has some big ideas on how to use metadata to revolutionise audio. The Producer’s art, in crafting an engaging piece of audio, should not be usurped by algorithms and automated editing. But a SMART podcast which could change itself, automatically, based on how it has observed the listener engaging with it (this builds on top of the idea of using travel time data from the user’s phone, as I am experimenting with in my accordion podcast pilot), that would be something.
FIVE - Simple, fast, done
Back at the beginning of this blog (a long time ago I know - sorry, I’m getting into this now) I mentioned how I had resolved to put myself in different podcasting contexts to enable me to ‘play’ better within the podcast world. One thing I did was take the chance to be a guest on a podcast, something I had never done before. After helping me out with an interview for my project, Josh Chapman, host of the excellent ‘Star Wars Spelt Out’ pod, chatted to me about my time in the media. We discussed my Star Wars world experiences like meeting some of the actors when I was Head of Movies & Gaming Content at BBC Radio 1 & 1Xtra and also producing ‘The Secret Of Star Wars’ visual documentary (with the brilliant Phill Deacon) for BBC iPlayer back in 2015. So weird that I have arranged, produced or conducted many hundreds of interviews but have rarely been interviewed myself. There’s something about the warmth and positivity of podcasting as a medium that I imagine makes it a better experience than being interviewed for radio or TV. I certainly enjoyed it, and you can click on the episode image at the end of this section to have a listen.
It was how Josh turned the podcast around which intrigued me. We even joked about it in the episode as all my BBC training kicked in with level checks, edit points and re-takes, but Josh just got it done. The more pernickety levels of production were just not needed to give the audience of this podcast what they wanted. 'Simple, fast, done' was the way to go. And it sounded great (even taking in to account having me as a guest). It’s nice to take time to craft and perfect, but sometimes the approach has to be more direct and speedy. This lesson comes at a good time as I move towards delivering my pilot version of the accordion podcast functionality (a podcast which can stretch and contract to fit the listening time available). I had already learnt, thanks to an excellent session on prototyping (provided by Clwstwr and delivered, remotely, by the impressive team at PDR) about the different levels of prototypes and their benefits and limitations. Just this week I had two breakthrough conversations about the technical work needed to deliver accordion functionality. Throw these three things together - prototype theory, technical breakthroughs and the timely lesson to deliver simply and quickly - and it's going to be an exciting final few weeks of my project.