Podcasting was meant to be the great democratisation of the mass media. Suddenly, anyone with a recorder and an internet connection could create their own custom radio show, distribute it to a global audience of millions and reap a massive harvest of advertising and endorsement dollars. But, like many new technologies, there were some early winners who faded away once the initial buzz faded. Today, the most successful podcasts often come from commercial radio networks, with amateurs struggling to carve out a niche.
So, what does it take to create a great podcast? I spoke with Guy Scott-Wilson, the Content Director at Acast Australia to find out.
Podcasts have been around since around 2003. Back then, Dave Winer worked out a way to use enclosures to distribute digital files over RSS. Eventually, the concept took hold with former DJ and MTV VJ Adam Curry getting on board.
So, why get into podcasting now?
"It's different for everyone. Ultimately, it's a lot of fun. Many of us used to record ourselves on tapes and pretend to be on the radio. This is a way to do that and engage with an actual audience with your content," said Scott-Wilson.
For listeners, the diversity of topics, which greatly exceeds mainstream media, means you can delve into subjects of interest or keep up with entertainment genres that aren't catered for by the mass media.
"They let you explore the age-old tradition of story-telling - something that is a primal human instinct. And you get to meet and share a passion with interesting people," he added.
Scott-Wilson says the data he sees indicates podcasting is increasing in popularity. As well as anecdotal evidence that more people are seeking and making recommendations about podcasts, he said 17% of Australians are listening to a podcast every month - a number he said is growing. But the audience continues to be challenging to reach.
When it comes to the financial rewards for creators, Scott-Wilson says people are increasingly finding ways to monetise their efforts. While he says it's not easy, as the reach of many podcasters is quite limited, being part of a podcast network can be helpful as they are able to aggregate the audiences of many independent podcasters and sell advertising on their collective behalf.
That takes the pressure of content creators, who aren't always great at finding potential advertisers, and hands the sales job over to professionals.
One of the things that's changed is that the technology to bring advertisers and publishers together. For example, it's now possible for new ads to be inserted in old content that remains popular.
What makes a great podcast?
Scott-Wilson says the key to find your passion and focus on that. That passion will shine through.
"People want to hear passion. They want to hear honesty. They want to hear authenticity. A podcast is a very intimate connection. Conveying that passion is important".
Keeping things engaging is also critical. He likens this to the way people binge on Netflix and DVD boxsets.
"Leave people wanting more and tease new content between episodes," he said.
It's also important to avoid solo acts. Having two voices is always better than one and, whenever possible, have a guest on so you can break up the monotony. And having high profile guest is also useful. If they promote their appearance then you can benefit from their audience to expand your own reach.
"Guests enhance the conversation and add new perspectives".
One of the keys, said Scott-Wilson is not create early episodes that date easily. By ensuring your back-catalog has evergreen content you'll do a better job of keeping new listeners interested when the listen back to catch up with old episodes. When people discover a podcast they like, he said, it's not unusual for them to go back and start listening from the start.
"Up to 40% of podcast listeners are on old content or back-catalog content," said Scott-Wilson.
In addition, evergreen content is a great candidate for the insertion of fresh advertising - something that new technology makes easy. Scott-Wilson said that by not getting too engaged in current affairs early on, you can make older episodes more useful for new listeners.
Interestingly, Scott-Wilson said there seems to be a dichotomy emerging in the types of content that is being created. On one hand, mainstream media companies, such as news organisations, as creating "audio on demand" systems that give people access to current news and events. On the other, there is episodic content that engages listeners in a different way. It's the episodic content that he sees as the sweet spot for aspiring podcasters.
What do I need?
It's tempting to think you need thousands of dollars of gear to get started and make a successful podcast. But Scott-Wilson said that's not the case. While production quality is moving up, the barriers to entry aren't that high.
"The barrier to entry needn't be that high and you should set it to what your objectives are. If you're looking to make a career out of podcasting you'll want to invest in some pretty good kit. If you're doing it as a hobby, and maybe make a little bit of money then the quality of the kit is a little less important. But make no bones about it - sound is incredibly important. The overwhelming number of podcasts are being consumed on a smartphone or in-car stereo".
Scott-Wilson says you'll need a microphone, a pop filter, headphones, editing software, a mixer and digital recorder. But the decision is a personal one that depends on how far you want to take things.