What Future Is There for Podcasts?

This article is presented as part of an editorial partnership between CMF Trends, the Canada Media Fund's (CMF) strategic monitoring platform, and Méta-Media. © [2018] All rights reserved.

If there is one buzzword that appeared in the audio market in the past years, it’s podcast which—despite the barriers to entry and niche subjects imposed by the format—is increasingly positioned as the most popular emerging medium. Can podcasts’ discoverability be improved while preserving their insider communities?

Audio content that proposes debate, interview and sound fiction shows, i.e., all of the genres that we’ve been listening to on our good old radios for close to a century now? Nothing very revolutionary at first glance... other than the fact that the podcast designates not only the non-linear listening of classic radio shows, but also a more recent format that emerged a few years ago in France and is experiencing tremendous growth ever since: the native podcast. It’s audio content that is produced directly to be listened to non-linearly and made available on the web rather than over the airwaves.

These native podcasts produced by indie creators (Nouvelle École, Change ma vie, Crème de la crème, etc.) and dedicated studios (Qualiter, Binge Audio, RadioKawa, Boxsons, etc.) are experiencing exponential growth to such an extent that the discoverability of available content has become an issue. Today, we arrive at a tipping point where podcasts could take off and form a more structured industry or yet conserve the rather “artisanal” status that currently characterizes them and remain anchored in the uses of a few insiders.

Specific topics and niche communities

Contrary to traditional radio, the podcast was not born out of a federative ambition. It is addressed to individuals rather than crowds and aims at building an intimate and specific connection as part of an on-demand listening process. Most native podcasts deal with very specific topics, as explained by Julien Neuville, invited by Tank media to talk about the Nouvelles Écoutes studio that he cofounded. He spoke of a “concept-driven market” and cited examples of podcasts such as Stockholm Sardou, “the podcast of Michel Sardou’s captives” dedicated to the French variety celebrity, or Parle à mon Luc, which focuses solely on the films of Luc Besson.

That is one of the specific traits that characterizes the current podcast landscape in France: the topics that are covered are specific or at minimum limited to restricted communities of interest. Consequently, podcasts tend to represent content reserved for insiders, all the more so that accessing this content requires a genuine effort, not to say an uphill battle, as explains Julien Neuville: “There is a considerable number of steps to follow before accessing a podcast. You first need to download an app if you do not already have it, then search for and download the content and subscribe to receive updates... As a studio, we therefore create the content based on who will download and appreciate it.”

“There is a considerable number of steps to follow before accessing a podcast”

In other words, you don’t fall by chance on a podcast as you would fall by chance on a radio show. It’s a major barrier to entry which, however, also has the advantage of guaranteeing a highly engaged and loyal audience over the long term. And there is an issue for editors: managing to create an intimate and lasting bond between the content and the person listening to it. Far from the popular rendezvous convened by the Grosses Têtes and Jeu des 1000 € shows, the native podcast is structured around a galaxy of niche communities, each one composed of individuals who consume content as they see fit. Therefore, podcast producers, starting with studios themselves, need to build a habit among their listeners by creating a dynamic that registers over the long term.

It’s an observation that forces editors to intensify their efforts to develop strong brand identities and capture the public’s attention. An audio signature, graphic harmony, a well-identified tone: these are artefacts that enable editors to position themselves differently from the competition in a product landscape that is increasingly competitive. And it works… Many creators have managed to establish a truly close connection with their followers. A distinctive culture sometimes emerges with its common references and private jokes, as is the case for the Qualiter studio and its Studio 404 podcast which has managed to build up over the years a community of faithful fans who today gather in a discussion forum and sometimes even meet IRL (in real life).

Niche subjects, a market of habit, references that are sometimes not understood by non-insiders… In this context, it is difficult to reach out to large audiences. From a democratization perspective, the podcast needs a way to bring down the barriers to entry, namely by removing the major obstacle it is facing today, i.e., content discoverability.

Using recommendation a curatorial approach to democratize the podcast

The emergence of a new cultural format often coincides with the construction of a reflective field of criticism and its own recommendation. That was once the case of the series, today firmly rooted in our viewing habits, which led to the development of specialized literature, television and radio shows on news regarding series, blogs and even podcasts of series critics.

Podcasts are no exception to the rule and the boom they have experienced these past two years naturally led to the emergence of critical reviews of this format.

As part of a resolutely meta process appeared podcasts on podcasts (PodcastorePodcastorama) as well as dedicated sites (RadiotipsLes MoissonoresPodcasteo) and newsletters (Podcasts 101la newsletter de Louie Media, etc.). Is the podcast a self-sustaining epiphenomenon? It may be too soon to pass judgment, but it is nevertheless striking to note that podcast industry actors—whether producers or simple consumers—were the first to endorse the role of critic. The key? Informed and documented criticisms and recommendations—seeing as they originate from experts on the subject—that push the podcast to the highest standard of quality, but also risk to enclose it in a discussion held in a vacuum that could difficultly extend beyond circles of insiders.

Also keep in mind the prescriptive power of influencers, the grail of social recommendations in the age of Instagram and YouTube. Proof of the format’s democratization, podcasts are appearing more and more frequently among the “month’s favourite” videos (a well-known format in which YouTubers present objects and contents that they appreciate during the month) or are even the object of dedicated videos produced by videographers usually dealing with more lifestyle topics. Their hundreds of thousands of subscribers are valuable spokespeople for the podcast and chances are that a podcast recommended by influencers will more easily make its way to the ears of the general public.

Finally, new actors are tracing the contours of an alternative recommendation model such as Hack the Radio, which proposes an unprecedented editorial form of podcasts through the creation of theme-based playlists that combine individual sounds on subjects as diverse as robots, love in the age of social media and the hidden face of music. Carine Fillot, formerly with Radio France, presented Zeens with this project that she instigated. She explains that Hack the Radio is first seeking to compensate the current inadequacies of podcast indexing.

According to her, theme-based playlists improve the discoverability of podcasts not only by enabling listeners to carry out searches by subject rather than by content editor, but also by erasing the marks underlying the content and not hesitating to mix public and private playback podcasts with the native podcasts of studios and indie creators. It’s an unprecedented curatorial model that could very well provide the beginnings of an answer to those who deplore how difficult it is to find content.

From niche to general public?

So, is the podcast this year’s buzzword or a real trend? In any case, the numbers are encouraging. Nouvelles Écoutes is proud of its 500,000 downloads per month which works out to a growth rate of 285% between January 2017 and January 2018! And it would seem to represent an underlying trend, seeing as its audience grows by close to 30% per month.

However, we must avoid arriving too hastily to the conclusion that the format is being democratized on a massive scale because that is still far from being the case. The audience structure remains very homogeneous, with an overrepresentation of the most privileged socio-professional categories (CSP+) who account for close to half of all listeners whereas they represent only 30% of Internet users. It is no surprise to learn that podcast audiences are rather young (75% of Binge Audio and Nouvelles Écoutes podcast listeners are aged 18 to 34) and urbanites (25% of podcast listeners live in Paris).

These figures show that the general public is still far from having been conquered, but nevertheless raise a question. To release the podcast from its niche, will it be necessary to renege what constitutes its specificity today, i.e., its specific topics and communities of insiders? Far from representing a new phenomenon, the debate echoes an old objection that can be found, for example, in the film industry with the building antagonism between author’s films and blockbustersWill the democratization of the podcast necessarily depend on a massification of audiences and consensual contents? Not necessarily. Rather than turning away from niche subjects, producers could, for example, prefer diversifying the niches themselves to reach a greater number of communities of interest.

The expansion and diversification of a niche model rather than the growth and centralization of audiences around a few flagship podcasts could become an alternate way to democratize the format instead of following the path that led to the democratization of most of the traditional cultural industries… Of course, nothing is as binary. For example, with respect to online video—which is today an integral part of the general population’s cultural practices—, we note that a niche model cohabits with flagship productions that reach large audiences. The emergence of a star system on YouTube—focused on a few main federating subjects (gaming, fashion & beauty, humor)—has not prevented amateur videographers to propose contents that deal with more confidential matter and sometimes end up becoming real hits. ASMR videos are a great example of this. For a long time, they were the thing of a few micro-communities of aficionados before interesting larger audiences.

The podcast could therefore be democratized in conditions similar to those that led to the democratization of the web video. Furthermore, Joël Ronez, of Binge Audio, does not think that there will one day be a Netflix devoted to podcasts seeing as there exists no global market for the podcast for obvious linguistic and technical reasons. (Audio subtitling has yet to be invented and translating a podcast would denature its very essence.) In contrast, Netflix could maybe house podcasts—not literally but in the form of adaptations, inspirations or even as topics as is the case of the series Alex, Inc. which tells the story of a former journalist reconverted into a podcaster. Closer to home, the Calls audio series produced by Canal+ is proof of major media outlets’ appetite for audio content and opens up the possibility of adapting the podcast format for television, as is the case of the American podcast S-Town which is expected to soon be made into a film.

Keep an eye on the rate of penetration of connected speakers. It’s a market that is gradually gaining ground in France and that could in turn reshuffle the cards in the audio market.