The New York Times recently reported that 17 percent of the American population of 320 million people had downloaded a podcast over the last month, indicating how popular the online listening had become. Locally, it hasn’t reached that scale yet, but a recent study by Nielsen showed that over 234,000 Kiwis (around six percent of the population aged 10 and older) accessed podcasts in the last four weeks.
And if Radio New Zealand’s data is anything to go by then these aren’t single visits because the state broadcaster recorded 542,000 downloads of its podcast content on iTunes over the month of May.
“This is up from the 444,000 in May last year,” says Glen Scanlon, the head of digital at the state-funded broadcaster.
Given the increased consumption in New Zealand of on-demand content—both audio and visual—these stats shouldn’t come as a surprise to too many. But what is perhaps a little more curious is that Radio New Zealand isn’t putting all that much effort into driving these levels of engagement.
“We haven’t really targeted it yet,” says Scanlon. “That’s largely re-working of the really good radio content we already have … Podcasting has been around for a long time now, and it’s had very steady growth over that time. But it’s not something that just appeared. ”
On the commercial side, NZME and MediaWorks weren’t as forthcoming as Radio New Zealand in terms of sharing listener stats, but they similarly identified podcasting as an important growth area.
“It’s definitely important for the future and we are looking into ways to make it more regular and across more shows,” says MediaWorks group content director Leon Wratt.
And much like Radio New Zealand, MediaWorks and NZME are both also driving their podcast engagement by repurposing its radio content rather than producing podcast-specific material.
“Our data shows that the most popular type of podcast content on iHeartRadio is from local radio shows,” says iHeartRadio head Carolyn Luey.
This is clearly reflected in the fact that the top ten podcasts downloaded and streamed via iHeartRadio are online extensions of the NZME radio shows that are usually transmitted via traditional radio. And this trend is also evident at Radio New Zealand and MediaWorks, where their respective lists of popular podcasts are also populated with radio show content.
Wratt and Luey both said that podcast popularity is driven by the loyalty of listeners to specific personalities and brands, but Scanlon differs in his opinion on this topic.
“For me, it’s a combination,” Scanlon says. “All the personality in the world won’t make the story-telling great. You need a good story to tell. I think that’s the starting point. And when you get that combination of really great storytelling mixed with a great personality telling it, you get something that’s really appealing.”
While the commercial players intermittently produce podcast-specific content, Radio New Zealand has already developed several brands that exist only in the online space.
“We have four or five that are produced specifically for podcasts,” says Scanlon. “At the moment we only podcast Best of the Week, the Week in Review, Extra Time and Podcasts Classics. The Wireless was running, but we’ve stopped that now.”
Asked why The Wireless podcast was cancelled, Scanlon replies: “You try something, and if it’s not working, you try something new.”
In terms of experimentation in this space, Scanlon admits admiration for the approach employed by National Public Radio (NPR), and says that the team at Radio New Zealand sees this as a “good model of how to achieve success in this area”. And there certainly is merit in following the example of the US broadcaster.
Wired recently reported that after tracking at a loss for several years, NPR was set to break even this year, and that this was largely driven by podcasts.
According to the Wired, NPR has seen revenue from podcasts double from levels in 2014. And what’s most significant about this is that the state broadcaster is attracting younger listeners without changing the type of content it delivers.
“We don’t have to change the essence of who we are to get a younger audience. We just need to tell great stories,” NPR president and chief executive Jarl Mohn says in the story.
NPR is much more commercial entity than its Kiwi counterpart, but Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson has told StopPress that the executive team is looking at ways to potentially commercialise its podcast offering.
“Because we’re publicly funded, any podcasts that we created, which had a commercial element, that content would have to be freely available on our website as well, which probably makes it a little more difficult to commercialise,” says Thompson.
One thing that is certain is that some brands are starting to show interest in using podcasts to deliver their marketing messages—and this is something that all the radio players are well placed to take advantage of.
“[Marketing through podcasts] is a great way for reaching the connected small business owner,” says Xero’s chief marketing officer Andy Lark. “Relating to the content they relate to, and meeting them where they like to learn and play makes good sense.”
In addition to delivering marketing messages via the “top 20 small business orientated podcasts,” Lark says that Xero is also producing original content in this space.
“We have our own podcast series in the US and are about the launch in Australia. This is part of our broader content strategy to engage, entertain and establish relationships with owners and entrepreneurs.”
Various brands are already commissioning media owners and agencies to produce content in the video space, and it’s very likely that this could also result in a similar production of audio content.
There are, after all, times when consumers can’t watch their screens and these spaces are ripe for the taking. This is part of the reason why the digital players are so eager to get their services into cars.
As Pandora commercial director Melanie Reece recently explained: “We know that around 50 percent of radio listening happens in the car, so auto is a really important strategic pillar for us. In the States, Pandora is live in 25 million cars so we have the global relationships to ensure we take leadership in the digital music in car experience … Our own recent New Zealand research shows that 80 percent of Pandora listeners want Pandora in their next car – we are in seven major car brands in NZ already and working with others to launch in dash this year.”
Developing content that’s popular in the digital environment is therefore integral for radio brands to stay relevant in the future. As more cars become connected, radio brands will find the level of competition increasing beyond the standard FM bandwidth to include everything available online.
And in this sense, giving listeners the ability to select specific content at the time when it suits them is in some ways integral to future viability.
That said, there will always be listeners who prefer to simply tune in and listen to the content that’s being transmitted through the airwaves, but radio brands can no longer underestimate the importance of appealing to the large chunk of listeners who actively select what they want to listen to.
For now, it doesn’t really matter that the content is being repurposed, because online listeners aren’t necessarily the same as those listening to live radio. If anything, it actually works in the favour of the radio networks to relay their brand popularity from the airwaves to the online space by doing this.
However, the online space is much more cluttered, and this is reflected in the common complaint from listeners that it can be difficult to find content that they like (online lists and recommendations through iTunes and Sticher offer some options. We tried to contact both providers to get a list of the most popular podcasts but haven’t heard back). In some ways the podcast space could be compared to the amorphous blob of random videos that typified the early days of YouTube. And in much the same way that massive fan pages and YouTube stars emerged from this chaos of content, the podcasting space will also deliver its own collection of audio celebrities—who may or may not come from the traditional radio networks.
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