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9 takeaways for podcasters from the GEN Summit podcasting panel

I just got back from Barcelona where last week I attended GEN Summit 2015 and spoke in a panel about podcasting and storytelling.


The Global Editors Network (GEN) is a cross-platform community of editors-in-chief and media innovators committed to sustainable, high-quality journalism, empowering newsrooms through a variety of programs designed to inspire, connect, and share.

The panel I was involved in was “Podcasting: the Next Generation of Audio Storytelling,” and featured:

  • Mark Rock: Mark is the founder of ADIO, a startup platform allowing anyone to build better playlists. Previously Mark was founder & CEO of AudioBoo (now AudioBoom).
  • Dana Chivvis: Dana is a producer on Serial (yes, that Serial) where she reports, edits and produces the podcast alongside Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder.
  • Siobhán McHugh: Siobhán is the founding editor of RadioDoc Review as well as a documentary filmmaker, oral historian, and writer, whose work has won prestigious awards – including receiving Gold at the New York Radio Festival.
  • Francesco Baschieri (me): Founder & CEO of Spreaker

As you can well imagine, my role was to present a perspective more on the technical side – leaving fellow panelists Dana and Siobhán the task to discuss the storytelling angle. Everyone in the room was pretty excited to hear some insider stories from Dana, and she didn’t disappoint.

Apart from the panel itself, I spent a few days meeting journalists, and I talked extensively with the other panelists trying to get their views on this new golden age of podcasting. Here are, in no particular order, my takeaways from the experience.

1. Serial crafted its success by borrowing a page from TV

Of course, Dana has a background in video journalism (in fact, she told us that she never thought she’d end up in radio) and so she really understands the mechanisms behind TV storytelling.
It turns out that there are some tricks that can be used to recreate the feeling of watching a TV production with audio (so sans images, of course), the most obvious of which – for a serialized storytelling podcast – being the “previously on” recap sequence.
Here’s what they did on Serial (notice the “splice and dice” format, so typical of today’s series):

And it worked great, as we all know – 89 million downloads and counting.

By the way, check out this great piece on The Atlantic pointing out yet another element that worked well for Serial: “Today’s complex narratives are designed for a discerning viewer not only to pay close attention, but to rewatch” (or shall we say relisten, as it is in Serial’s case).

2. The essence of journalism is about knowing what NOT to say

Serial was in the works for almost 18 months. The producers taped hundreds of hours of audio (42 hours alone of just phone conversations with Adnan), yet results in roughly 8.5 hours of finished product.

It was a massive endeavour.

A great story, and achieving success, requires a lot of preparation in advance, and the recordings were just a part of the process. I was also curious about how many of the episodes were ready at launch, and the answer is that only 3 episodes were actually fully produced (they posted the first two on iTunes at launch, and then started the weekly release cycle).

Dana mentioned that they got a lot of feedback from people saying that they didn’t actually reveal all of the information they had at their disposal – which is obviously true!

The point is not only that much of this information is irrelevant, but that they were also trying to tell a story, which leads me to the next point.

3. The Story itself is important, but in the end it’s all about Storytelling

You might have noticed that there’s a podcast on iTunes that picks up Serial’s story from where it left off. The podcast is called “Undisclosed” and is hosted by Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and advocate for Syed. Her goal is to provide greater detail about the case, “from an investigative perspective instead of a narrative one.”

If you enjoyed Serial, you can try listening to this one, but you probably won’t enjoy it that much.
It’s obviously very professional, and it’s also getting a lot of traction thanks to the huge success of its predecessor.

But at the end of the day, there is a reason why trial hearings don’t get broadcast.

The effectiveness, and success, of an audio production is a combination of content and storytelling – and it needs to adapt to the medium where it’s being distributed. So to my next point…

4. Podcasts are God’s gift to ironing

Again drawing from Siobhán’s speech, my takeaway here is that different formats cater to different experiences.

For instance, I’m a huge fan of “The Truth” podcast. Its producers refer to it as a “movie for your ears,” and they’re doing a great job at just that!

However, you can only get that full experience when you listen through your headphones. It probably won’t work as well if you listen to it in your car, or when you’re at home ironing with babies crying in the background.

The reason why storytelling podcasts work so well today, compared to other formats, is that people are listening to them through headphones. This enables producers to reach a great level of intimacy with listeners, which is the key to conveying strong emotions.

But digital is quickly conquering ground in other areas: the living room and ultimately the car. In these environments it is likely that different formats will be more successful in the future. There’s a whole new area to explore regarding live content, too.

5. Get out of the studio

Siobhán brings up another great point: she spent almost 3 months on the road (coming from Australia, you probably want to minimize the impact of travel time on a trip), mostly driving across the USA.

Of course, her car stereo was tuned to NPR most of the time, and she couldn’t help evaluating the quality of audio production. She said that she was really surprised that most of the features on the air were done 100% inside the studio and in the end, after hours and hours of listening to the same source, all felt pretty similar one to another.

Many of the themes that were dealt with would have resulted in a much more engaging piece if the journalists had chosen to take some audio content from the “outside world”.

Audio creates the best images because you form them in your mind without a filter. However, in order to leverage this capability, it needs to be more varied and engaging.

6. Audio is the key to emotions

We all know that audio has the power to control emotions. Music is a great example of the tight connection between audio content and our feelings.

What most people don’t realize is that this also works the other way around.

Pretend you’re a journalist and you want to capture genuine emotions from someone that went through something terrible (think warzone terrible). Pointing a camera straight into someone’s face feels very invasive, and people can sense that. The outcome isn’t as powerful as an audio-only interview.

People are intimidated by video, but audio doesn’t seem to judge. You can be young or old, fat or skinny, black or white, and it all doesn’t really matter.

The question then is: how do we share these emotions with someone else?

7. Share, share, share

In this era of social media everyone in the audience was interested in how to spread audio and make it go viral. Of course, this has already been longly debated.

I was asked this question at the end of the panel and had a kind-of-cold answer to that. It all comes down to the fact that audio is a continuous media that exists only during its experience. You cannot freeze-frame audio, for example (again, thanks Siobhán for the great insight).

If you examine the sharing behavior of people, nowadays most of it is done after a quick glance – I’m guilty of it as well. Even with text-based media, the sharing mindset is opt-out (meaning that by default, a lot of people will share something related to what they’re interested in, unless that content is embarrassing, and a quick scan is usually enough to figure that out). We’re afraid of sharing something that might backfire.

Audio needs commitment. It’s a powerful medium, but it requires a lot of time just to figure out if its content is embarrassing or not. You can’t quickly seek through it like with video.

There are some services, like Clammr for instance, that are trying to solve this problem by allowing people to share only snippets of audio. This can be a solution to the problem, but these snippets will always link back to a longer form that requires accurate checking.

This being said, I’m not negative about audio – on the contrary! But again, I think we’re trying to make audio fit into a model that was created for highly visual content. Pure audio is different, and more and more of it will be consumed in different settings (headphones, car, ecc…). Different ways of distributing content will emerge.

8. Ideal audio duration

This also gets asked about a lot.

As Dana said, podcasting is like the wild west today: you don’t have duration limits and every episode can be a different length. Success has even been reached with durations of up to 8.5 hours!

When content is great, people commit to it.

I remember that back in the fall, when Serial was airing, I carved an hour out to listen to it every Thursday when, no matter the weather, I was walking home instead of taking the subway (luckily, Berlin’s weather is never that bad).

Anyway, our numbers suggest that people, on average, tend to listen in for 25 to 30 minutes per session. This means that if your podcast is longer, it will be consumed in two or more segments (again, on average).

Also, note that many people are starting to listen in in their cars, and that they tend to prefer shorter content for their commute so that they can listen to a full episode without having to break it up.

9. The technology and convenience factor

There is no doubt that technology is both the reason behind this new golden age of podcasting, and the reason why it didn’t go that well the first time around. Nowadays it’s much easier to listen to a podcast, and a large part of Serial’s success was thanks to that “purple podcast app icon” that you can find on your iPhone screen.

But a lot of ground still needs to be covered.

Android users don’t have a de-facto standard solution, for instance (and podcast stats on Android reflect this). If we want to move towards a connected car, we need to have a more laid-back experience, because 100% on demand doesn’t work well in this environment (and is potentially dangerous).

Ultimately we think that there is a lot to do on the production side. Podcasters have to be “techy” and connect a lot of different pieces together in order to be successful. In many respects, podcasting today is like blogging in the early 2000s. It was technically feasible, but you needed to code your own site. Easy to use blogging platforms (like WordPress, Blogger, etc…) were a game changer, and this is what we think podcasting needs.

But this is exactly what we’re working on here at Spreaker.

Stay tuned if you want to know more.

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