Why 2017 was the year the podcast came of age
A view from Jez Nelson

Why 2017 was the year the podcast came of age

Audio is having a well-deserved renaissance, writes Somethin' Else's founder and chief executive.

As another dramatic year in media draws to a close much of the excitement for 2018 is centred around what content makers see as the potential nirvana of the "new" video platforms.

Netflix is reported to have an $8bn (£6bn) budget for content in 2018. At Mipcom, producers bypassed traditional broadcasters to make a beeline for Facebook Watch. And Jane Hunt, the veteran TV exec who stole Bake Off from inside the BBC’s oven, is going to Apple to head up their video strategy for Europe. Without doubt these are exciting times for video programme makers looking for new routes to audiences and potentially for brands looking to reach consumers in fresh, targeted and cost-effective ways.

But listen very carefully and you’ll hear there is another content revolution underway. A revolution between the ears. Because 2017 has been the year when the podcast came of age.

There’s nothing new about podcasts. In fact, old audiophiles like me might argue they are just the new name for radio. Certainly the BBC has been publishing podcasts since 2006 and the first podcast dates to around 2004. But, thanks to a perfect storm of conditions 2017 has been the year when the pod has really started to punch its weight. And 2018 will see a massive uplift in traditional broadcasters, publishers, high-profile talent and brands pushing out pods.

The most recent bit of substantial research from Edison out of the US shows that 112 million Americans listened to a podcast in 2016 – that’s up 11% from 2015 – while 67 million listen every month.

Acast, the curated podcast platform, recently valued at £150m, claims 50 million monthly listens to their 800 + podcasts. S-Town, the American podcast that followed the groundbreaking Serial series has been downloaded more than 40 million times. And perhaps most extraordinarily of all Ed Miliband, the man with two kitchens who chiseled the EdStone, has been re-born as a bona fide podcast star!

But perhaps Ed’s top 10 success as the co-host of the weekly Reasons to be Cheerful podcast is not so unlikely. It’s the nature of podcasting that it allows people to be themselves. Away from the artifice of TV, the brevity of social media and the compliance spider web of conventional broadcast people can say what they mean, in a way that they mean it, for as long as they like. So, in what is a genuinely excellent series, Ed gets to prove what those who know him well always said was true. He’s a hugely intelligent and thoughtful guy who – behind the self-proclaimed nerdiness – is a very funny and likeable man.

So to that perfect storm. I reckon there are four reasons that podcasting is breaking big. Firstly and most obviously technology. Although podcasts have been around for more than a decade it’s only in the last year or so that the hardware and the applications have come together to make podcasting a simple and seamless thing for the listener. My prediction is this will get even more intuitive in 2018 as the habit spreads.

Habit in fact is the second element in the mix. Thanks to Netflix, iPlayer, Spotify and Amazon Prime video we are all being trained in the art of on-demand, stackable, watch or listen when you like content. Add to that the portability of commute-friendly podcasts and the habit converts readily to audio.

Then there’s the world. We’d like it to stop. So we can get off. The news, real or fake, feels relentlessly depressing and beyond our control. So we want to get away. Those of us who have long championed audio as a powerful medium know that you can escape in to radio and now podcasts in way that TV can't match. It’s an intimate and enveloped medium. Walking through the park with a podcast on your headphones it feels like the world has stopped for a bit. Podcasts also offer a passion deep-dive that YouTube videos can’t equal. People want more or what they love and podcasts give them that.

Finally then to the content itself. The number of new podcast launches seemingly grows exponentially week by week and so inevitably there’s a lot of crap out there. But overall quality is on the up. Whether it be big broadcast beasts like the BBC finally taking the medium seriously (the award-winning Flintoff, Savage and the Ping Pong Guy) or big talent moving in to express themselves freely (Edith Bowman’s Soundtracking) the bar is rising. Then there’s the blockbuster box sets like S-Town and Jon Ronson’s Butterfly Effect.

So where do brands fit in to all of this? Well, between our ears is the perfect place for them to be and so my guess is podcasts will increasingly be on the media plan in 2018. Pre-roll advertising is already commonplace. Anyone who’s ever-listened to a podcast will know every word of a Squarespace ad! There's the stirrings of more inventive approaches too – have a listen to Adam Buxton’s pod where he regularly sings bespoke songs for his sponsors.

But perhaps the real action will be around client-owned productions. Podcasts give brands the opportunity to bring their promise alive through long-form editorial executions that don’t have the desperation of some short form video content. Rapha’s Cycling Podcast and Fisher Price’s Happy Mum Happy Baby are early in to this space.

From personal experience I know that the last quarter has seen a big uplift in brand curiosity in podcasting. My company probably gets one or two podcast briefs a week now whereas a year ago it might be one a month. We’re currently producing podcasts for broadcasters like the BBC, publishers like The Economist and brands like Penguin. Oh and in a double-whammy of interest conflict we make the Campaign Podcast too!

Online video content will continue to be the  primary focus of producers, brands and consumers as we move towards the next decade. But audio is having a well-deserved renaissance. Traditional radio – publicly funded and commercial – remains remarkably resistant with ad spend in commercial at an all-time high. But I’m backing the simplistic beauty, low-cost and intimacy of podcasting to make it one of the media growth stories of the next 10 years.

Jez Nelson is the founder, chief executive and chief creative officer of content company Somethin’ Else. He will be hosting "Podcasting: The Last Frontier" with comedian Andy Zaltzman and film critic Edith Bowman at Eurobest on 29 November.

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