So what are the elements of the new wave of ‘symphonic’ podcasts? Here’s an incomplete list of things you need to do, podcasters:
- Do bold, generous promotion. Podcasters give whole episodes to friendly podcasts and encourage them to tear them down and re-edit them for their own purposes – This American Life uses a cut-down ep from Gimlet’s ‘Heavyweight’. Radiolab carves up a whole ep from NPR’s ‘Rough Translation’. Edits can be really radical, an episode can be totally remade and feel very different but this is great promotion and very flattering to the source.
- Tease cleverly. Podcasters are publishing a ‘season preview’ or an ‘episode 0’ ahead of the main series. Heavyweight just did this and it really builds excitement. This would also work for returning on-air podcasts from broadcasters – i.e. episode 0 would be online-only, so could have a different tone and maybe a looser format and throw forward to ep 1.
- Publish a ‘making of’ episode (and a blooper reel and a cast interview and a story follow-up etc. etc.). Major productions like Gimlet’s ‘Mogul‘ and ‘Bronzeville‘ have done this – wringing the maximum possible value from their expensively-created content.
- Commission music. Whatever your podcast is, whatever the theme, no matter how unnecessary music may seem to your theme or format. It will amp up your podcast, make it feel more grown-up, more symphonic. I love the clever, lightweight music they use on The Daily, for instance.
- Mine the archive – and other people’s archives. You’ll need permission but, if it’s there, this is essentially free content. 99% Invisible resurfaces old Public Radio episodes that happen to fit a current theme. Radiolab routinely fills gaps with older eps, minimally reworked or updated.
- Invent formats – and give them funky names. Like Mogul’s ‘Cameos‘ – mini-episodes between the main ones that don’t carry the story.
- Oh, and do mini episodes in between the big ones. Minimal effort, possibly built from unused tape from the main eps. Be cheeky about this, don’t feel you always need to create original content, don’t be uptight about your publishing schedule. People will be excited when they see an unexpected ep land.
- Put on live events – it turns out this will work with literally any podcast. Seriously. It will add energy, provide material, excite contributors and suggest new approaches.
- Find a way to include the voices of listeners – even if you just get them to read the credits. The NPR Politics podcast gets people to read out the bit about the podcast probably being out of date by the time you hear it (they call the ‘timestamps‘).
- Do ’emergency episodes’ – and not just for news podcasts. Any time there’s a real world event to respond to, get into a studio and lay down 20 minutes of chat. It connects you with the news, makes you seem up-to-date. Here’s one from the excellent FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast.
- Provide credits – name everyone! It gives your podcast weight, makes you look like a player.
If podcasting is going to yield a real business model for the media owners and broadcasters it probably won’t involve stations centrally creating podcasts and giving them away or selling them.
It’ll more likely involve building (or badging) a big rights-cleared library of music and other content and then making it available with some funky creation and distribution tools to the wannabe DJs out there. They’ll use it to create twenty-first century mix-tapes for their friends and – if they’re good at it – for larger audiences – true ‘long tail’ stuff.
Take Astrid. She’s got a terrific music podcast over at Switchpod. I’m pretty sure that a healthy proportion of the world’s music fans would rather listen to stuff like this than to the seamless, playlist-driven stuff provided by local radio or the Beeb. Switchpod doesn’t offer anything in the way of rights-clearance but it surely can’t be long before services like this start to kick back a percentage of their no-doubt booming revenue to the rights groups in return for allowing their users to thrash around in the archive without penalty.
In fact, the next wave of downloading services would be well-advised to add a rights-cleared roll-your-own radio toolkit as a basic service on launch. Fans obviously still want to listen to music radio. It’s just that they’d quite like to be making their own too. The good news is that – at least in Britain – the rights owners already have a legal framework for this stuff.
They’ve just spent some time coming up with a new legal concept they’re calling the Value Recognition Right (VRR) whose purpose is to stretch the threadbare rights envelope to cover currently unrecognised intermediaries like P2P networks and (let’s say) podcasting rights aggregators. My advice: get on and ratify the VRR and get your comprehensive rights-cleared content databases out there now. You never know, the podcasters might just save your business.
Really: two bright geeks (well, one bright geek and one with a nice personality) reading out stories from Digg while drinking beer – I’ve been addicted for a couple of months now. It shouldn’t work but it’s quite brilliant. You’ll have to subscribe to the video podcast to see them in action (which, I guess, will require you to go over to iTunes and poke around for half an hour) but it’s worth it. I firmly expect to see copycat formats all over mainstream TV in the next year, complete with laptops…
(You can download the podcasts from here).
Thinking about it, poetry might be the best application of podcasting yet. I suppose that poetry is about as close to music as language gets and listening to poetry in my ‘don’t-even-think-about-talking-to-me’ public transport bubble on the daily commute is qualitatively much like listening to The Flaming Lips or Schubert or Mrs Mills (although I feel obliged to tell you I am really pissed off with the performance of my stupid Sony Ericsson W800i Walkman phone. Simply put: if you plan to buy one and use it with a Mac, don’t bother. It doesn’t work).
Anyway, a bit of googling turns up dozens of poetry podcasts but most are poor – it’s early days, I suppose. Here’s a really good one: the annual Griffin Poetry Prize. Subscribe to the podcast and then fetch some of the brilliant MP3s from the archive – many by famous poets reading famous poems.
Daniel Barenboim’s 2006 Reith Lecture series is only a week old but already moving and thought-provoking and humane. What a man! Of course there’s a podcast. Definitely worth downloading.
Stephen Evans gets the phenomenon about right – and introduces me to at least one podcasting application I hadn’t come across yet: unofficial gallery audio guides. Curry is honoured. Mid-West weirdos too. Worth a listen.
Lots of infectious laughter in Sandy Toksvig’s programme about yodeling on Radio 4 last weekend. The thesis: yodeling cheers you up. I can’t help but agree. My iTunes library contains 28 songs with the word ‘yodel’ in the track name (‘Yodeling Hobo’, ‘Swiss Yodel’, ‘Yodeling Cowboy’, ‘The Whipporwill Yodel’ and so on… Please don’t judge me – I had a difficult childhood). I can’t yodel (can you?) but I’m adding it to the list of things I’d like to learn how to do when I’m old (I suppose I mean ‘older’).
This file will, predictably, be overwritten by next week’s show so drop me a line if you’d like an MP3.
I’ll tell you something, either I’m getting old or podcasting (a concept so new that Google is still trying to correct me when I search for it) is going mainstream waaaaay too fast. Last week I spent a boozy evening (boozy enough to fall asleep on the train home again – Hello Harpenden!) in a smoke-filled room above one of those Soho clubs (no, not those Soho clubs) talking with a bunch of top media execs about, among other things, torrents, podcasting, Creative Commons and blogging – blimey. This is obviously going to be a really important area and I’m going to start meeting VCs who are ‘watching’ podcasting (just like they were ‘watching’ RSS last year and ‘watching’ blogging the year before that).
A flurry of links: iTunes Applescript guru Doug is now Podcasting (and why wouldn’t he?). Gigadial threatens to absorb the next six months of my life. At least I can pretend to be working while I’m listening (if you’re as old as me you’ll need this overview page). I think this clever thing allows you to publish torrents via your blog (and RSS, natch), which at least sounds useful. iPodder 1.1 is obviously worth a donation (I think I’ve finally found a reason to upgrade that Old Skool 5Gb iPod). I’ve just noticed that iPodder.org is run by Adam “Big Hair” Curry. Funny, cos Ivan was only asking about him the other day.
Meanwhile, Ben Hammersley, the man himself, a man for whom I’d like to buy a drink one of these days if he stood still for long enough – even if only to learn what it feels like to have an entry to yourself in Wikipedia – has come up with his own handy slug of server code which captures Real Streams, converts them to MP3s and then publishes them as an RSS feed (the rest is up to your local podcasting set-up). He also links to a tool for doing the local bit which sounds perfect – downloading now.