The long tail of audio

I spent this past weekend at the Third Coast public radio conference in Chicago. In many of the sessions, and hallway conversations, and up-way-too-late-at-a-public-radio-conference-mostly-drunk rants, you could feel a sense of renewed excitement around podcasting, and the wave of independence and entrepreneurship we’re seeing in this space.

Then, this morning in my inbox, via Seth’s blog, a prediction about terrestrial radio:

Just as newspapers fell off a cliff, radio is about to follow. It’s going to happen faster than anyone expects. And of course, it will be replaced by a new thing, a long tail of audio that’s similar (but completely different) from what we were looking for from radio all along.

Podcast networks like Radiotopia, Infinite Guest, Maximum Fun, Earwolf, etc. seem well-positioned for what’s next. Their lineups are full of subject and personality-driven shows. Individually, these shows might not draw broadcast numbers, but in the aggregate, they’re significant. These podcast networks feature shows that would never find a home over-the-air. Shows that are too niche, or too weird, or don’t fit a broadcast clock.

Some traditional broadcasters, like WNYC with its growing slate of nichier, podcast-only programs, give me hope that a few dinosaurs might give birth to mammals.

So then, what’s CBC Radio’s podcasting strategy? I can’t pretend to know, but judging from the current lineup of podcasts, it’s all about mirroring the existing over-the-air broadcast lineup.

The best podcasts out there embrace the unique properties of the medium. They’re intimate, and personal. They’re portable. They’re not constrained to broadcast lengths. They take advantage of the fact that listeners start from the beginning, every time.

Simply duplicating broadcast programming in podcast form isn’t going to cut it in Seth’s “long tail of audio.”

Way back in 2008, Mark Ramsey talked about “starts” — small public radio experiments that are all about trying new ideas.

Podcasts are perfect for starts.

Let’s start something.

An argument for a digital-first CBC

Paul Adams, writing about the future of the CBC for iPolitics:

Right now, CBC treats its website as if it were an industrial by-product of the broadcast networks, like a slaughterhouse that sells off the bones for fertilizer and the hooves for glue. It’s an afterthought.

From where I sit, this feels accurate.

Bagless Bromptons

Remember that time I wasn’t allowed to bring my Brompton folding bicycle inside the CBC?

After raising a big fuss, I was eventually allowed to bring my bike inside, with the stipulation that it must be kept in a bag. I bought a Brompton cover from our neighbourhood Brompton dealer, Switchback Cyclery, and all has been well since.

Today, Peter sent word that there’s a new BBC series called W1A in which Hugh Bonneville plays the BBC’s Head of Values. I haven’t seen the series yet, but Peter notes that Bonneville’s character is allowed to bring his Brompton into the BBC’s Broadcasting House without a cover.

W1A_2857312b

How to fix a Tivoli radio tuning problem

Tivoli

Years ago, we bought a Tivoli Model One radio for our kitchen.

At first, the tuning was rock-solid. But recently, the radio started drifting. Over time, the tuning knob got very touchy. Even if I was able to successfully tune a station, the LED would glow bright for a moment, then quickly fade. Left long enough, any station would degrade into static. Frustrating, to be sure.

I emailed help@tivoliaudio.com about the problem. Their suggested remedy:

It is pretty common over time for dust to collect in and around analogue tuners. Dust can cause drifting, scratchy noises while tuning, and difficulty finding stations. Regularly exercising your tuner will help to keep it dust free.

To exercise your tuner you will want to turn the radio on and turn the volume all the way down. Turn the tuning knob to the far left and then to the far right. Continue to vigorously turn this knob back and forth for two to three minutes. This will loosen any dirt or dust that may be lodged in your tuner and will recoat it in grease.

Success! After several minutes of vigorous turning, our radio’s tuning problems went away. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Paneling

Last week, I was part of a panel discussion at my alma mater (and sometimes employer) Ryerson University, talking about “Radio in a Digital Age” alongside Steve “Dangle” Glynn, Raina Douris, and moderator/former-prof/sometimes-boss Lori Beckstead.

The video’s online now:

Lori sent out a few questions in advance of the panel, and I used them to prepare a few notes (most of which I forgot). So then, for posterity:

What are the challenges for radio in the digital age? How is it adapting? What will radio sound like in the future?

  • Measurement is a big challenge, because the ways in which people are listening continue to grow, but we don’t yet have great ways to measure. PPM measures broadcast, and some streaming, but on the web, we’re still measuring unique visitors and stream initiations, and podcast downloads, which don’t give us a great picture of who’s listening, or how we can better serve them.
  • Discoverability, particularly online, is a challenge. Great Digg piece about why audio doesn’t go viral outlines why audio is a second-class citizen on the web.
  • Opportunity: I’m excited about digital radio in the car. When you look at how many people in this country have a regular commute (80% of Canadians drive to work, 25 minutes each way). There’s a huge opportunity for radio there. Cars are a natural fit for radio.
  • I’m also really excited by all the really great independent work coming out of places like Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network, or Radiotopia from PRX (Roman Mars’s 99% invisible, and Love + Radio from Nick van der Kolk). Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun network. Earwolf. So much great indie stuff. Encouraging.
  • The opportunities are in embracing the digital distribution opportunities, while at the same time, remembering the things that radio is really good at. The inherent advantages that the medium has. Portability. Immediacy. Intimacy.

What is “radio?” If it’s not coming through an AM/FM transmitter, is it still radio?

  • It’s clear that the definition of “radio” is broadening.
  • Are podcasts radio? Are on-demand streams radio? If you take an over-the-air radio program like This American Life and turn it into an MP3 and put it on the web, is that radio? Is Rdio or Spotify or Pandora radio? Is iTunes Radio radio? If you take a clip of a radio show and put it on YouTube with a static image, is that radio? If there is a video camera in the room and you can watch a radio show, is that still radio?
  • So, the definition is broadening, but there are fundamentals that don’t change. We are human beings and we are naturally wired to respond to other people’s voices. Our voices are a great medium for storytelling.
  • Personally, it’s not super-helpful to try and define what is and isn’t “radio.” For me, it’s helpful to think of what radio is when it’s at its best.
  • People talk about radio as an immediate medium. I remember listening to WBUR during the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. That was immediate. I remember listening to CBC during the storms over the Christmas break, talking about where power was out, keeping people updated. At its best, radio is immediate. Immediacy can come from a different places. Interesting to see experimentation with podcasts that have live chat rooms as they record.
  • People talk about radio as intimate. Radio is with me in the bedroom when I wake up in the morning. That’s intimate. Or listening with headphones to a podcast. It doesn’t get much more intimate than sticking someone’s voice in your ears
  • Don’t forget portability. Radio is something you can bring with you, and it’s there when you want it, where you want it?

What are you doing to engage a young demographic? There’s much handwringing about whether 18-34’s are still interested in radio.

  • The demographic of CBC Radio generally skews older.
  • That said, CBC’s 18-34 numbers have grown in recent years.
  • I think there used to be an idea that listening to public radio was like learning to enjoy olives or good wine. That you grew into it.
  • I know that CBC Radio thinks of itself as an information and entertainment service for adults. We don’t do children’s programming in the same way that CBC TV does.
  • But when I look at what’s going on w/ CBC Music, or I listen to the Jian Ghomeshi Q show, I definitely hear stuff that appeals to the 18-34 demographic. I’m in that demographic (just barely), and I hear stuff that appeals to me.
  • I think podcasting has helped a lot to get people interested in radio and audio storytelling. When I meet people who know the show that I work on, Spark, more often than not they say, “I love your podcast.” Not, “I love your radio show.”

What’s the story of what you do and how you came to this place in your career?

  • Graduated from RTA in ‘05
  • Came to RTA with the specific goal of working in public radio
  • Whenever possible, turned my schoolwork into freelance work
  • I’m not a network-y person, but I sucked it up and tried to find as many people as I could who could tell me about their job.
  • The fact that I was a student was really helpful. It’s much easier to say yes to a student when they say, “I’m a student and I’m interested in learning more about what you do for a living,” than, “Hey, I’m some guy and I want a job. Or I want your job.” Make use of the fact that you are a student.
  • Ask for referrals. If you meet with people who are doing the kind of work you want to do, ask them who else you should be talking to. Ask if you can use their name, or if they can send a letter of introduction.

Advice you have for students interested in getting into radio?

  • Know your audience. If you’re looking for freelance or contract work (which is how many people get started), know which shows or units have money and can hire you. Know where the money is, who has budgets, and what their preferred way to get in touch is.
  • Have samples of your work that demonstrates your skills: being able to get good tape, to be able to perform on air, to be able to write. Having a few real-world examples that demonstrate your skills is good.
  • You get good by making stuff. Make lots of stuff. Start now.
  • Be careful who you take advice from

Digital-first audio

Two interesting stories from the world of American public radio last week.

First, the creation of Radiotopia, a new podcast network:

With $200,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation, PRX will attempt to create a new model for what they call “digital-first audio programming.” The seven shows will make up a collective, helping to market one another, providing guidance on technical issues, and sharing lessons on growing audiences. Radiotopia will provide the framework for raising money through grants or Kickstarter campaigns, selling sponsorships across the network, and sharing revenue between the shows.

“Digital-first” is an interesting focus, with the potential to shake up the way stories are told in public radio. There’s a huge difference between “podcasts on the radio” vs. “radio shows that happen to be available as podcasts, too.”

Second, a nice piece by Eric Athas, summarizing NPR’s attempts to make audio “go viral”:

Audio doesn’t translate to the Internet the same way an image, video, or text article does. It’s not produced for the social web, which means it doesn’t have the look and feel of the things we’re used to sharing and seeing on Facebook and Twitter. That’s why NPR and member stations often “webify” radio stories. This process turns an audio story into a text story.

Particularly resonant is NPR’s focus on finding “must-listen” audio. That is, radio stories that contain some sonically interesting element (i.e. not just an interview) that can be excerpted and used as a hook. Examples:

Indeed, Spark found some success with this when my colleague Kent produced an interview with Julian Treasure about the most beautiful sound in the world.

Podcasts are based on loyalty

Speaking of audio (not) going viral, in episode 76 of UnprofessionalMarco Arment makes an important point about podcast listenership:

[47:46] Podcasts are a very different kind of medium than most other things on the web. Most “new media” is all about getting this flood of hits, and things “going viral” (or whatever that means), and just getting tons of drive-by hit traffic.

Podcasts don’t work that way. Podcasts are based on loyalty, and getting people subscribed who are going to listen to every episode. So, there’s your core audience of people who you should cater to. That’s what the advertisers pay for. That’s what people tune in for. That core audience is the backbone of the show.

And then there’s the people who will listen to one episode and complain about it. And so you have to prioritize what you do and the way you do things to please that core audience, because they’re the ones who matter a lot more.

If you measure the success of long-form audio content using the same yardstick as a listicle, you’re doing it wrong.

While we’re on the subject, Andrew Kurjata makes some more good points about audio virality in his post on the subject.