Last week I wrote about virtual reality and how it is the final frontier of media. I can't say anything even close to that for podcasts.
The medium has obviously exploded in the last several years, which many people attribute to Serial. No one will argue that people are listening to more podcasts, and there is a lot of excitement in the space. WNYC started a new company focusing on podcasts, Gimlet media is tearing it up in the space with its podcast about making a podcast company, and Midroll Media, a podcast advertising and production company, was acquired by E.W. Scripps.
The problem that is restricting podcasts goes back to the roots of the medium. In essence, every podcast you listen to, no matter how engaging or entertaining it is, is just an audio file. The only thing separating it from terrestrial radio is the ability to to auto-download your favorite shows. If podcasts are to become as ubiquitous as streaming video, or even as promiscuous as VR is predicted to be, it has to become viral.
In his newsletter about podcasts, Nick Quah points out that nearly 22 months have passed since the chilling realization that audio isn't viral. No one has fixed that yet.
I'm guessing that there are people out there working on it. Gimlet talked about the need for a new podcasting platform in one episode of StartUp, but told listeners that they would prefer to focus on content rather than become a tech company. Fast forward the Soundcloud embed below to 2:25 to get to the good stuff.
Even though we technically can share audio online, it's not with the same speed or ease as we share GIFs, photos, or even videos. To share that section of StartUp with you, I had to go to Gimlet's website, click on their shows then StartUp, go through several pages of episodes until I found the one I wanted, clicked on the link to the Soundcloud, listened through until I found the moment I wanted, find the embed code, copy paste that into this post, and then tell you where to start listening because I couldn't do that with natively. It's doable, and really not the biggest pain in the ass, but the GIF above it was dragged from my desktop onto the post and it automatically loaded in place. Much simpler.
For podcasting to become viral, it has to mirror the ease of use that comes from photos, GIFs and videos. The app Pocketcasts tries to do this by making it fairly easy to share a link, but it's still far from perfect.
The next revolution in podcasting will be a platform. As Matt said in the StartUp episode, it will probably (more like hopefully) be open-source. It will allow creators to post their episodes to a single app that is cross-platform, and easy to use. It will allow for the gathering of usage information, like how far a listener listens, when they listen and what other shows they like to listen to. It will have a programatic ad platform which will allow marketers to see the data gathered about listening habits, as well as collected demographic information, and will allow those marketers to buy targeted advertisements based on that data. Audio files may not change, but the platform will allow them to be augmented with rich data about the topics being discussed, segmentation where the discussion changes topics, and the point where ads are read so video or display advertising could accompany the audio. The platform will make it easier to find new shows based on your interests and the shows you already like.
And above all else, it will be social.
The podcast platform of the future will allow you to find your friends, through Facebook or Twitter if you desire. It will let you see what they are listening to and enjoying. It will let you take your favorite, bite-sixed moments, and post them to your feed or to external social media. Social aspects will be baked into every pixel of this new platform, and hopefully provide the catalyst needed to let audio go viral.
Of course, there won't be one solution that fixes everything, no one app or platform can completely solve the problem. But, if made and thought about correctly, it could bring podcasting into a much more modern format.
Several companies are well positioned to make this happen and build the platform. Gimlet had the idea but decided not to go further. Midroll media is focused on advertising and content right now, but combining the two in a meaningful way is plausible and could be the start of something really great. They even have an app, but it's only for their shows and it's kinda terrible as it sits. Spotify wants to expand their brand and they have a decent platform to do so.
Maybe none of these companies will create the new platform, but I think it is inevitable. It will come eventually, or the medium will die. I hope it's the former, and that company already has one loyal fan who is really excited to download that beta.