What is a podcast?

If we're talking about a strict, easy to follow, definition then a podcast is simply an audio series that you can find in Apple Podcasts. Using this definition The Joe Rogan Experience will stop being a podcast later this year.

That's not really what I want to talk about here though.

I'm not a podcaster

I'm hesitant to call myself a "podcaster". It's not the first descriptive term I want people to think about in my professional life. I'd rather be thought of as a writer and journalist, who happens to work mainly in audio.

That's where I think we get confused. Telling stories in audio that happen to available as podcasts isn't the same as being a podcaster, in the same way that you can be a film-maker who publishes to YouTube without being a YouTuber. The medium, the distribution and the content aren't all one and the same, but the podcast world hasn't quite realised this.

During the coronavirus pandemic more than 100,000 new podcasts have been listed in Apple Podcasts. There are now more than 1 million podcasts listed in total. There are many popular memes that do the rounds about how everyone has a podcast now, or how you really shouldn't make your own podcast, for the sake of all of us.

That's because podcasting has become a form of social media in its own right. Longform conversations have a more wholesome feel than the quick bites of Instagram, TikTok or Youtube. There are plenty of people who do these conversations (or interviews, depending on their angle) really well, and get consistently good guests on their show, have something to say and a general topic to talk around. Even if you don't tick those boxes, podcasts can be easy to record to a decent quality with just your phone and it's not for me to tell you what to do. I wouldn't tell you not to write a blogpost, why would I tell you not to make a podcast?

The problem, as I see it, is that these million podcasts create a lot of noise, literally and structurally. There are so many podcasts out there that involve, for instance, a comedian interviewing other comedians, or a bunch of friends shooting the breeze. While some of them are great, a lot aren't and it creates the impression that this is all a podcast can be. Podcasters often take pride in the apparent open-ness of the ecosystem - there are no gatekeepers, which is a good thing. But that also means that there's often no external voice to bounce ideas off, to offer constructive feedback or to generate new ideas. YouTubers at least have a comments section, interaction with the audience is a little more protracted with a podcast.

Audio Storyteller

I prefer to think of myself as an audio storyteller. That's what I want to do with my audio work, tell stories, not anecdotes. I'd like those stories to be structured. I'd hope that they prompt the listener to form connections between the characters and themes. I want to be inspired by great books and films, pieces of music and poetry. The next episode of Factor Two is about the concept of Flow - that feeling you get when the challenge level is just right, you're relaxed and confident and can be completely absorbed and in the moment. In creating that episode I realised that this is what I love about stories. To experience flow you need some boundaries. Structured stories create expectation about the progress of the protagonist, rising and falling action, denouement. They can surprise us, but always in ways which move the story forward. I get that sensation when I'm absorbed in a story and sometimes when I've created a story that I like.

An awful lot of audio from my interviews ends up on the cutting room floor. I feel strangely guilty about that, in a way that I wouldn't if I were making a video or writing an article. Some of this audio will get recycled into other pieces in the future, some might be used for short social media clips, but much of it will never see the light of day. Comments from listeners surprise me on this; they often don't realise just how much editing and structuring has gone into an episode. I hope it creates something that is more than the sum of its parts, but I'm not always confident in that. There's a lot of value in recording interviews and just putting the whole thing out there, but it doesn't tick that expectation or connection box for me.

The Future

My key takeaway is that podcasting could be many more things than it is at the moment. There's enormous scope for independent creators to come in and actually create, but I don't think the will is there for many, because the norms of the podcasting world create an expectation about what a podcast should be. It's my hope that more people come into this world with an audio-first idea that can move us forward.

There are, of course, many good examples of this. It's my hope that they can start to invade the niche areas too. For inspiration, my favourite genre-bender is Have You Heard George's Podcast?

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©2019 Wil Treasure