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Podcasts: Not Getting Them

November 6th, 2017 · No Comments · Journalism, Sports Journalism

“Not getting” as in “not partaking” but also as in “failing to understand” what podcasts really do for news organizations.

Podcasts, you may have noticed, are a hot thing. Seems like just about everyone has one now, which could be an example of “other sites are doing it; we better, too”. The herd mentality being a powerful thing.

But it also seems to reflect a notion that podcasts are a new revenue stream for struggling (as just about all of them are) news sites.

Not getting it.

Let’s preface the rest of this with an acknowledgement that my level of social engagement and exposure is this blog. That’s it. Nothing else. I don’t write for other publications. I don’t tweet. I don’t have a Facebook account.

Now, podcasts.

News organizations have been trying to find new revenue streams because they have a lot of trouble selling ads that appear on the site (like newspaper ads, except newspapers charged way, way more money). “Paywalls” tend not to work for anyone but elite sites with distinctive content. The Wall Street Journal and The Economist come to mind. And once you realize your ad department is bringing in near-nothing from website pop-ups, and that a paywall will simply drive away readers who demand “free”, what else is there?

That is where podcasts come into play.

The idea is that an organization can rustle up one of its lead personalities and put him or her in a room with a celebrity or a couple of his/her colleagues and discuss current events or hot topics.

The news or entertainment organization invests little or nothing, aside for basic recording equipment. Employees generally are not paid to participate and outsiders appear in a sort of “trade-out” no-cash-changes-hands mode — the guest talks up the latest book or movie; the news organization provides a megaphone for it.

And the best part? Organizations can sell advertising on this platform, money specific to the podcast and, presumably, “new” revenue.

The trouble with this business model is that podcast sponsors are reliably second-tier endeavors who (common sense would tell us) are not spending significant money for a couple of 30-second spots in a podcast.

Take, for example, Bill Simmons, sports impresario (Grantland, The Ringer), former “Sports Guy” writer and basketball talking head for ESPN, key man in the acclaimed 30 for 30 series.

Perhaps no one in sports journalism is as well-regarded. (And yes, I am overlooking Steven A. Smith and Skip Bayless, who are more carnival barkers than thoughtful analysts.)

The point being, I have listened to Bill Simmons podcasts. Back when he was at Grantland and I was in Abu Dhabi, riding an exercise bike in my apartment. And now that he is running The Ringer.

I am predisposed to like Simmons and interested in his guests. They generally fall in the wheelhouse of my sports preferences. (Aside from the Boston teams, of course.)

But I cannot — and will not — spend 90-plus minutes listening to his podcast.

Carving out that sort of time is difficult, and I am retired. I don’t have a job, unless we consider this blog a job. And even then, I am hesitant to start on a Simmons podcast. For several reasons.

–The length. A week ago he did a podcast with the former US Weekly editor that covered several topics of interest, to me. It went on for 91 minutes. I lasted 30 minutes, had to do something else, never went back. A few days ago, he did one on movies and the NBA. That one lasted 103 minutes. Never started that one. Who has that kind of time to focus on some audio?

–Podcasts demand the listener’s attention. It is very difficult to have the podcast as background noise, because it definitely will interfere with those hoping to multi-task. You are listening, or you are not. If you are listening you are not effectively working; if you are not listening, then put on a symphony. The Simmons podcast, No. 1 in my rankings, is un-listenable except, perhaps, in cases of long commutes in a personal vehicle.

–You cannot walk away from a podcast because you will lose context and miss out on comments key to understanding some later portion of the podcast. Which makes the consumer a sort of slave of the podcast, and who wants that?

–Meanwhile, reading material is passive; it stays where you left off, ready for the reader to pick back up. A book, a book on Kindle, a magazine, a website. Reading also does not dragoon others who are in shouting range into listening to something they do not care about — which is rude when it is someone with whom you live; which is perhaps a fire-able offense in the workplace.

Also, I doubt that the money coming in, on podcasts, amounts to much of anything. Simmons’s current sponsors appear to be SeatGeek, an “event ticket marketplace”, and Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans.

Not exactly Coke or GM or Apple.

Meanwhile, podcasts are popping up like mushrooms. The Ringer has maybe a dozen. The FiveThirtyEight website, in which I also am interested, has at least two podcasts. Every newspaper you can think of has one or two or a while panoply.

However …

It probably is fair to suggest that the homey sponsors of those podcasts are not spending enough to pay the salary of one employee — let alone Bill Simmons.

So, podcasts … New revenue? Yes, but less so all the time. Difficult to commit to, numbers of listeners insufficient to attract top advertisers, revenue streams probably muted.

I know, what are news and entertainment organizations to do?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m pretty sure nickel-and-dime podcasts are not the answer.




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