Opinion

Australia’s podcasting boom has finally arrived

Tim BurrowesWith print publishers racing to get on board, consumers back in love and brands recognising it as the next frontier of native advertising, podcasting is the medium of 2015, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.    

Back in 2012 I found myself at a gathering of a cult.

I joined hundreds of disciples gathered at Sydney’s Town Hall to worship at the feet of Ira Glass. Tickets to hear from the host of This American Life were so in demand that they put on a second late show.

With just an iPad in his hand to play audio clips and control a music bed as he talked, the presenter of This American Life gripped the room.

Ira Glass (Picture by Ricky Montalvo)

This American Life’s Ira Glass (Picture by Ricky Montalvo, shared under Creative Commons)

And I realised that the exclusive club of This American Life podcast listeners in Australia was a bit bigger than I’d thought.

Really, I should have known. When ABC Radio National picked it up for rebroadcast in 2011, the response on our comment thread was ecstatic. And it actually gets nearly a million downloads an episode from around the world.

If I were to make a list of things I love most, listening to podcasts would be up there. And This American Life was the gateway drug. Week after week, the quality of the storytelling and level of production moves, entertains and informs me. It’s usually uploaded in time to fall asleep to on a Monday night, Australian time.

Whether trying to fall asleep, pass time on a long run or commute, podcasts are the bomb.

And yet, it also feels like the last medium that is also a bit of a club.

facebook TAL recommendationWhen a friend on Facebook shares a reference to a podcast you love, there’s a feeling of affirmation you don’t get by talking about Masterchef around the metaphorical watercooler.

And a recommendation from a friend of a new podcast to listen to is gold.

facebook rum rebels ratbags

None of which is new of course. But it does feel as if we’re hitting some sort of tipping point where podcasting went out of fashion for a while – but it now heading towards the mainstream. And we’re also seeing a shift from radio shows also going out as podcasts, to podcast-first productions.

A few days ago I sat in X Studio in Kings Cross as Mark Bouris – who you’ll probably know as the boss from Celebrity Apprentice and owner of Yellow Brick Road – recorded his own podcast.

He started it a few weeks ago. Not long ago it was number six in the iTunes chart of top business podcast listening in Australia.

itunes business podcast hcart

Bouris’s manager Nick Fordham tells me that the podcast is delivering about 100,000 downloads per episode, and has already delivered a total of half a million downloads.

Although the show has a sponsor in Audible (Amazon’s talking books product), that doesn’t appear to be the main motivation in doing it.

Clearly it offers an opportunity of shaping his own personal brand.

During the recording I attended, Bouris was kicking off his alternative to Shark Tank – positioning himself as a nurturing mentor, supporting entrepreneurs rather than taking the combative approach of the investors on the Channel Ten show.

Cricketer Ed Cowan pitches his business idea to Bouris while Fordham looks on

Cricketer Ed Cowan pitches his business idea to Bouris while Fordham looks on

What’s also interesting about the above chart of top business shows for Australia is that two of the three locally made shows are independent productions.

As I say, Bouris records his at X Studio with his agent Nick Fordham overseeing production.

And another high flyer in that chart is an Aussie indie – Darren Rowse, the Melbourne-based creator of the Problogger website.

Darren Rowse Mumbrella360

Blogger Darren Rowse – now a podcaster too

Rowse launched his podcast just a few weeks ago, and quickly became one of the most listened to business podcasts.

It extends his existing position as an authority on blogging and offers a daily tip on strategies to build audience and monetise blogs. He also upsells additional educational resources.

When I last looked, the only traditional media company to have a podcast in the business top ten is 2GB’s Steve Price. (ABC and Alan Kohler, where are you?)

darren woolley podcastAnd also joining the fray in the last few weeks is Trinity P3 boss Darren Woolley with his own podcast with episodes aimed at marketers trying to better manage their agency relationships. You can hear Mumbrella’s deputy editor Nic Christensen share his tips on engaging with the trade press here.

But the second coming goes further than that. The godfather of Australian podcasting is arguably Cameron Reilly, whose G’Day World which began in 2004 was thought to be the first Australian produced podcast.

Reilly created The Podcast Network which at its height produced 100 shows and had a global monthly audience of half a million before being crippled by the GFC in 2009 and closing in 2012.

But recent months have seen TPN reborn, thanks to the success of Reilly’s Life Of Caesar history podcast.

The Podcast Network history

TPN’s potted history

Indeed, one of the attractions of podcasting is the ability of independent voices to insert themselves into the agenda. NRL fan podcast Sharkcast, presented by two Cronulla fans, recently led the mainstream media when they interviewed the club’s coach Shane Flanagan and he said a little too much about the future of player Paul Gallen.

Similarly, I’ve been a long time fan of satirical podcast The Bugle, presented by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman. Oliver visited Australia to film a segment for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. In the podcast, he described Australia as one of the world’s “most comfortably racist places” he had visited. I wrote a news story about his comments, and it was picked up across the world and became our most read story of 2013.

Which isn’t to suggest that an obvious business model is always there.

We used to do a weekly podcast ourselves. But our sales team struggled to monetise it. That harder-to-communicate metric of engagement – the willingness of a comparatively small number of people to commit up to an hour to listening – versus the high reach of the website meant that display ads were always easier products to sell.

For a while Southern Cross Austereo was a sponsor, but in the main, we did it because we loved doing it, and it gave us a reason to talk to some really interesting guests.

It was time consuming, but was my favourite part of the week. I’ve never really stopped thinking about bringing it back.

This monetisation issue is not uncommon.

I’m delighted that Hamish and Andy’s drivetime show is back. They’re some of the funniest, most talented broadcasters that Australia has ever produced.

But I’m still at my desk when the show airs. Happily there is a podcast. Having retained the digital rights to their show whose on air sponsor was Woolworths, it took a while for them to get a sponsor, but now have HTC.

Arguably, podcasts became fashionable when last year’s This American Life spin-off Serial became a bit of a hipster sensation when it reinvestigated an old court case and explored whether a young man had been wrongly committed of murder.

Even adland is piling in. You know a medium is having a moment when you start stumbling upon agencies crowbarring podcasts into their awards entry case studies, like GPY&Rs Letters of Gallipolli.

Podcasting is a great medium for native advertising. Macquarie Radio Network has cottoned on. In  June it created The Road Next Travelled for Colonial Real Estate. It featured Ray Martin talking about retirement.

ray martin road next travelled

MRN’s podcast for Colonial First State

But more so than brands, podcasting is sweeping Australia’s non broadcast newsrooms. Like The Daily Telegraph’s Teletalk, which sees the Sydney newspaper’s columnists and journos take a tilt at talk radio. They’re currently posting four or five audio pieces a day.

Most ambitious from the Tele stable has been The Alibi, the Sunday Tele’s reinvestigation of two Sydney murders. The inspiration of Serial is overt – the series is named after the first episode of Serial, which was also called The Alibi.

But what impressed me about The Alibi is that the ambitions were towards radio levels of production, editing and music.

And the Sydney Morning Herald is also getting in on the action. It launched its Science Is Golden podcast, presented by science editor Nicky Phillips, in August.

A big question is whether university journalism courses are yet teaching the skills needed to deliver a good podcast. Certainly, the argument that they should be teaching podcasting skills is beginning to take off in the US. I understand that in Australia, Melbourne’s La Trobe University is about to launch a new second year subject for media and journalism student that will focus on podcasting

Consumer expectations have also caught up with one of the biggest attractions of podcasting. Podcasting is to radio as streaming is to television. In the same way that Netflix and other streaming services are teaching consumers to watch what they want ,when they want, podcasts have always had the same advantage over radio.

Of course, that on-demand expectation can be complementary, and extend a show’s reach. I have absolutely no idea when ABC Radio National’s Media report goes out (Thursday? Friday?), but I do know that it’s waiting for me in my iPhone by the time Saturday morning comes when I want to hear it.

Speaking of media, I’m a huge fan of James Manning’s Media Week podcast. His persistence with a recalcitrant Peter Meakin, then Seven’s news and current affairs boss, remains for me one of the best examples I’ve heard of a journo getting an interviewee to open up just by sticking with it. It went from Meakin blocking and parrying to one of the most entertaining interviews I’ve heard him give.

Right now, it feels like exciting news is coming every day of new developments in podcasting.

Earlier this week, Andrew Denton, one of Australia’s smartest broadcasting minds, told Junkee that he has been travelling the world creating a podcast series about euthanasia.

“I’ve also been keeping my brain busy and have spent most of this year quietly working on a podcast series about euthanasia, for which I’ve travelled around Australia, and to Belgium, The Netherlands and Oregon (three places where euthanasia, or assisted dying, is legal) and spoken to upwards of 100 different people on all sides of the argument. It’s been intense and very challenging and the edit lies ahead (cue panic). Expect to see it somewhere online in November.”

I can’t wait to hear it.

I think it may be time to put my money where my mouth is, and get back in the podcasting game myself. So I’m going to be brushing up on my skills. I see The Guardian’s organising a podcasting masterclass next month. I’ve bought my ticket.

Right now,  anybody who is in journalism, or indeed anywhere in the business of helping brands talk to consumers, needs a sensible answer to the question: “Shouldn’t we be doing a podcast?”

  • Tim Burrowes is Mumbrella’s content director. He used to present The Mumbrellacast. Maybe he will again.
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