Episode Four: The Future of Podcasting
December 13, 2021See All Episodes (s1)
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In this final episode of Season One, I try to wrap up my discussion of the video podcasts and talk a bit about the future of podcasts more broadly. Despite my best efforts to keep us exploring the area besidethe rabbit hole and not go too deep into it, it seems like we inadvertently ended up there anyway. So in this last episode I try to walk us back up to the surface by talking back over my experience of producing a video podcast and finally by considering Spotify’s recently announced video feature.
What makes a podcast a podcast is not so much the file type, format, or how it gets shared but the relation between the producer and the audience. Yes, that’s a fairly vague and unsatisfying definition. So maybe we don’t have a good definition of what really makes a podcast a podcast, but maybe that’s okay. But even if we struggle to define it, there’s something special about this format – and the possibility for an intimate connection between producer and listener.
Podcasts are a medium that lets us share our experiences in the world, and to partake in the experiences of others. And hopefully I don’t have to convince you that there is significant value in that. So let’s keep listening to podcasts, and let’s keep making them. And no, they don’t necessarily have to be video!
Additional Works Cited:
Morris, Jeremy Wade. “The Spotification of Podcasting.” In Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, edited by Jeremy Wade Morris and Eric Hoyt, 208–23. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021.
Schwarz, Jonas Andersson. 2013. Online File Sharing: Innovations in Media Consumption. New York: Routledge.
Ben: Hey there, and welcome back to another episode of Beside the Rabbit Hole. I’m your host, Ben Pettis, and for the past few episodes, I’ve been talking about this idea of video podcasts, what they were, and why they never fully took off. Believe it or not, this is going to be the last episode of this first season – so I’m going to try my best to provide at least some type of a conclusion – and to walk us back out of the rabbit hole. Because despite my best efforts to keep us from going too far down a definitional rabbit hole, my fear is that we’ve somehow ended up in there anyway. And to try and wrap things up, I want to take some time to think about the possible future of video podcasts.
But before we get into all of that — The last episode was a little bit different than all the previous ones, so I want to take a moment to talk it over. Given that this first season of the podcast is already pretty meta – being a podcast about podcasts – it seemed only fitting to try and produce a video podcast in my discussion of video podcasts.
Depending on the podcast app that you’re using to subscribe to this podcast (btw, please subscribe), you may or may not have even seen the video episodes. If your app has only been showing you the audio episodes, you can find a copy of the videos – as well as other supplementary content – online at benpettis.com/podcast.
In that last episode, I talked through the “technological re-enactment” and how I used that method to get a sense of what it was like to watch video podcasts. In other words, I was mainly talking about the reception side of things. But since I was actually making the podcast too, I guess I indirectly got a feel for the production process as well.
If any of you have ever made your own media—audio, video, or otherwise—then I’m sure you know just how involved of a process it is. And especially when making the jump from audio to video, the workload increases significantly. I bring this up not because I want to complain about how much work that last episode took me (okay, maybe that’s a little bit of it). But no, the main reason I bring this up is because I think it parallels what I experienced with the reception side of things. To watch a video podcast, it took comparatively more effort and hassle to get videos onto a mobile device, and the payoff was pretty low. It didn’t offer too much benefit. Similarly, it takes a lot more effort and hassle to produce a video, and I’m honestly not sure how much it really offers.
Sure, I think that some things benefitted from the video – such as being able to see my actual screen recordings of converting and copying videos. But a lot of it felt unnecessary; When I’m just monologuing to the camera, it could work just as well as an audio-only format.
And then there’s the whole matter of accessibility and ease of use—again, not in terms of reception but of production. One of the whole idealistic promises of podcasting was that anyone could do it. The barriers to entry of producing a podcast are much lower than that of getting on terrestrial radio. Thanks to apps like Anchor, you don’t even need a computer to make a podcast – you could theoretically do it all from your phone. And while consumer video recording technology has made rapid strides, it is still comparatively more work to produce a video podcast than an audio one. Think about it – you can record high quality video with many modern smartphones and even edit the video on the same device. But it’s still a lot of extra time and work, and again for little benefit.
Okay, I’m going to get off my “making media is hard” soapbox for now, and move on to the main thing I wanted to get to in this last episode… the future!
[Background Music Begins]
Throughout this season, I’ve been largely looking to the past and asking why video podcasts never took off in popularity. But is there a possible future where they do become a prominent form? Maybe if never taking over the dominance of the audio podcast, is there room for them to become even a bit more widespread?
Well, maybe. Remember a few episodes ago when I said that video podcasts aren’t really a thing anymore? Well, I maybe sorta lied a bit. Sorry. The fact is that there are a good handful of podcasts that incorporate video. And there are plenty more podcasts that are primarily audio, but use YouTube as a distribution platform and so do include some form of video. Sometimes, this is just a simple graphic or animation of an audio waveform, and sometimes it’s just a recording of the Zoom call that the podcasters used to meet and produce the show.
But even if these types of media are calling themselves podcasts, they’re still missing that “podcast-iness” of podcasts – the intimacy that is established between the producer and the audience. They aren’t as easily integrated into personal aspects of the listener’s life. Even if I’m watching a video podcast on my smartphone, it still isn’t as personal a connection to my life and my world as an audio podcast. When I listen to an audio podcast, the podcaster is there with me as I go about my day. But when I watch a video, I’m taken out of my present moment and environment and taken elsewhere. So still a personal connection to be sure, but a different type of relationship and not really the same as podcast intimacy.
So in this sense, a video podcast is actually more similar to other forms of video such as YouTube videos, Twitch streams, or other vlogs. Are vlogs still a thing? Or maybe those other forms of video are in fact the contemporary incarnation of the video podcast. It feels like there is something distinctly different about them, but from a technical standpoint there really isn’t. I guess the only real point of distinction is that intimate relationship between producer and audience, and whether it’s there. And that’s what makes something a podcast or not a podcast.
[Background Music Ends]
And if we take that approach to understanding what a video podcast is, it’s difficult to envision a case where they fully take off.
In late 2021, Spotify announced the gradual roll-out of video podcasts. A select number of producers would be able to start submitting video episodes using their Anchor app and account. And the way they describe it, video will add more options for producers and audiences, and as a whole improve the podcast experience:
Ben (Reading Quote): “Video Podcasts allow fans to feel more connected to creators behind the shows they love: Through video, fans can get to know their favorite podcasters—or the ones they just discovered—better than ever, whether you’re offering them a rich cinematic storytelling experience or just putting a face to the voices in your latest interview.”
Ben: They say that video will improve the connection, but based on everything I’ve seen and through my technological re-enactment of video podcasts, I’m not sure how intimate of a connection this will be. And Spotify seems to be already acknowledging this possibility. They don’t see video as a replacement for audio podcasts, but rather a supplement.
They mention two ways to watch video podcasts on Spotify. First, there’s “active watching” where the video is in the foreground. And then there’s “lean-back listening” with the video in the background. For viewers who want to multitask, they can just minimize the app or player and it will function just like an audio podcast.
But to go back to what I was saying at the very beginning of this episode – is this effort really worth it? It takes a lot more time and effort to produce a video, and Spotify is already pointing out that a lot of the audience won’t even be getting much from the video, or possibly not even watching it at all. If you’re a huge podcast production company, like Gimlet, or even NPR, I’m sure that adding video is a comparatively smaller hurdle – you probably already have staff and funding to make this happen. But if you’re a small independent producer, it’s hard to see it being worthwhile.
Another way to look at this possible future of video podcasts, then, is that it’s another step in what Jonas Anderson has described as the “spotification” of podcasts, a major shift in the medium. Spotification refers to how companies such as Spotify (though not necessarily exclusively) have made approachable and easy-to-use platforms that on the surface seem like the techno-utopian visions of the early Web – where anyone can participate and share. But in reality, it’s a case where content is actually more commercialized and restricted. As Jeremy Morris describes it:
Ben (Reading Quote): “The spotification of podcasting may make podcasts more ubiquitous than ever, but this added visibility might undermine some of the format’s earliest promises of accessibility and diversity of voices.”
“The spotification of podcasting, then, is not just a technical feature update … but it is also a cultural reimagining of how podcasts should be distributed.”
Ben: But despite me being a bit of a techno-pessimist in almost every setting, I’m still cautiously optimistic. Because even as the modes of distribution change, and even as the format itself possibly changes, I think that the core characteristic of podcasts – the podcast intimacy between producer and audience – I think that this will remain.
What makes a podcast a podcast is not so much the file type, format, or how it gets shared but the relation between the producer and the audience. I know, that’s definitely a bit of a vague and possibly unsatisfying definition. But remember, I’m not here to come up with a description that we all agree on in all cases. So maybe we don’t have a good definition of what really makes a podcast a podcast, but maybe that’s okay. Really, what I hope I’ve shown over the past few episodes is that even if we struggle to define it, there’s something special about this format – and the possibility for an intimate connection between producer and listener.
And so, despite the looming threat of Spotification, this is something that we all have some access to still. Podcasts are a medium that lets us share our experiences in the world, and to partake in the experiences of others. And hopefully I don’t have to convince you that there is significant value in that. So let’s keep listening to podcasts, and let’s keep making them. And no, they don’t necessarily have to be video!
Thanks so much for listening to this inaugural season of Beside the Rabbit Hole. I really hope that you’ve enjoyed my thoughts and ramblings, and that maybe you’ve learned a thing or two along the way. If you have enjoyed the show, or just have thoughts or questions for me, please feel free to reach out – my contact information is in the episode description.
Beside the Rabbit Hole is written and produced by me, Ben Pettis.
The theme music, and the music tracks used throughout the episode are by Kevin MacLeod. Full details are in the episode description below.
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Until the next time, take care!
Ben: When I listen to and audio podcast
Gotta not hit the microphone...