Episode 51: Podcast Saga Part 4 - What about the Audience?


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            My time shopping all the various potential college majors drilled in the point that there are going to be several if not outright dozens of different ways to approach each and every problem. Some might be more obvious than others, but the final choice needs to be made with the end goal in mind.

            And that might seem poetic, but that’s definitely not what I did with my college major. Do I regret it? Nope. That worked out. So hopefully this will too.

Because here’s the thing. Ultimately, at this point, I face a dilemma between data and philosophy. And in some ways, the answer should be clear. Data. Data gives you an accurate picture of what is happening in an easy and straightforward manner. Data is king because it presents you the facts in a way that can immediately confirm or disprove your suspicions. But, yeah, I’m stepping away from hard data for this episode. Which, I didn’t think I was going to do when I started mapping out this entire saga a few weeks ago and I’m still uncertain if I should.

On the other hand, that’s what I feel like I need to do. Because maybe some things really do need data to back them up, but in this case, I would be risking losing the forest through the trees as the saying goes, and I really need to talk about the forest for now. We can always go back to the trees later.

            Because here’s the problem with data: it is—in many ways—a practical manifestation of Zeno’s arrow paradox. The paradox that says: for an object to be in motion, it needs to change position across time. So in any one instant—separated and distinct instant—the arrow is not moving. There’s no time and no change in position. The arrow is neither moving to where it is nor to where it isn’t. And that creates a distorted picture of circumstance. You think you know where the arrow is now and what it is doing, but the actual trajectory, the journey the arrow is in fact taking, is lost.

            Sometimes I worry about the same thing happening with data. It’s a picture of the moment, but the actual trajectory of the arrow or—in this case—of the podcast listener, might be lost. Or at least hard to see.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 51.

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            Last week, I talked about the barrier of entry for podcast creators, building off of podcasting’s hard to place and somewhat accidental creation. Because Apple and really no one had enough invested to justify intervention, particularly intervention that dictated who would and would not find success, the fledging podcasting scene was able to develop organically, leading to the slew of varied and sometimes outright absurd content you see today.

            The other side of this is, quite obviously, the audience. A dimension that I haven’t really seen anyone discuss. And that might be for a good reason. Or—at least—it maybe is just been too simplistic for people to feel the need to go too far into it. But in light of certain developments involving something kind of like “the Hulu of podcasts…” Cough. Cough. It might be worth going into, even if it’s only to set up for a discussion on that start up idea.

            Because here’s the thing, innovations to podcasting—if that’s what they, in fact, are—will be subject to the approval of the podcast audience, particularly anything that goes against the pre-established norms and the expectations the audience has come to develop across time. In some ways, recent years have seen these norms and expectation being pushed a bit, which is what makes podcasting a worthwhile endeavor financially. But there is nuance to this that needs to be discussed.

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            The most obvious norm is the price audiences would expect to pay, something that could be conceived of as a barrier to entry for anyone who wants to listen to a good story or a good conversation. Specifically that there hasn’t been one. Not as a choice but as an inevitability, to be completely honest.

            Remember podcasting’s history—back when it was known by a different or lack of name—lies in audio blogging, and there’s seldom a price of admission associated with a blog. For a few reasons. One, when most people launch their blog, there’s no real audience willing to financially opt into any content hidden behind a paywall. And given how hard it could be to grow an initial audience, it wouldn’t be wise to turn anyone away. Assuming you could construct or had access to a pay wall system. Also remember that blogging as a phenomenon came from the wild west days of the internet when—to a great extent—everyone was operating on the same digital playing field, able to construct their own platforms for their own voices.

            Audio blogging, as the name implies, is this phenomenon manifesting itself in a particular way. Consequently, it wouldn’t be immune to these problems.

            I know I keep repeating myself, but I’m going to say it again because it’s a key part of the story. The technology for “podcasting” and its terminology were both developed outside of Apple, and podcasting’s inclusion on iTunes might have been motivated in part by a need to strength its trademark over the “iPod,” which could have been part of the portmanteau that created the word “podcast” but also maybe not. The argument wasn’t air tight.

            But because there was no need for the podcast directory on iTunes to be profitable and its existence alone justified its purpose, Apple didn’t need to insist that any podcast producer charge for their content, a fee that then Apple would presumable take a cut of.  Which means, in short, neither the producer nor the directory had any reason to charge for the content, keeping it free and easily consumable for anyone who might be interested in hopes that the financial part could work out later. More on that part in a bit.

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            Without a price attached to it, podcasting, as a new and still newish medium, was and is still readily available even without the need to opt into an expensive service or hardware. I say hardware with a soft asterisk at the end. Yes, iTunes had this image of being a marketplace to buy content for your iPod or Apple device, but it wasn’t limited in the same way modern technologies are. Anything that could hold and play mp3 files could play podcasts acquired from iTunes. So while certain arrangements might not have been ideal, they were still possible and subjected to the approval of the consumer. Like being dependent on your large computer at home. That was entirely up to you if you wanted to do it. There really wasn’t anything stopping you.

            Now, as time has gone on, this went to being a fluke of nature to a norm, but I’d hesitate to call it an entitlement. There might be elements of that there, I won’t deny that. In fact, it might be an extension of human nature to feel like elements of the status quo are either yours by right or things that cannot be changed without your consent or participation. But all of that stands to be unpacked in a very different content that is not here.

            For now, I say that this isn’t n entitlement largely because different deals have been brokered herein between a podcast producer and their audience. Deals that I think are the extension of or part and parcel with the role podcasting took on as an outlet for what a man in an over-priced suit might call an “unconventional or unmarketable narrative.” In more descriptive terms, this is any story that features marginalized characters or narratives that feature aspects of life that traditional have been kept out of the public eye.

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            Take Welcome to Night Vale as an example. The voice of Night Vale, Cecil is a canonically gay man of no description never mind commercially acceptable description in a town where a bunch of conspiracies that have a foothold in our reality are taken to their natural conclusion. Never mind the various plots therein that skirt reality a little bit too closely to not make a few people sweat.

            If a paper description of Night Vale had to go through an outside approval process, it would be a hard sell. Same thing with two other Night Vale Presents shows that I love Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires. But while the initial appeal can be hard to sell to a board room, they’ve gained traction and a strong fan base. Which has led to invitations to join more traditional media spaces in two of those three cases. The third, just because of the style of it, might genuinely be harder to translate and as a virtue harder to sell.

            And while those might be some of the strongest examples because of their audience size, they aren’t the only examples of previously excluded narratives finding their way into public spaces. The 12:37 is sci-fi podcasts where a conventionally unacceptable love interest is front and center in the narrative. And Caravan has what some would call an acceptable character front and center in its story.

            For many people, these previously withheld characters and stories were only available out in the world for the first (soft asterisk) time, and this refuge was available to them for no additional cost. The most basic way of listening to a podcast was through a computer, and given the digitalization of the current era, computers are becoming more of a necessity for other reasons. And if that doesn’t land, let me remind you that almost all job applications or any applications are being done online now. Yeah, we’ve hit that point. Also smartphones have just become the normal phone and mobile phone companies are using them as makeshifts contracts to broker deals with consumers, keeping them on a specific plan longer, my point stands even stronger.


            The tools of being a podcast audience member are found in your daily life, making podcasts easily available to the people who have come to need these stories as a refuge, people who will likely continue to need them when you consider how slowly other media spaces have been to adapt to a demand that—while very real—doesn’t play into their bias for the current status quo. The status quo that makes a lot of money, mind you.

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            For the audience, the status quo of podcasting has been a refuge readily available to them to stay as an audience or enter as a creator, but in so far as the audience understands that there is a cost to the production of the thing they love, they’ve been willing to strike a couple of different compromises.

            The first one I’m going to mention, which is also the quickest to brush aside, is merchandise. T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, etc, etc. Merchandise is part of media consumption in general. It’s a way to have a physical piece of the thing you love, a way to show off the thing you love, and/or a two birds with one stone type thing if the item is something you use a lot like a favorite T-shirt or a mug in the household of a caffeine addict.

            Production can make this harder for a podcast creator to implement, but regardless, it’s the least controversial of anything I’m about the say. The other two would be in podcast advertisements and the Patreon model. And I’m going to rip the band aid off and start with the most… debated one first.

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            Advertisements in podcasting aren’t super-imposed onto them, dictated by an outside hosting service, like you see on YouTube. Rather, a podcast producer selects the ads that run on their content, usually performs the ad read themselves, and then edits it into their show at a point they feel appropriate. Sure, a podcast network might play a heavy hand in selecting what ads are run on each individual program, but the relationship is also a more personal one. A network understands the content and normally has a greater investment in the success of that show’s character and purpose.

            Now, this is a power that the creator holds that maybe isn’t always handled well. Admittedly, I’ve definitely heard some pitches for less than reputable companies, but that’s not the point here. The point is that creators can put advertisements in their work to help cover the cost of production, and these advertisements consist of certain talking points written out by the company paying for the ad-space, though the creator can and often does take certain stylistic liberties. In my opinion, this creates a weird hybrid of sales pitch and content, particularly when it comes to the two-dudes talking genre of podcasting or any ad-read that’s done almost in character. This can be surreal but not entirely unenjoyable advertisements.

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            But advertisements are incredibly annoying, you might be thinking. And I agree to a great extent. For example, I genuinely hate unskippable horror movie ads on YouTube videos and extremely targeted ads on Facebook that kind of creep me out. But the nature of podcasting advertisements avoids a great deal of this. I’m not getting something I’m not expecting or couldn’t handle, but while the odds are that I’d be interested in the product being advertised, there’s still a communal aspect to this ad that doesn’t make it feel like a direct attack. All listeners to the podcast are hearing it, and in this way, I am not nor do I need to feel singled out or selected.

            Ultimately, though, what sets podcasting ads apart from most other ads in the digital space is that the audience can technically skip them. You can jump ahead in the player manually, but there are also a great deal of players that come with a skip forward ten seconds or thirty seconds button.

            And this is where the contention lies. Yes, I’ve seen people complain about ads full stop, usually in the context of the more mainstream podcasts like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, but often times, the more defensive reactions—that would be ready to call themselves justified—come when the topic of skipping these ads is mentioned.

            Now, creators and advertisers don’t know if an ad is skipped; they just know how much of a product is purchased. And therein lies the nuance to the situation.

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            Confession. I have skipped podcasting ads. Usually when it’s a product I already use or have heard about. Curiosity will get me to listen to other ad-reads because I know they are harmless and hey, maybe I will want the thing. But if I’m already giving a company my money, not only do I not need to be sold on the virtues of their product, I’m also likely ineligible for whatever arrangement sends a kick back to the creator I am currently listening to. And there are other ads that I might make a mental note of, but I’ve heard them before, and I still have no use for the item therein. Hence why I skip. There’s nothing for me, the company, or the creator to gain from my listening, so I skip that.

            I think I’m making an informed choice, so telling me that I shouldn’t do that can feel like it’s an attack on that informed choice or my ability to make informed choices. And that sort of thing never lands well, but on the other hand, there is a sense of trust from creator to audience that—when happening on that scale and given that this is a livelihood we are talking about—isn’t sustainable. So maybe a creator cannot that I genuinely skipping an ad only when I cannot use.

            But the concern therein, isn’t so much about the ad. It’s about the fickle nature of a financial stability for someone making online content. And the fact that there is a limited number of companies willing to invest into this circle, leading to repetition or general uselessness.

            Ultimately, I and a great deal of people, likely, could accept this as long as the trust I place in the creator isn’t squandered by having a shady company being pushed, but even then, it doesn’t feel as shady as when a YouTuber does it. But that’s speculation that needs its own episode. I just can’t… unpack that right now. There’s a lot there. But the point I’m trying to make is that advertising in podcasting isn’t the pox that some would expect. It’s more of a secondary one that highlights other problems with the podcasting infrastructure.

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            The other method—one that’s increasingly being utilized by creators of digital media across all platforms—is Patreon or some other model of that sort. A fan of a creator can pledge a few dollars a month—or more if they can afford it—and in exchange, they gain additional content or other sorts of perks the creator laid out when a subscriber is considering joining. This could be merchandise, shout outs, a creator’s blog or early access to episodes. It can vary wildly between creators as each has their own material they are willing and able to offer. And that’s not actually an issue at all. Because before you pledge, you can see what each predefined level will get you, and creators can also lay out goals that the Patreon branch of their community can work together to reach.

            This creates an exchange between the creator and portions of the audience that can be opted into or out of at any time. For everyone else, they can remain at the level of support, even if it is zero, that they feel comfortable with.

            Though some people might still have their protests and criticisms of that system, whatever they may be rooted in, there is still a clear strength to this approach. One that is somewhat ironic when you consider the advertising discussion I just tried to lay out. In this context, the irony is that this is an informed decision just like skipping irrelevant advertisements can be. In some ways, it’s just more transparent because joining someone’s Patreon is an opting into a system rather than the opting out that is ignoring advertisements.

            I know what I can afford because of the creator’s defined tiers, I can price out what I see and whether or not those rewards and the knowledge I’m supporting a podcast that I love, are worth what is being asked of me.

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            The main drawback here that should be pointed out is that transcripts are often seen as a potential Patreon reward tier. Like I mentioned last week, transcripts can be somewhat contentious as an issue, but they do have a purpose for certain members of the podcasting community. People who can’t or have difficulty hearing, difficulty processing auditory stimuli, or difficulty with understanding the language the podcast is being broadcasted in.

            In so far as there has been a barrier to entry to podcast listening, it’s been these groups of people that have had to face it. A key component they need to enjoy the show is being kept out of their reach, though in many cases, it often doesn’t exist at all.

            I know why this is the case. It’s an easy tier to create that for a great deal of your audience is, in fact a novelty. And if you do not have a scripted podcast, then asking your audience to pay for it will offset the costs of its creation. And if this is not your experience, like it hasn’t been mine, this isn’t something you would think about right away.

            I’ve definitely seen discussions of this that—given the speaker’s grounding and perspective—are more thorough and nuanced than anything I could offer. Source 1 of a rather source-lite episode will be the Twitter feed of Access The Pod. Eli who runs that account speaks from the perspective of someone who does need transcripts, so their perspective on that issue is invaluable for anyone who needs to understand the lived experiences of someone who needs this thing that you as a potential podcast creator might not need.

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            What I am qualified and able to do is something I’m going to do next week. Basically, there’s a book called The Politics of Storytelling by Michael Jackson. No, not that Michael Jackson but an unfortunately named Harvard Divinity professor. The central argument of that book has important implications specifically for what the audio drama community has become and when viewed in those terms, the philosophical stakes of accessibility become a bit more clear.

            After that, I’m going to try and tackle the main virtue of the whole “Netflix of podcasting” that somewhat protected it from its own blunders. And ultimately, if the people running it decided double down and this particular choice, they’re more likely to find the success they are hoping for while still giving back to the hashtag-podern-family and the indie podcasting community.

            But for now, here’s the fourth and final trailer for my audio drama, The Oracle of Dusk, readily available to you. Wherever you are currently hearing my voice. And transcripts are also readily available at the oracleofdusk.online

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            I can't make you listen. I can't make you do anything. If I am a guide, then you are my client. And you are free to ignore me at any time. And you will ignore me. When it becomes too much for you to bear. And then you will come back when the curiosity tips the scale the other way.

            I am here for you. It's hard to believe that when we don't even know each other's names. When we didn't chose to work together.

            I can't fix much. Call me Delphi.

            Now return the favor. And tell me. (Music cuts) Are you listening? (Music fades in)

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