Alex Blumberg and Ira Glass. Unquestionably two metaphorical giants of the podcasting game.
And for BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Radio Hour I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing both of them for the same show.
The premise of the programme is to ‘take the pulse’ of the podcasting world by talking to the people who make our favourite shows. The radio show is only one hour long – the stature of either of them meant we could have easily produced a 2-hour show for each – however, it was nevertheless fascinating insight into an ever-evolving industry.
Here are some snippets…
SHOW ME THE MONEY
We booked in Alex Blumberg before Spotify’s acquisition of his company, Gimlet Media. This show went out the same week the news broke. We asked him if the move would make it more difficult for the smaller, more independent, podcasters. He basically said that, if anything, it would ultimately help:
“When you look at the amount of money that is in audio (US Dollars spent) and the amount of listens (time spent) in audio. And then you look at the amount of time-spent viewing and the amount of money that is in video, there’s a huge discrepancy between how valuable ‘the eye’ is and how valuable ‘the ear’ is. It’s like ten to one.”
So what does Ira Glass think of Spotify’s acquisition of Alex Blumberg’s Gimlet Media? Will it change things for good?
“My thoughts? I’m super-glad for Alex! He wanted this to happen and he wanted to be doing this thing that made money and he has realised his ambition. And I love the fact that Gimlet has created this army of people making podcasts over there.
And what it means for podcasting?
It’s interesting. I feel like in the short term there’s a form of land grab that’s just starting to get podcasts under some institutionalised umbrella. And if you look at where most people get their podcasts right now, most people listen on iTunes because most podcasting is done on the iPhone because of a couple of things, including the fact that the iPhone has an in-built podcast app.
But clearly Spotify has said very aggressively that they’re going to throw US$500 million more dollars at investing in podcasts and so basically what they want to be is the place people will want to go for their podcasts instead of Stitcher, or Pocket Casts, or any of the other alternatives because it makes business sense for them.
And so, for those of us who are making shows, the question is ‘do we want to be acquired? Either bought up or do licensing deals with these big aggregators? And I’m sure Spotify rivals will make big plays for this area too.”
Traditionally, radio documentaries in the UK (mainly from the BBC) have an authoritarian voice guiding the listener through the programme. But podcasting is changing all that. Is this “podcast way” of telling a story just a traditional way of making audio programmes in the US (born through shows like This American Life) which has seeped through to podcasting? Or, is it very much a podcast trait that has grown organically?
“I don’t know, to be honest with you. I think it may be a couple of things. One – it was a natural type of outgrowth; I think a lot of this goes back to Ira [Glass] who started This American Life. Ira was a pioneer and I think he definitely had a vision and he had a way of telling stories that he really cared about. Part of what he was reacting to was the authoritarian – “Voice of God” style – of radio broadcasting in general. He wanted to make it much more ‘human scale’ and much more intimate and much more… every day.
And that strain still exists in podcasting today and other shows like Radio Lab picked it up – they would record themselves coming into the studio. And then that type of trait has been picked up by places like The Daily (from The New York Times), which really takes you behind the scenes. You’re privy to production questions like, “how do we find the story?” and it exposes the working of it.
So part of it is a stylistic response to the way things existed before – that Ira started and continues to this day. Also though, the reason I think this style has proven so robust is because it does highlight things audio is good at. I think audio is a particular authentic medium. I think you can hear when people are speaking from the heart in a way you can’t necessarily see or read. And so I think audio is particularly good at emotional authenticity and with that comes transparency.”
And does Ira appreciate the impact he’s had on the evolution of the podcast?
“It’s funny because [my presentation style] was not seen as an asset to the programme at the very beginning when we were first on the air in 1995. At the time, when we were trying to get the show on-air, programme directors of Public Radio stations knew me because I was a reporter on NPR – the American BBC – and I had been a reporter for years, and they were like ‘Ira, he’s a good reporter but when are you going to get a proper host for the show?’ And I would say that I couldn’t afford a host, I don’t have the money, and so you’re stuck with me!
And then as an aesthetic choice, I was aware that anything gets through to you more deeply on the radio if it sounds more like people talking… and so since this is the way I really talk, I tried to invent a way of talking on the radio with a script that would imitate the way I really talk in real life. Actually, I did a local show in Chicago for five years to try and train myself out of sounding like a BBC or NPR reporter. Because, before that point in my career, that is how I very much sounded like all the other formal reporters.
It’s amazing to me that the style has been imitated because I don’t enunciate, d’you know what I mean? Like, I’m not a person who one should imitate really. I’ll be in a city giving a talk to a Public Radio audience and people would be like ‘you have such a voice for radio!’ and I would say ‘no I don’t!’ – I think it really speaks to the power of repetition. What I have is such a civilian-level voice – if you hear someone with an incredible radio voice, you can totally tell the difference between that person and me – I have the voice of maybe your Uncle, or your cousin or something, but you’re used to hearing me on the radio so it makes sense.”
It’s a fascinating time to be working in podcasting.
On one hand, we’re way past the ‘wild west’ phase because there’s a real industry here with real money changing hands and an ever growing user-base.
However, on the other hand, there is still a long way to go before we start seeing any type of parity with other rival mediums, such as radio, television and digital advertising in terms of both revenues and interactions.
Watch (or listen to) this space.