In Australia, podcasting is not radio’s side hustle

For those of us who aren’t American, podcasting can seem very US-centric. I understand why this is the case: the industry is most developed there of all English-speaking territories, with larger budgets, more networks and bigger ad spends. But America is not the world, and increasingly I find myself interested in what’s going on with podcasting elsewhere. It’s fairly easy for me to get to grips with the UK scene, since I’m part of it, but it’s my aim to have an irregular series running through this newsletter where I talk to people from other places about how podcasting looks where they are.

Today, we’re starting off with Australia. Kellie Riordan is the manager of ABC Audio Studios and a long-time commentator on radio and podcasting. I spoke to her over the phone while she was in the UK recently — here’s an edited and truncated version of our conversation.

Where is podcasting up to in Australia?

Overall, it's really growing quite rapidly now, which is excellent — in the Edison Infinite Dial report that came out a month or two ago the awareness of podcasting is actually higher in Australia than the US. It sits at about 78 per cent, which is incredible. However, listening on a by week or by month basis is a little lower than in the US (depending on the age demographic you’re looking at it’s at around about 20 per cent). That’s a real opportunity, though, because it says that people know about podcasting, they’re a little bit interested in it, they’ve heard of it, but we’ve got that same barrier that so many other podcasters have which is that people still don't always know how to do it. We’ve still got that discoverability issue.

But on the whole, what we’re seeing is digital-first podcasts, podcasts that don’t have a linear or terrestrial radio life, increasingly dominating the market. That’s really great, because I think podcasting version 1.0 in around 2004-2005 was very much about shifting a radio show, whereas in the last few years in Australia, if you look at the things that are getting traction and the bigger downloads — sure, there’s still some radio shows (one of the ones that my team produces, Conversations with Richard Fidler, is still the most popular podcast in Australia, that one is a radio show) but most of the other ones that are gaining traction are actually digital-first podcasts. That’s really exciting.

My team at ABC Audio Studios is quite focused just on digital-first podcasts. We’ve more than tripled our numbers in the last 12 months, because we’ve really doubled down on creating pure podcasts that fit the podcast landscape and fit with on-demand consumption. We aren’t shackled to a radio schedule and also go after a younger audience. The ABC radio audience, much like the BBC one, skews older. What podcasting is doing, of course, is creating that audio habit for people in their thirties who never listen to the radio in their house.

I feel like there is still a residual desire in Britain generally, but specifically in the BBC, to persuade those people that they should be listening to the radio rather than just saying ‘fine, we'll just distribute our content where you want to listen to it, rather than trying to move you back to our radio stations’.

That’s such a mistake. I mean, of course you still want to shift those people back to the radio base, but personally I think it’s OK if they never go back to the radio, as long as they’re listening to amazing audio created by the ABC that tells contemporary Australian stories and fits with our editorial policies and our charter and things like that. Whether someone consumes it in the on-demand environment or on a radio, to me that’s almost the wrong argument.

Are there particular technological challenges that you’re keen to see solved? I talk to a lot of people who want a better way for listeners to find podcasts in the first place.

Absolutely, I’m as obsessed with that as everybody else and no one’s quite cracked it yet. My hope is that smart speakers and things like that may remove some of the barriers. Fast forward a few years, and if a lot of people have smart speakers and they can literally just use their voice to say ‘please play me the latest episode of Ladies, We Need to Talk’, which is one of our podcasts, and that just happens seamlessly, that will be a game changer for us. In the meantime, I do have someone in my team that’s very focused on making sure we’re well-represented on all the different podcasting apps, and while I think in the past Apple has dominated, the changes that Google has made already to the way podcasting happens on Android will really bust things open.

I understand the ABC hasn’t really done comedy in a big way before, so do you have a blank slate now that you’re starting to do it with your podcasts?

We’re not fighting against a legacy brand or a heritage issue, so that’s really freeing. There’s a little bit of comedy that's done on our triple j breakfast programme, our youth network, but it’s not properly formatted shows, it’s just that there are funny people on the breakfast show. Aside from that, the ABC hasn't really done a lot in that space.

But we know that people like to laugh, and what we’re finding is when you do a blend of comedy and another genre that really works. So over the summer we did one called The Urnbelievable Ashes Podcast, because we knew that Australians are interested in the cricket, the English are interested in the cricket, so what if we got some comedians to do a six-episode series about the Ashes, but they’re not doing blow by blow sports commentary, they’re actually making jokes and doing some skits? That comedy-sport mashup is really successful and that went really well for us. I’m increasingly starting to think about comedy as not always a pure offer. For instance, another of our shows The Pineapple Project, which is about money and finance, is hosted by comedian.

So the ABC Audio Studios, that’s a podcasting-first team within the ABC?

Yes it is, and I’ve got a couple of executive producers like Tom Wright, who is E.P. of comedy, and an E.P. of our family content, and then I also have a general E.P. who is looking at that more narrative, storytelling style of podcast. We’ve literally been going for one year this month, and we’ve gone from three or four podcasts to a slate of twenty five to thirty. . . I've got an E.P. for true crime as well, so we’ve built up a crime strand too. It’s all scaled up quite quickly, but we’ve seen the opportunity, and I’ve long been arguing to the ABC that we should really be in this space — not as an additional thing to the radio or a side hustle. I’ve been saying that increasingly, it’s the main game.

I'm definitely feeling that that’s what's happening with podcasting everywhere — that it starts as an afterthought and then becomes the whole show.

I think if you view it as an afterthought you’re not understanding the the podcast audience. It’s such a fun experience, it’s not over there in the corner of a living room, it’s in people’s ear buds, and we know that it’s so much more authentic and conversational and intimate. You might say ‘well, isn’t that what radio is?' and I think it is what radio can be and what it should be but we know that a lot of radio shows still sound like a ‘one to many’ communication and have have really tied formats. Podcasting gives you that option to shake things up.

For more of Kellie’s insights, follow her on Twitter @KellieRiordan or subscribe to her newsletter here.