It made me want to scream

Before I moved into podcasting and writing full time, I was in charge of a UK current affairs magazine's website for about five years. A couple of times a month, on average, someone from a tech startup or a PR firm or an advertising agency would email me and offer to come in and present an exciting new product to me and my colleagues that was going to revolutionise the way we did journalism and — crucially — how we made money to support it.

Maybe twice a year, when feeling hungry or weak or tired or all three, I would give in and let one of these very persistent people come in and do their demonstration. Every single time, it would turn out that their entire pitch was “you should do video”. It made me want to scream. Sometimes, I would go outside afterwards to the deserted churchyard near the office and do just that.

This is also how I feel when I see people suggesting that podcasts would be better if they had moving pictures attached. There are lots of good reasons why anyone — from a legacy media company to a wannabe teenage vlogger — might decide to start making videos. The advertising revenue for pre-roll can be very good, and through YouTube there’s a giant distribution platform just waiting for your content. But to do it well (and profitably), you need time, expensive equipment, expertise and ideas suited to the form. Taking a publication already successful in another medium, like a magazine or a podcast, and suggesting that it “do video” on the side in the cheapest and most basic way is not a strategy for long term survival or growth.

For podcasts it’s especially pointless. Podcasts are a secondary medium — and that’s part of why they’ve grown in popularity. You can listen while exercising, working, driving, cooking or falling asleep. They leave your hands and eyes free to do other tasks safely. The form integrates into your existing routine, and you don’t need to find extra time for your listening. Advertisers who get audio like this: podcast audiences are loyal, and engaged, and mostly captive. It all works just fine.

And yet still, every so often, companies unveil their “video but for podcasting” tools. I this happens because podcasts still have this sheen of being a new and whizzy technology — I mean, is anybody pitching “video but for radio”? As far as I know, Spotify is the latest to do this for podcasts, with their “Spotlight” strand. Their visual podcasts “feature a multimedia component that includes text, video, and photos” while the audio plays. It is, essentially, a sliding presentation like you might watch while a speaker is delivering an address at a conference. Except you aren’t sitting in a room with your undivided attention on the presentation. You’re ignoring the visual element because you’re driving a car and just want to listen to your favourite podcast in peace.

These days, some podcast with the resources to do so will film their whole recording to have video clips to use for social media (which remains sadly audio-phobic, more on that another day), or stick the whole thing up on YouTube to make a bit of ad revenue that way. I have no problem with this: these are spin off products from your original, audio show and you aren’t trying to make anything visual that doesn’t need to be.

I make but one exception for my “no video in podcasts, it’s pointless” rule, and that is for audio not in your first language. I have written in a previous letter about the Radio Atlas project, which seeks out excellent audio from around the world and puts it out with English subtitles. The video element is integral to my being able to understand these shows, and I like making time to sit down and listen to/watch it. As for the rest? Stick to audio.