It’s time to rename the podcast

I came across this picture in one of the podcasting Facebook groups I’m part of the other day:

It was being shared and discussed because although it’s an advert for The Daily, which is a podcast, it doesn’t actually use the word “podcast” anywhere. Instead, the New York Times’s copy writers have chosen to call it “a daily audio report on demand”.

I strongly suspect they’ve done this here because with this ad they’re trying to sell The Daily to print readers who probably aren’t currently listening to any podcasts (only 44 per cent of people in the US do, according to this research).

For those of us who do listen to a lot of shows, the word “podcast” has plenty of meaning, of course. But when you take a step back and think about it, it’s not actually a very descriptive term. Think about it: if you came across the word in the wild, having never heard of the concept before, would you be able to reverse engineer a definition with just the context on this ad? Especially in 2018, when the link between “iPod” and “podcast” has been broken by near-universal smartphone use?

Given this, it suddenly makes a lot more sense that this ad wouldn’t use the word at all. The makers of The Daily clearly intend the show to reach as large an audience as possible across multiple mediums, given that they recently did a deal to have it broadcast on radio stations as well as online. While those of us already initiated into the podcasting world find the term useful to describe what we listen to and perhaps also as part of our pop cultural identities (“I like podcasts” does suggest a certain kind of person), it might not necessarily be that welcome to those outside the club.

Long time readers of this newsletter will know that I’m somewhat preoccupied with the question of what a podcast actually is. My personal working definition is something like the snappy phrase “on demand internet-first audio”, which isn’t a million miles away from what the NYT have used on this ad, although it is pretty clunky.

I generally incline to the view that it is useful to have a single-word term to describe all the audio people are releasing for consumption online, as opposed to repackaged radio content made available for download. Sometimes, it feels important to be able to refer to the “podcast industry” and “independent podcasters” as a way of organising ourselves and our thoughts about this new media space.

However, I’m open to the idea that “podcast” isn’t the best word for communicating what this industry does to outsiders. The multi-word phrase the NYT has used instead isn’t elegant, but perhaps it’s more descriptive and therefore does a better job of not alienating potential new listeners before they’ve even started to navigate the technological minefield of how to listen to a show.

It’s long been my standard advice to people starting new shows not to include the syllables “pod” or “cast” anywhere in its name or branding, as it can give it a very retro, 2007 sensibility. Perhaps it’s time to rethink how we use the term at all, if we’re to keep growing the number of people who actually listen (rather than just persuade existing podcast initiates to try yet more new shows). I’m afraid I don’t have any better ideas about how we describe what we’re doing instead, though.