More searing media analysis

I took a brief break from (not) writing last week to appear on the Guardian’s tech podcast Chips with Everything and talk to my friend Alex Hern about how all the big tech companies are getting into podcasting now. You can listen to the episode here, or you can keep reading for a bit more detail on what we discussed.

The reason for discussing this now is the fact that Google has announced a new podcast strategy that they hope will “double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple of years”. They’ve got a few different ways they’re hoping to do that, which you can read about in detail here, but essentially they’re integrating podcasts into their search function and the Google app that runs on Android devices.

Their idea is that if you hear about a show, you should be able to search for it, find it and play it all in the same place, without ever needing to open a third party app or taking any other steps. They’ve also smoothed things out with their smart speakers, so you can easily resume an episode you started earlier on your commute on your device once you get home.

While I don’t love the user experience of this at the moment — I have an Android phone, and I found it a bit buggy and hard to navigate — I do like the way they’re thinking. They want to make it really easy to hear about a new podcast (say on social media or in conversation with a colleague) and then immediately start listening to it, removing all the hurdles in between that might mean you don’t bother (and there are more hurdles on non-iOS devices, because of there being no default Apple Podcasts-style app and store).

I don’t think this new strategy is really aimed at me, someone who already listens to lots of shows through her own iPod-based setup like it’s 2010 still (read more about why I do that here). Given their emphasis in the initial announcement on expanding total podcast listenership, I think Google are going after people who don’t currently listen to podcasts at all. Those are the people who need a frictionless experience with audio on the internet, in order to convert them into regular podcast listeners (who might one day subscribe to this newsletter, who knows).

And while I might have my problems with how it works at the moment — if you are trying to find a podcast with a name that sounds like another podcast’s name, or locate a show with a pun in its title, their voice activated search will not currently work very well for you, although I am assured they are working on this — I do think that more people total listening to podcasts is a good thing.

However, to address the question that I think Alex was trying to get at with that episode of Chips with Everything: I do not think that big tech companies like Google suddenly getting into podcasting is unequivocally a good thing. Nor do I think it’s a completely terrible thing. I have mixed feelings about it, as I do about Spotify and Audible/Amazon and all the rest of them that are now distributing/making/curating podcasts.

On the positive side:

  • Apple no longer having exclusive control of podcasting’s front page is a good thing, because now they can’t suddenly decide to shut it down one day leaving us all in the lurch;

  • some really great shows are getting bigger production budgets thanks to these companies getting involved: for instance, my long-time favourite Dissect has just been picked up by Spotify;

  • some of the original shows these companies are making are good — Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect would have been a much poorer show if he’d done it as one segment of This American Life instead of as a multi-episode series for Audible.

On the less positive side:

  • I worry that more money and corporations getting into podcasting in a serious way will kill off whatever remains of the freewheeling, amateur spirit the medium once had;

  • I’m concerned that we’re moving towards a two-tier system of podcasting, where it’s no longer possible for a well-made show by an amateur to find enough listeners to become a sustainable enterprise without the backing of a major network/company;

  • and finally, what happens if podcasts don’t make any money for these corporations? Will they just stop distributing them?

We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess? Join me back here next Tuesday for more searing media analysis, I can’t wait.

The podcast recommend

Heidi B writes:

This Is Actually Happening is one of the most poignant, sometimes soul-crushing, always fascinating looks into intense personal experiences. If I could have no other podcast but one, it would be this one.”

I too am a big fan of this show — it’s a great one to load up on a long journey and just let it play through lots of shocking, brilliant, moving episodes at random.

If you make or listen to a podcast that I and the rest of the PodMail readership should know about, tell me about it in this handy submission form.

The podcast links

  1. Call for papers: podcasting, the popular and the public sphereBoston University

  2. The podcast industry wants to befriend AlexaThe Next Web

  3. A new way to look at podcast downloads: episode trajectoriesPacific Content

  4. 5 secrets of super podcast hostsPodLove

  5. What’s There and What’s Not: A Guide to Constructive Criticism for PodcastsBello Collective

That’s everything for today. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget that you can subscribe to get two extra emails about podcasting from me every week: I do commentary on industry news on Thursdays, and playlists of great shows to listen to on Sundays.

Coming up this week — my thoughts on having a regular listening rotation and a playlist of my favourite supernatural dramas.