The podcast revolution happened. Now what?

Podcasting trends for 2016: Q&A with award-winning broadcaster Siobhan MacHugh

11 February 2016

Marianne Bouchart

Uow 178431Since Fall 2014 and the release of the groundbreaking programme Serial, podcasting has become extremely buzz-worthy. Although the format has existed for over a decade, the market of audio storytelling is coming into its own and advertisers' interest could make it a profitable affair.

Siobhan MacHugh is an award-winning storyteller, documentary maker and journalism lecturer at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She will lead a session on podcasting at the GEN Summit 2016 next June.

In this longform interview, we asked her what makes a good podcast and what trends will shape the industry in 2016.

What first inspired you to work in radio and podcasting?

I grew up in Ireland, where storytelling is part of the DNA. We are a nation of talkers and radio was a natural fit – a place where conversations, debates, news reports, fiery discussions, eloquent and reflective stories could all find a place and the many voices of an increasingly diverse society could literally be heard. Podcasting builds on radio’s reach, immediacy and intimacy. It’s a simple, cheap, accessible way to dispense information, but because people usually listen one-on-one, through headphones or maybe in the car, it can also be a space where people can engage with bigger stories, in depth, and build familiarity with a host. It’s the ultimate people-connector!

An article about digital transition in the radio industry published recently in the Columbia Journalism Review said that “broadcast radio is today where newspapers were 20 years ago”. How much do you agree with this statement? 

That may apply to some radio, but many organisations are increasing their audiences exponentially by repackaging content for podcast, much of it completely unrestricted; others have rights issues that make it available only for a short time. For countries that have had strong free public broadcasting services, I think it would be a mistake to try to make listeners pay for podcast content. They should capitalize on increased audience instead. Some broadcasters are already going to podcast-first content – e.g. ABC in Australia had a First-Run series, which allowed it to trial an explicit-content format.  WYNC Studios in New York are also going Beyond Radio in their approach – including a spin off from their fabulous Radiolab podcast, coming in 2016, which will look at American democracy and life through the lens of Supreme Court cases.


"ABC's First Run series allows to trial an explicit-content format" 

Can the digital transition, which has been the biggest challenge of the print industry for the past few years, be a much easier ride for the radio industry?

Yes, absolutely. Podcasting mimics much of what radio does content-wise – it uses talk formats, interview formats, storytelling formats – and for radio to adapt, it’s all about harnessing the add-on engagement that the podcast delivery mode brings. Where radio is more passive listening, podcasting is an opt-in format. Chances are if they’ve downloaded you, they’ll stick with you. Some studies show that if you listen to the first 7 minutes of a podcast, you’ll stay to the end – which can be quite long. Because people are often multi-tasking, and listening while exercising or doing chores, they can listen at length. I know people who line up hours of podcasting to accompany them on a day of house painting, for instance, where previously, they might have listened to music.

Radio broadcasters such as the ABC in Australia are also experimenting with tweaking the podcast versions of their programs to suit the listening mode. A lot of mobile-first listening to podcasts is via headphones, so the presenter does not need to project his/her voice to fill a room, as a radio might have; it can be very conversationally pitched – which in turn increases that phrase we endlessly use about podcasting: its intimacy.

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"Serial” host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis. Photograph by Elise Bergerson

The podcast “Serial” has been a smash hit with listeners and won a Peabody Award last year for its examination of a 15-year-old murder case involving high school students in Baltimore County. It generated a lot of debate on the web, parodies on YouTube, and quickly became the most popular broadcast in the history of the form. What can we learn from this success? Why do you think this format is being so successful?

As Dana Chivvis, producer of Serial, told the GEN Summit 2015, Serial did several things differently. It was the first major investigative true crime journalism project to go podcast-first, rather than having the podcast repackaged from the radio version. This meant that they could dispense with the rigid durations that broadcast media traditionally require, such as a 30-minute or 60-minute slot. Instead, they could plot their shows to be as long or as short as the narrative tension could sustain and the theme warranted. This made for much pacier storytelling with no flab. Secondly, they borrowed techniques from their favourite long-form TV shows, such as House of Cards, which might have an extended opening trailer, or a recap of previous episodes, to build the drama. Serial was also unusual in that it did not know its end point when it started: we (the audience) were in on the shifting aspects of the investigation along with the presenter, Sarah Koenig. One week it looked like Adnan was innocent; the next week he seemed guilty.

This brought a transparency and vulnerability to the journalism that made it extra-involving for the audience. And that played out on social media sites, which further built word of mouth and audience ratings. But beneath all those qualities lay the same characteristics of any good crafted audio story format: a good story premise (did he do it or was he wrongly imprisoned?), in-depth, exhaustive interviewing of the main protagonists (with the notable exception of the victim’s family), meticulous archival research, methodical, careful editing of hundreds of hours of tape down to a coherent shape (the hard slog), good sound design and a presenter who happened to strike the right tone and command the stage.  I think the perverse combination of a chatty, at times concerned but also irreverent or even disrespectful tone (think when Dana and Sarah diverge from evaluating a miscarriage of justice to oohing over the cheap price of crabs at a roadside store they pass), when dealing with such a serious issue, gave it a surprise edge. It didn’t fit a formula, so we kept listening to see what it would do next. The irony is that now it has become a formula in itself!

Do you think that digital natives hold certain advantages over traditional media in terms of podcasting? 

Not over traditional audio media, provided that audio media can get used to lack of duration constraints and think more laterally about content. Perhaps in that digital natives work the online audience environment better, using it to source and amplify content as well as to build following.


The Panoply platform was created by people behind Slate's award-winning audio network

Panoply is a podcast network launched by Slate last year which has been helping media organisations such as The New York Times and the Huffington Post put a step into the podcasting world. What are your thoughts on this platform as a model? 

So far they are not doing anything wildly different with the well-known brands. The Panoply site showcases the usual category content: sport, arts and culture, news and politics, advice and lifestyle. Brands like Wall Street Journal or The New York Times might find it hard to adapt to podcasting. Being a great feature writer does not mean you are automatically a great podcaster: the crafting and tone have to change for the audio medium. HuffPost’s Weird News is a variation on a well worn theme, while HuffLive is largely interview-based: solid but not innovative content. But some of Panoply’s podcast-first shows are terrific entertainment: You Must Remember This, on the forgotten histories of Hollywood, and The Message, a sci-fi drama.

In an interview to Mashable, Matt Turck from Panoply said that "podcast messaging is intimate and effective, and two-thirds of [listeners] listen to podcasts on a mobile device. It’s a mobile-first technology." How does that change the way journalists build a programme?

You’re likely listening through headphones or earbuds, so the journalist host has no gatekeeper and is speaking directly into the ears of the listener, which amplifies the intimacy and sense of connection between podcast host and listener. That in turn can increase audience engagement – which has implications for advertisers, who will want to buy into that contract. And that in turn provides more funding for the podcast content, so that whatever journalism it is showcasing will be sustainable.

Podcasting as a genre has evolved a lot in the past few years. What trends - editorial and technological - do you see shaping the industry in 2016?

A podcast can be anything from a religious rant to a lecture on ancient Rome: iTunes just defines it as  ‘episodes of a program available on the Internet’. For journalists, I see two kinds of key genres continuing to evolve: the talk-based format and the storytelling format.

Talk-based can work various ways. There’s the panel show, where two or more hosts comment on or debate various topics. These can be humorous ‘chattercasts’, where the hosts riff off each other – e.g. Heben and Tracy in BuzzFeed’s Another Round, billed as a conversation around black culture in the US that’s ‘like a happy hour with friends you haven’t met yet’. They can be ‘chumcasts’, where colleagues mull over an event or issue: e.g. Slate’s Political Gabfest, in which three US reporters revisit and debate the week’s news in a deliberately non-reportorial way (e.g. they might swear, as though chatting in a bar off-duty) that makes the listener feel party to an insider conversation. All these formats harness the intimacy of podcasting to combine entertainment with information – behind the cosy informality, they pack a journalistic punch. Slate’s Gabfest might jump from a recap of a presidential speech to a spirited indictment of US foreign policy; and Tracy and Heben, who are not cast as political journalists, can deliver a more revealing portrait of Hillary Clinton than most serious news shows.

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Hillary Clinton with the hosts of BuzzFeed’s Another Round

An established category of talk-based journalism podcasts that will remain important is the interview-based format. These include an in-depth profile of a public figure, exemplified by NPR’s Fresh Air or  Australia’s Conversations with Richard Fidler. Both hosts are distinguished by deep research lightly worn and an ability to empathise keenly with their subject, which encourages revelation. Variations include the interview-plus-opinion, in which the host’s personality is deliberately brought to the forefront: examples include Mark Maron’s WTF. The latter, as the name implies, includes elements of performance and comedy, but in his memorable 2015 encounter with no less a person than President Barack Obama, host Maron proved again that much of the skill of interviewing lies in intense listening – just giving your subject your undivided and rapt attention will often elicit wonderful results.

Storytelling formats are the ones to watch in 2016. Ever since Serial, independent podcasters, broadcasting networks and other media outlets have been trying to find a model that will achieve similar success. We’ve seen the rise of whole podcast networks focused on audio storytelling, such as Radiotopia, ‘a curated network of extraordinary, story-driven shows’ and Gimlet Media in the US, who deliver 13 and 6 shows respectively. Although their content varies hugely, from erotica and science to true crime and lighthearted mystery stories, they have in common very high audio production standards, well differentiated host personalities and well judged narrative crafting. Such standards require high labour input, and shows are therefore much more expensive to make than simple talk formats, but so far it’s working, with both networks funded by a mix of sponsorship, advertising and listener support.

You can also find hybrid forms, such as Reply All on Gimlet Media, a ‘show about the internet’. It’s really storytelling linked to online themes, and it sometimes has the two hosts riffing off each other.

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In Better Off Dead, Andrew Denton investigates the stories, moral arguments and individuals woven into discussions about why good people are dying bad deaths in Australia

In an interesting development that may take off, a prominent Australian journalist has bypassed mainstream media and paired with a cultural organisation to make storytelling podcasts that advocate for a cause. Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead series, made with Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, tells moving stories of individuals seeking the right to have euthanasia. Denton, better known as a television journalist, chose the podcast format precisely because of its capacity to engage the emotions.

One intriguing trend emerging from the demand for well crafted audio storytelling formats is the increased interest from journalists and individuals for intensive courses in how to make engaging narrative audio programs. Earlier journalists learned this craft at a radio station, but with people jumping straight to podcasting, there is higher demand. There have always been online How To sites, such as the venerable Transom.org and HowSound, but now we are seeing podcasters cash in on their celebrity and run their own training courses –like Creative Live by Gimlet Media StartUp’s Alex Blumberg, shows like Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel, workshops like Audiocraft in Sydney.

What examples of podcasts stood out for you recently, either by their innovative twist on the genre, or by the journalistic skills behind them?

Love and Radio (US): Fix – essentially an extended interview with a gripping story arc, but made more compelling by great raw talent as the main subject (Jason Leopold, the senior investigator at Vice), bruising honesty, storytelling ‘scenes’ that build character, subtle and effective musical scoring, and cleverly structured narrative pace.

Love and Radio (US): The Living Room – a small but beautiful story that is like an audio take on Rear Window, with a tragedy rather than a murder at its core. A great example of the intimacy of audio and its ability to help us make pictures in our head.

Untold Stories BBC: High Stakes – Authentic-sounding life story of a marriage under pressure from the husband’s gambling addiction. Clever recording of actuality (the family life scenes), warm natural narration, good crafting over a long story arc.

The Day That Changed Grantham (ABC) – Gripping investigative journalism that recreates a flash flood in an Australian town in which 12 people died. This model would work to tell the human story of many natural disasters.

Crime and Punishment in Jakarta (ABC) – Three women from the shantytowns of Jakarta whose loved ones were violently killed, talk about police brutality, lynching and how they tried to take on those in power. Full disclosure: I made this in collaboration with anthropologist Jacqui Baker. I include it because it is rare for third world voices to get such rounded treatment – these are not faceless victims of injustice, they are presented as three-dimensional people with fears and foibles. And I love the chaotic soundscape of Jakarta!

What advice would you give to journalists wanting to get into podcasting? What are the key elements to make a podcast successful and build up an audience nowadays? 

Understand the audio medium – apply its strengths and avoid its weaknesses. Strengths are its intimacy, ability to convey emotion, and its power to trigger the imagination – the ‘theatre of the mind’. All these factors give podcasting the capacity to build connection and empathy among your listeners – they can feel a real relationship with you and the people you feature in the podcast.

Be yourself. Yes, you are a journalist and you need to observe the basic tenets of fair reporting. But there is usually scope to be a human being as well. If they arise naturally from your material, have moments that are friendly/goofy/thoughtful/passionate/warm/regretful. If you are angry about some injustice you’re reporting on, you aren’t going to jump on a soapbox and throw out journalistic balance, but nor should you be a robot. An exhalation of breath and a pause can say a lot. It invites your listener to reflect, makes them receptive to what’s coming next.

Be informal. Stuffiness is a turn-off in podcasting. You can talk directly to a listener, so do that! Imagine a friend or favourite relative and pitch your language in a casual tone, as if they were sitting opposite you. In English that means using verbal phrases like ‘It’s a warm evening in Paris and I’m standing outside a small café…’ (not ‘It is a warm evening and I am standing…” which sounds stilted.)

Use audio’s liveness where possible: tell them a story spontaneously, as it is unfolding before your eyes, rather than by reading a prepared script. (Obviously research your information prior, and maybe have an interviewee lined up, but then play it by ear.)

By contrast, if you are dealing with a complex topic or a series of podcasts rather than say a live in-depth interview, put in the time: investigate all the facts, record key interviews, get location sound, and spend days or weeks cutting it all together into a coherent, flowing shape that has narrative tension. See free how to tips above at places such as HowSound, Transom.org, Out on the Wire.

Help the listener build pictures in their mind by including relevant, evocative sound, where possible: it might be the melee of a streetscape, the buzz of conversation in a café, children playing, protesters chanting. Record these in diverse ways: as separate sound tracks you can weave in and out of your narration, or as background for an in situ ‘stand up’ – a spontaneous voiceover that summarises or links a story.

Include listeners if you can – use social media not just to promote your show but to solicit feedback, follow up relevant responses and include people’s voicemail messages in your next podcast.

Weaknesses: audio does not do data well. Figures and statistics are hard to absorb in one hearing, so don’t overload the listener – pick one key fact and then use imagery to sink it home. 

Siobhán McHugh is a documentary-maker, oral historian, and writer, whose work has won prestigious awards including the NSW Premier’s Prize for non-fiction and a gold medal at the New York Radio Festival. Siobhan is founding editor (2013) of the first scholarly journal of radio documentary studies, RadioDoc Review.