Beyond the narrative arc

“Audio producers and networks aren’t prepared for the reality that the next generation of listeners will bear little resemblance to past audiences.”

Podcasting has seen a lot of innovation in content this year, but not a lot of innovation in form.

Some of my favorite innovations in content this year have been the captivating and technically mind-boggling The Messenger from The Wheeler Centre and journalist Michael Green, our own show at Audible, Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel, and, of course, the novelistic S-Town. But the format of podcasts still remains largely the same: a narrative or conversational arc, perhaps broken up into a few segments, running somewhere between 20-60 minutes.

The reason is simple: form(at) ever follows function.

For the past 13-plus years, and with plenty of exceptions, there have largely been two formats in podcasting: people chatting and people telling stories. That’s great. I — and the 67 million others who regularly listen to podcasting in the U.S. — love these forms. But what about everyone else?

While there have been numerous conversations this year questioning if we’ve hit “peak podcasting,” it’s the wrong question. I think the real conversation should be about “peak audience.” It’s hard to argue that we haven’t topped out on digital public radio types, sports/comedy nerds, and fringe niche geeks (okay, okay, there are always more fringe niche geeks). If the audience for digital audio is going to expand, it needs to bring in more (different) people. Different types of people will have different tastes, different needs, different ideas about what’s “good,” and different ways of using media. They will be interested in other things, they will seek out different voices and talents. Rounding out this year and preparing for the next one, audio producers and networks aren’t prepared for the reality that the next generation of listeners will bear little resemblance to past audiences.

All of this will cause a seismic shift in the definition of podcasting itself, and will invariably be captured in new and different formats.

Despite writing this, I actually don’t like making predictions. Whenever I’m asked to, though, I try to boil it down to the simplest question that our industry is just about to face. When asked about the future of digital audio and podcasting for this coming year, I looked at people who demographically/psychographically should be listening to podcasting, but aren’t: smartphone-carrying lifelong learners who use those devices to listen and enjoy other spoken-word audio. When you look at those folks, the largest cluster of them aren’t interested in storytelling. They are interested in personal growth.

These new listeners will not be interested in journalism, storytelling, or news beyond headlines and pundits. Instead, they seek out leaders and the ideas those leaders share. They will seek out voices that will guide them to a better, happier, more productive self. They want a face. A guru. Something more direct. Think less Ira Glass and more Tim Ferriss. Less Jad & Robert and more Oprah & Ellen.

These are consumers looking for content that ends with “al.” Such as

  • inspirational
  • instructional
  • devotional
  • aspirational

These already exist, you say. That’s true. There are some “al” podcasts already, in fact, thousands of them. But if you asked someone to describe podcasting, they would probably say it’s someone telling a story, or a bunch of comedians, sports fans, or niche fanatics talking about whatever. Tim Ferriss, Oprah, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and the yoga teacher at the studio down the street all have podcasts, but they aren’t fully defining the medium…today. When we look back at this time a year from now, I believe we’ll see a lot more of these than we see now, and their prominence and power within the industry will increase as well. Eventually, these “al” podcasts may even rival narrative storytelling and conversation podcasts for dominance.

Lack of interest in traditional podcasting formats isn’t the only thing these new listeners will lack. They lack time. They want things fast. They don’t want to come back again and again in order to finish something. That’s why this becomes a format issue. A different audience (with different needs) plus a different experience will demand another form.

Imagine a rush of non-traditional users entering the audience. What is replaced? What’s repurposed? What is created new?

I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a lot of this play out in significantly shorter podcast episodes to compliment the “al” content, moving from 20-60 minutes down to 3-5 minutes each for a complete experience. These new folks are even more time-poor than our current audience. They don’t have time. In, out, done. Thank you.

How will we know when this evolution has happened? Two ways: First, you’ll see a lot more of those shorter podcasts popping up in charts and recommendation engines. Second, the audience itself will look less like a clique than podcasting does today. It will start to resemble the audience for television. In other words, it will resemble everyone. It will look like America.

New audiences won’t be interested in our current iconic podcasts simply because those shows won’t appeal to them. Likewise, diehard podcasting fans will probably hate shows tailored towards new audiences, calling them simple, lowbrow, or just plain boring. Just like TV.

And this will all be okay. The more relevant podcasting and digital audio becomes to more people, the healthier, wealthier, and more stable the entire podcast industry will become. And that will benefit all.

Eric Nuzum is senior vice president for original content development at Audible.

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