A heartbeat away from obscurity, one podcast has busted down the door for a profitable, rising storytelling sub-genre.
Thanks to Serial, podcasting is enjoying a resurgence of popularity – and making money.
Popular podcaster Adam Carolla who hosts a show called “The Adam Carolla Show” told CBS News he expected to generate $5 million in revenue last year. And overall, CBS News reported, ad spending on podcasts was expected to reach $34 million in 2015, an increase of 10 percent from 2010.
“‘Serial’ thrust podcasting into the public consciousness,” said Joseph Lichterman, a reporter for Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab. “The podcast helped raised everyone’s boats in a sense.”
A 2015 survey from Journalism.org shows that awareness of podcasts has more than doubled since 2006. According to Edison Research, as of February 2015, more than 46 million Americans listen to podcasts.
And that growth in awareness is creating new opportunities – especially on college campuses. At Michigan State University, a student run radio station has zeroed in on one niche market and is seeing success both metrically and creatively.
The sound of sports
In spring 2013, Impact 89FM, Michigan State’s student-run radio station had little focus on sports – only an hour-long radio show a week, and a minimal focus on podcasting.
By summer though, a group of students with a passion for sports had formed an entire sports department with a focus on covering MSU sports through podcasting.
“When it was formed, the sports team got into podcasting because it was a way to extend ‘talk radio’ and interviewing beyond the actual radio,” said Alexa McCarthy, the current sports director at Impact. “While podcasting itself is a simple idea, it is developing very fast and going beyond the confines of what people normally think of when they listen to the radio.
The team set out to cover not just popular Spartan sports like basketball and football, but the smaller sports like gymnastics and tennis.
“When our sports staff started three years ago there was a podcast for every sports beat we covered,” McCarthy said.
That did not end up being regularly attainable, so the team set out to create a smaller number of podcasts with better quality.
“In the past year, we have reconsidered this strategy to become more critical with our podcasting in an effort to increase the quality,” McCarthy said. “I think there is this idea out there that anyone can podcast, and that is partially true, but as an organization we strive to represent a certain level of quality.”
Not only does the station post the podcasts on their website, it also shares them on iTunes.
“It’s been a great way to up our street cred in the podcasting world,” she said. “Truthfully, it makes us feel legit when we can say ‘subscribe to us on iTunes.’”
The podcasting bug at Impact did not remain solely within the sports department. According the assistant sports director, Bradley Allen, the station itself now posts two podcasts a week as well.
These are “City Pulse on the Air,” an alternative news show hosted by the editor of Lansing’s local City Pulse newspaper, and “The Undercurrent”, a weekly student-produced current events news show.
Jason Ruff, a reporter at Impact who hosts the men’s hockey podcast “Behind the Mask”, believes that growing the show’s small but loyal audience will be the key to success.
“We recognize that that audience is small now, but I hope that we can set a precedent for this show,” Ruff said. “When people start paying more attention to hockey they will have a ready-made outlet for all kinds of hockey information.”
While both McCarthy and Allen acknowledge that most of Impact’s podcasts have not been incredibly successful online, they believe the more the quality of the content improves the better off they will be.
“I am really proud of what Brad and I have been able to do with our podcasts and radio show as far as changing the style,” McCarthy said. “While [our radio show and podcasts] still incorporate that typical sports talk and debate, we have been able to incorporate storytelling which I think is important in any podcast.”
That storytelling includes more interviews and athlete stories. This focus has permeated the rest of the sports department’s content including a short-form video documentary on a tragic story about a MSU tennis player losing his mother last spring.
“With [the documentary], we hold the rest of our content up to that standard,” Allen says. “We want to put the story first.”
Michigan State students are not the only ones who have discovered that there is an audience for sports podcasts.
A pro-wrestling podcast at PodcastOne is selling millions of dollars in ads for each podcast. Even ESPN is serious about the business, suspending Bill Simmons for a podcast tirade against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. If podcasting was not as popular, it is easy to see this being swept under the rug.
While podcasting’s explosion back into public consciousness can certainly be traced back to “Serial”, there was a little more to it.
At the forefront, podcasting’s ability to generate revenue for advertisers has become much more apparent.
In 2004, Chris Anderson wrote a piece in Wired about the Long Tail Theory, the idea that marketing is moving away from catering to a few large audiences and focusing more on marketing towards niche audiences.
Music companies like Apple and Spotify have catered to that Long Tail Theory, where users can get old, new, popular and unpopular music for essentially the same price. Both of those companies have also introduced discoverability features to improve the user experience and help them discover more from those niche genres.
Lichterman says that embracing the long tail could be the best route for podcasting to continue to break into the mainstream.
“There is a long tail where the most popular podcasts are,” Lichterman said. “There might be a successful business in a niche podcasting as well.”
With this long tail theory, advertisers now see podcasting as a profitable business with Katrina Pfannkuch of Marketeer calling podcasting the “dark horse of online marketing.”
There is little question that podcasting is popular now. But where does the genre go from here?
Will it remain a pillar of entertainment alongside movies, television and video games, or will it fall by the wayside?
Lichterman believes the key to podcasting’s longevity will come in the form of discoverability options.
“NPR started a site called EarBud FM that shows people podcasts out there,” Lichterman said. “I think it has grown and has a lot of room to grow.”
Even being on iTunes, McCarthy acknowledges that discoverability is one of the biggest issues in generating a larger audience base.
“Being a small station we rely on social media to really boost our podcast numbers,” McCarthy said. “We try to get Spartan athletes to share our podcasts and MSU students to pass them around. It seems to be the best way to boost our numbers.”
Allen says that he sees podcasting as an entertainment pillar that will continue to fly under the radar but remain popular.
“I don’t think podcasts are going to be a huge entertainment industry, but they definitely aren’t going to go away or become less popular,” Allen said. “Everyone has a smart phone and earbuds these days, so everybody is a potential listener. There are multiple areas where podcasts have potential to grow.”
Lichterman believes podcasting will become more popular in the future, as people become more connected to their cars.
“Podcasting will become a lot more popular as you see the Internet coming into cars more,” Lichterman says. “The connected car makes things easier and easier to stream things from your car.”
Amanda Bonner, a Michigan State University senior and podcast listener, agrees.
“When traveling, I’ve especially grown to really enjoy podcasts,” Bonner said. “I’m always interested in listening to different kinds in the future.”