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Wisdom via iTunes: Understanding the booming podcast market and what’s worth a listen


Chris Weinberg

By

December 4th, 2014


Chris Weinberg dissects the rise, fall, and rise again of podcasts.


With the latest operating system update for its mobile devices (iOS8), Apple acknowledged the resurgence of an industry that had become maligned after its stunning rise in the mid-2000s. Back then, podcasts had been a mandatory app for all mobile devices. They took the digital world by storm in and around 2005, but their novelty wore off quickly for many and they soon became synonymous with unpleasant descriptors such as boring, long and uninteresting. Needless to say, in the last few years, they have reclaimed their place as a source of contemporary wisdom and analysis about any facet of life. Programs such as This American Life and Radiolab have become cultural touchstones and staples of the sophisticated lifestyle. Nowadays, there are 75 million listeners per month and upward of a billion podcast downloads per year.

But what of their economic future? Perhaps by virtue of their cultural impact, it seems that to be a viable entity, podcasts don’t need to attract a vast listener base. In an interview with USA Today, Chris Hardwick of the Nerdist podcast, explained that, “our culture is so niche-oriented now, you don’t need 3 million people to listen to your podcast … if 10,000 people listen, which isn’t a hard number to achieve, then 10,000 people listen to your podcast. You can do something with that, you can build a community, and literally change the world, just recording into a recorder.”

This American Life’s spinoff, Serial, has proven Hardwick’s point perfectly, making podcasting once again a cultural phenomenon. The weekly dive into a 15-year-old closed murder case in Baltimore has captured the attention of thousands of listeners, tuning in weekly to dive deeper into Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the case, trial and conviction against Adnan Syed.

Meanwhile another new podcast, StartUp from NPR’s Alex Blumberg, is acting as a live experiment for the future economic foundation for the podcasting business. The podcast chronicles Blumberg’s and cofounder Matt Lieber’s efforts to launch a podcasting network specialising in slickly produced, long-form journalism. As discussed in a piece for Fast Company, the founders believe strongly in the business case for the venture, and note the development of other podcasting networks in recent months, although they are derived from established radio networks. Blumberg and Lieber are striving to create a network unshackled by the established medium of radio, and tap into the under-30 crowd who don’t listen to the radio, rather plugging into a podcast either on foot or on road. In doing so, they seek provide a more tailored, personalised experience for the 20% of Americans who listen to at least one podcast a month.

What’s more, it seems that podcasters are proving the way forward for embracing advertising as the way to generate revenue without sacrificing audience engagement. As Rebecca Greenfield explained, advertising on podcasts has actually been successful, particularly as the hosts are able to present them in an authentic manner that resonates with the audience. Internal surveys of 300,000 listeners of podcast network, Midroll, found that 63% of people bought something a host had peddled on his show. With such engagement, monetisation won’t shape up as a serious issue to overcome.

As tech start-ups mature into fully-fledged businesses with exposure to all sorts of markets, podcasting is proving many doubters wrong and emerging again as a cultural and economic force.

My Top 5 Economic Podcasts

  1. Planet Money – NPR

With two punchy, 15 minute episodes released per week, Planet Money digests economic topics of small and big significance. Fascinating insights into quirky economic events but also captivating dives into the inside story of economic news we ought to know more about. Memorable episodes include an analysis of Alibaba’s IPO and how UPS have used technology to find hidden efficiencies.

  1. Freakonomics – WNYC

Hosted by the authors of the eponymous literary sensation, Stephen Dubner & Stephen Levitt, their weekly episodes investigate the “hidden side of everything”. Using their acclaimed research methods, they analyse the economics of such things as tipping, quitting and giving up, learning a foreign language and online dating.

  1. More or Less – BBC

Tim Harford, acclaimed author of The Undercover Economist amongst other reads, explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life. Particularly excellent episodes included Harford’s dissection of the statistics of The 10,000 Hours Rule and the Nek-Nomination Outbreak of 2014.

  1. EconPop

Hosted by comedian, Andrew Heaton, with well-known economist Steven Horwitz and literature professor Paul Cantor along for the discussion, famous films are digested for their theoretical economic underpinnings. Of particular excellence are their discussions on the economics of The Lego Movie and Wall-E.

  1. The Economist

Around 10 short episodes a week relaying articles from their magazine, including panel discussions on Science, Technology, the Global Economy and Geopolitics; a great way to digest the week’s news on the run.

What are your favourite podcasts, both economic and otherwise? Let me know in the comments and via Twitter @CRJWeinberg.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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