On the surface, podcasts and radio broadcasts are similar. People speak into a microphone with guests and send the audio out to an audience. When you dig a bit deeper though, radio and podcasts could not be more different.
Captive vs. Passive Listening
I spent the better part of two decades as a radio personality, wanting to believe my audience was hanging on every word. Honestly, this was a pipe dream. Think about how you listen to the radio in the car, where most listening occurs. If someone is sitting next to you, you’re probably more engaged in your conversation. If you’re alone, you are frantically pushing presets until you find a song (or morning show topic) you like. With podcasts, however, a listener has gone to the trouble to specifically download (or stream) your content. They have an active interest in what you have to say. True, they may be at the gym, in the car, or at their desk, but you’ve got much more of their attention than a typical radio show.
On-Demand vs. Appointment Listening
Traditional radio is consumed on the radio station’s schedule. Stations and personalities are taught to “set appointments” for listeners to tune in at certain times for contests or certain morning show features, also known as benchmarks. Ever wonder why radio stations always do things at :05, :20, :35, or :50 past the hour? It’s a way to attract listeners in the middle of the “quarter hour” – think of a clock as a pie split into quarters.
We live in an on-demand world, though. We watch television shows on DVR, we read news articles on our time, and we watch videos when we want. So while radio has to battle the archaic model of dictating consumers’ schedules, podcasts are available when listeners want to consume the content, right there on their phone, tablet, or computer.
For example, I spend about 45 minutes walking my dog in the morning. Before we leave the house, I download two podcast episodes. I’m a Boston native so I grab the 15-minute NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod, as well as the latest 30 minute of The Daily from the New York Times, an in-depth look at one of the key news stories of the day. I listen on my morning dog walk, whether it’s 7am, or 9:25am.
Broadcasting vs. Narrow Focus
Radio broadcasters have specific, broad demographics they must hit. This might mean 18-34 year old males, or 25-54 year old females. High ratings in those demographics translate to sales opportunities. Because radio hosts must appeal to these large groups, they often have to be all things to all people. For example, when I worked in the Top 40 (Pop) format, I would have to balance my show between local news, celebrity gossip, funny phone calls, and promoting station events.
Podcasting is different -you are targeting a niche audience. I’ve worked on podcasts that targeted Detroit sports fans, Jewish pop culture aficionados, and those looking for activities in the Detroit Arts and Entertainment scene. You can focus on a geographic area, a particular interest, or a group of hobbyists. The key is that you have to offer something unique in your podcast that listeners won’t find anywhere else.
Time and Content Constraints
When you’re a morning radio or talk show host, everything has to fit into a specific window. An hour only has 60 minutes, with a certain number of those minutes dedicated to commercials, traffic, weather, and other static content. When you’re out of time, you’re out of time. This is even more extreme for music DJ’s, who may only have a 15-20 second window to speak over the intro of a song before the artist’s vocal begins.
Also, hosts must adhere to FCC content guidelines. There are a number of words you can’t say on the air, and you can’t be overly sexual. Violation of these rules can lead to listener complaints, fines, and even a loss of the station’s FCC license. Without that license, you cannot broadcast on FM or AM.
Podcasters have much more freedom in these areas. There is no time limit on a podcast. If you have a great guest or compelling topic, you can run with it until you feel you’ve done your due diligence. If the content keeps your listeners’ interest, they will stick with your show. Even longer podcasts (over an hour) are showing promising retention rates. Unlike a radio show that keeps going with or without you, a podcast can be paused and resumed the next time you’re in the car, or after that meeting at work. For example, in my 2015 sedan, if I’m listening to a podcast via Bluetooth when I turn the car off, the podcast will resume within a few seconds of me restarting the engine.
While podcasts do have the freedom to air explicit content, hosts should be very careful in this area. Know your audience and know how much of an appetite they have for foul language and/or sexual content. For example, the hosts of the wildly successful Pod Save America are former Obama staffers who are incensed by the actions of the Trump administration. And while I agree with them on many points, I find the number of “F-bombs” in their show very off-putting. Another key point: Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes) is still the dominant podcast platform. If your show has explicit language, you must mark it as such when uploading your content. If you don’t, and a listener reports you, Apple could delist your show, crushing your potential audience and download numbers.
Radio stations pay rights fees to publishing organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, and SEASAC to air (and stream) the music of artists and other composers. This is, at present, not an option for podcasts. As a result, you may not use copyrighted music or content (even snippets) in your show. This could result in delisting of your show, or worse, a lawsuit.
In the Ether vs Online Forever
We’ve all heard the cautionary tales of social media. Once you put something on the Internet, it’s there forever. Even if you delete a tweet or a snap, someone can always screen-shot it for perpetuity. Radio broadcasts go over the air (literally) and are gone. Podcasts can stay online forever. The advantage here is that as long as your shows stay online, you never know who may hear it, and if it could go viral. I’ve heard of shows that are years old suddenly catching fire because the right influencer stumbled upon and shared it.
While revenue for radio stations has dropped over the last several years, they are still making money. Very few podcasts are. Podcast listening is expected to grow 85% in 2018, and revenue will eventually follow, but the business model isn’t there yet. Podcasts still have to overcome the fact that many people don’t know HOW to listen, and that’s hurting growth. What’s important for a business to remember is this: While you may not see a direct ROI on your podcast, a podcast gives you a chance to build brand awareness and spend time with your business’s most passionate customers. Podcasts CAN make money, but it often takes years, hard work, and a little bit of luck. To hear one such success story, check out my interview with Lauren Levine, co-host of The Margarita Confessionals, an award-winning show out of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Barrier to Entry
It’s not easy to get a radio job. In this world of corporate consolidation, it’s just as hard to keep one. From 2006-2017, I was laid off from radio stations due to budget cuts three times. And each time, it took several months (and usually a cross-country move) to find my next opportunity. Many stations no longer have full staffs. For example, when I ran a station in New Orleans, I was the only full-time employee of the station. Corporate mandated that I run several national shows, and I shared internal resources with the other stations in the building. There are fewer jobs available now than ever before.
Conversely, anyone can do a podcast. In concept, you could by a cheap mic, plug it into your phone or computer, and upload it to Apple Podcasts. And if you’re doing it as a hobby for your friends to listen to, great. To build a successful podcast, however, you’ll need to invest in microphones and recording equipment or renting studio space. This can range in cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on your budget. That’s why I’ve started helping people create, record, edit, and publish podcasts. For more information on how I can get you set up, feel free to contact me.
For a few more perspectives on the differences between radio and podcasting, check out these links: