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Time to Tap Into Podcasting's Potential?

There’s a lot of buzz around podcasts these days. And why not? Given the way Netflix and YouTube have revolutionized TV, you would think on-demand audio programs would be a no-brainer.

Yet it’s only recently that podcasts have commanded much attention. Or that much listening. In our most recent Radio on the Move study of more than 2,000 Canadian drivers/passengers, in-car podcast listening is showing steady if unspectacular growth—8% say they have listened in the past week, up from 5% five years ago. Edison Research, surveying a broader base in the U.S., shows more robust growth—with 13% of Americans listening to podcasts in any location, up from 10% last year.

The advertiser potential is certainly promising. Podcasts attract a young, well-educated audience, many of whom lie outside the reach of mainstream commercial radio. In Radio on the Move, in-car podcast listeners are more likely to listen to public radio and niche radio formats and are less likely to devote their in-car listening to AM/FM radio. That means podcasting also offers the opportunity for content-rich broadcasters to extend their reach into new market segments and/or those targets where they may be losing traction.

What’s the secret sauce for podcast content? Season 1 of the “Serial” podcast got due credit as a major content breakthrough. It certainly ignited industry interest in the medium. But the truth is more complicated. Season 2 of “Serial” was nowhere near as successful (swamped perhaps by “Making of a Murderer” on Netflix). The current reality is that podcasting, at least as it now stands, represents the very definition of a long-tail medium. When we asked listeners to podcasts and streamed audio programs which shows they listen to most often, only eight programs were mentioned by 1% or more of all listeners—the most popular shows were “This American Life” and “TED Talks,” each receiving a whopping 2% of all mentions. It’s a diverse universe that extends from public radio shows to comedy, and pretty much all points in between.

What’s the next breakthrough for podcasting? Will it be a new content frontier, an easier way to consistently access the shows you want to listen to, and/or new branding that frees “podcasting” from its association with what’s rapidly becoming the eight-track of 21st century audio technology, the iPod? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered before on-demand audio programs can fulfill their obvious promise.

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