Podcasting, in case you haven’t noticed, is the new black. Depending on who you listen to, it’s also the new blogging, the new talk radio and, as one writer, musing on the medium’s tranquillising quality, recently put it: the “new Xanax”.
Media pundits have forecast the podcasting boom since the inception of the digital medium, yet it’s only in the last few years that episodic audio has become the new normal.
The success of Serial was the tipping point. In 2014, the true-crime podcast broke the iTunes record to become the fastest podcast to be downloaded more than five million times (their follow-up, S Town, set a new record when it was downloaded more than 10 million times in the first four days).
It’s the type of audience engagement that was previously reserved for TV dramas, so it’s no surprise that Serial is currently being adapted for television.
Interview-driven podcasts have also upped the ante considerably. In 2015, Marc Maron interviewed Barack Obama for his WTF podcast. It was a defining moment for a DIY industry, not least because there was a sniper on the roof across the street and a tent full of Secret Service agents in his driveway as he chatted to the then-US president in his garage.
Podcasting, once a niche, hobbyist industry has transitioned into a mainstream movement with a dedicated, engaged audience – and Ireland is no longer playing catch-up.
Last month, Alan Bennett, the founder of Irish online magazine and podcast platform HeadStuff, announced the first ever Dublin Podcast Festival.
The event, which takes place across various venues in September, will host heavy-hitters like Brian Reed of S Town, Scroobius Pip and the trio behind My Dad Wrote a Porno, while homegrown talent will include Jarlath Regan of the award-winning An Irishman Abroad, Suzanne Kane and PJ Gallagher of Dubland, and Alison Spittle.
Like any other festival, the event has its headliners, but there won’t be rider requests or diva-like demands. The podcasting community, says Bennett, is “generous and communal” and everyone he has approached has been accommodating, irrespective of their position on the iTunes chart.
Dave Corkery and Cathy Cullen, the married Cork couple behind the award-winning The Cinemile podcast, agree that podcasting is more welcoming than other industries.
The Cinemile, which records Dave and Cathy’s chatter as they walk home from their weekly visit to their local cinema in London, won Best New Podcast at the 2017 British Podcast Awards, and the couple got to meet many of their favourite podcasters during the ceremony.
“We met Edith Bowman and Scroobius Pip, and they were so generous and supportive,” says Cathy. “It’s very different to TV where people are very competitive and protective of their jobs.”
Dave and Cathy were podcasting for a year before they started to build up an audience. They both work in media so they knew from the outset that podcasters have to be patient, consistent and prepared to persevere without a pay cheque.
Yet not all newcomers realise just how long it takes to gain momentum. Fin Dwyer, the historian behind the popular Irish History Podcast, says many greenhorns think there’s a “magic button” for producing a viral podcast, but they soon learn otherwise.
“Someone like Tommy Tiernan can do it,” he says, “but [an unknown] would want to be really lucky to be getting an audience size of more than a thousand in a year.”
Dwyer started producing the podcast – “when very few people knew what a podcast was” – in 2009. Today, he brings out an episode every two weeks and he can now expect 10,000 downloads after 10 days, and 20,000 downloads after 45 days.
For context, a podcast episode needs to be downloaded 10,000 times in 45 days before an advertiser will even consider coming on board.
“My podcast is in the top 5pc,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s amazing. It means that most podcasts get 120 downloads in 45 days – that’s the average.”
Fin can now make a living out of the podcast, but he still compares it to being in a band. “Most bands probably never get a gig. If they do get a gig, very few play in front of 100 people. And how many bands get to play a stadium gig?
“If you approach it with the idea of making money, you won’t make any,” he adds. “So you should approach it as a really enjoyable thing to do, or a great way to gain confidence.”
Others simply approach it as a pastime. The Cinemile now has advertisers on board, which “more than covers” their expenses. However, Cathy has worked out that they would need to review four films a day to make it financially feasible. They won’t be leaving their day jobs which, Dave adds, is perfectly fine. “It was only meant to be a hobby.”
The revenue model for podcasts consists of advertising on a CPM basis (‘cost per mille’, or the rate per 1,000 listens); listener donations, loyalty schemes and paywalls (some Second Captains listeners opt to pay €5 a month through the Patreon platform) and cross-selling.
Heavyweights like Joe Rogan and Freakonomics can earn tens of thousands per episode but, for most podcasters, it’s a labour of love. On the plus side, the financial outlay isn’t considerable: the equipment is relatively cheap; advertising is largely through word-of-mouth and recording can be done in a bedroom if needs be. “As a medium, I also love how accessible it is for people to create,” says Shawna Scott of the Our Sexual History podcast.
“At HeadStuff [the podcasting platform she is part of] we have a studio with fancy microphones and an audio engineer, but there are plenty of people who record on a €50 Zoom recorder.”
Shawna is also the owner of Sex Siopa – a health and design-focused online store selling sex toys. She didn’t design the podcast as a promotional tool, but it certainly helps raise brand awareness. “Even if I don’t get a huge bump in sales when I release an episode,” she says, “I still find it super beneficial and personally fulfilling.”
Fellow podcaster Rex Ryan agrees. “If you’re doing stuff that costs time and energy – and you won’t make money – you have to constantly ask ‘why?'” he says.
The first episode of his Let’s Have Rex podcast, which was financed through crowd-funding, went live last month. His content is compelling and the early feedback is promising, but the actor and writer has made peace with the fact that few podcasts become financially lucrative.
Rex says his main influences are fellow interview-driven podcasters Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss – “perhaps if I could get Ferriss’s craft and organisation, mixed with a bit of Rogan’s madness, I could be on to something semi-decent”.
Yet it’s hard not to compare his style to his late father, Gerry Ryan. Just like his dad, he has the ability to talk about something as inconsequential as toothpaste and still make you feel like you are being let in on a best-kept secret.
Rex is well aware that he is entering a saturated market. “I really thought, ‘Why the hell should people bother listening, bar my mum and my mates?’,” he laughs. The answer that he eventually arrived at was honesty – searing honesty. It’s a wise move. Whereas traditional radio broadcasters give little glimpses of their personal lives, the best podcasters know that listeners are more likely to resonate with full soul X-rays.
“You have to be honest, too. You have to give of yourself,” says comedian Jarlath Regan.
“I’m personally not a fan of interviews where one person asks questions and the other person is forced to answer,” he continues. “I always tell a bit of my story to encourage the other person to talk and to share with them and the listeners how I’m arriving at the point of asking this question, and where this question comes from.”
This brings us neatly to the other key difference between traditional talk radio and podcasting. By and large, podcasters have no interest in ‘gotcha’ journalism.
Sam Harris of the Waking Up podcast recently explained that he gives interviewees the opportunity to say ‘off the record’ after they say something they would prefer to take back, and Jarlath says he is happy to give his guests the final edit.
All of these factors help to build authenticity, integrity and, fundamentally, trust. It’s a deeper level of engagement and, in its purest form, it’s cathartic – for both the host and the listeners.
Jarlath says he was in a “pretty dark place” when he first started podcasting.
“I probably didn’t know what was going to happen to us living abroad. I was struggling, you know? I took a shot at this thing and it worked out and, over the course of these interviews, I’ve probably softened a bit. I think I’ve grown in confidence, too.”
It was much the same for fellow comedian Marc Maron. He says podcasting saved him from being “broke, defeated and careerless”. Nowadays he talks about the medium with almost religious enthusiasm.
The podcasting landscape has changed significantly in recent years. Revenue models have become more creative; independent producers are competing with established media organisations and, as with any boom, some analysts are wondering if the bubble is about to burst.
Yet those who bemoan the corporatisation of the industry tend to forget that no amount of money or resources can compensate for the key ingredient: passion. Jarlath puts it best: “You need to love it from day one when you’re getting paid nothing. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water.”