Newspapers have really done podcasting wrong, and that’s a shame because a lot of people listen and watch them daily.
Papers have either ignored podcasts or have managed to do them really poorly. But a good podcast is a great way to inform people, and there are several really good podcasts out there.
It’s no secret that I am a big fan of (good) podcasts. I subscribe to several of them and have been listening to podcasts for years. eMarketer predicts that the overall podcast audience will reach 28 million people in 2008 and podcast related advertising will reach $240 million this year. That’s pretty good news, because podcasts audience growth had stagnated for years.
Many newspapers have shied away from podcasts because there hasn’t been a lot of revenue in them. The problem isn’t the format, but rather newspaper podcasts themselves. Most news podcasts, especially from traditional news sources, aren’t very good.
I remember when The New York Times launched several podcasts a few years ago. I tried a bunch of them and stopped listening immediately, because they weren’t very good. The Times’ Front Page podcast is a perfect example of why I stopped listening.
It provides a summary of what’s on the front page of the Times every day. It, however, doesn’t discuss in detail the front page stories from the paper. This mean if you want to know the full story, you’d have to read the paper, because you certainly aren’t getting the whole story from this podcast.
A cynic would think that newspapers shouldn’t get into podcasting because they aren’t popular with newspaper audiences. That’s not the problem. A lot of people really like podcasts, and 28 million people is nothing to sneeze at.
But I guarantee there would be a lot more people listening to podcasts if there were more good podcasts. Below I list five really good podcasts. None of them are from a newspaper.
A lot of the best podcasts have advertisements in them. Advertisers are willing to pay for quality content, and people are willing to sit through ads if the podcast is good.
How to do podcasting right:
- A podcast should be able to stand on its own — A lot of newspapers offer headline podcasts, which really, really suck and do not serve users best interests. These podcasts tend to be short, only go over the biggest stories of the day and usually do not delve deeply into the stories. They are meant to drive users to read the stories on the Web or in print. That’s the wrong approach with podcasting. A good podcast should educate someone. It should not require that someone have to consume another form of content to get the full story. The problem is that most newspapers try to use podcast to push users to their primary content. But people listen to podcasts because they like podcasts. If people wanted to be reading stories they would be.
- Don’t worry about length — Amy Gahran recently wrote that newspapers should keep podcasts short. I strongly disagree with that recommendation. A podcast — like a good written piece — should be as long or short as it needs to be. A good podcast — like a good written piece — should be distilled to its core essence, eliminating extraneous content. But some topics take awhile to properly discuss. Many of the most popular podcasts are on the longer side. These podcasts stand on their own. Buzz Out Loud usually runs between 30-35 minutes. This American Life (often the most downloaded podcast on iTunes) is an hour long radio program that has become an immensely popular podcast. Now do not use this advice as carte blanche to not cut anything out of a podcast. A good podcast needs editing. I’ve heard many podcasts (like the Macworld podcast) that need editing because they are way too long and often seem like they were created for the staff and not users. Remember, your audience is who you make products for. **update** See Amy’s comment below on how her advice about keeping podcasts short only applies to headline podcasts.
- Think outside the box — The best and most popular podcasts are different than traditional news content. They are lively, they are fun and, yet, they are educational. They aren’t like a typical news story — written or broadcast. This American Life has won a lot of awards because it is considered fresh and innovative.
- Educate people — A good podcast should leave a listener better informed by the time the podcast is over. Many podcasts only cover one topic per episode and that’s fine, as long as that topic is thoroughly discussed. If you leave a listener better informed by the time a podcast is over, you have done your job. This is the reason why headline podcasts don’t work. They leave listeners puzzled. Instead of informing, all a headline podcasts does is provide more questions to be answered for listeners.
- Show notes are a must — A good news podcast always has show notes. This is how you drive people to your other content. Instead of having a headline podcast that forces people to read stories so they can understand what the hell is going on (if they even keep listening to a weak podcast like that) provide show notes for your podcast so people can delve deeper into a topic if they want. This is a subtle, but important distinction. Show notes are there so people can learn even more, but your podcast should still stand on its own. In addition, show notes let people know where you got your sources from, which is very important. The best podcasts, like Buzz Out Loud, link to other organizations content in addition to their own. Don’t be one of those news outlets that only links to internal stories because our job is to ultimately inform our users to the best of our ability.
- Podcasts aren’t like newspapers — Don’t mimic newspaper content when making a podcast. People use newspapers in different ways than podcasts. People tend to read newspapers when they get up in the morning or after they get home from work, devoting their attention and time to the paper. People tend to use podcasts while doing other things — riding the subway to work, driving in a car, cutting the grass, working at a computer, cleaning the house, etc. This is why headline podcasts don’t work. Most people listen to podcasts when they can’t read a newspaper or Web site, and it might be hours until a person is able to read a newspaper or Web site. This is why a good podcast will fully inform someone, and podcasts like that provide stronger advertising opportunities.
The best podcasts:
- Buzz Out Loud — This is my favorite podcast by a mile. Every person and newspaper thinking of doing a podcast should listen to this daily podcast from CNET. It’s one of the most popular podcasts in the world for a reason. The show discusses the biggest tech news of the day, but it doesn’t attempt to be some boring, drab headline podcast. It gives stories context. This podcast also shows how important it is to have good hosts. Tom Merritt, Molly Wood and Jason Howell make this podcast because of their personalities. They are fun, lively and they joke around with each other (compare how this podcast sounds to the NY Times Front Page podcast). They don’t take things too seriously, and tech news doesn’t really need to be taken that seriously. Yet, they get fired up from time to time. This podcast is a perfect blend of news and commentary and it is incredibly educational. I am always better informed after I listen to this podcast, and I wish it was even longer. It’s that good.
- This American Life – This show has long been the darling of Chicago Public Radio and now it is the darling of the podcast world. No one will argue that this is a typical news show, but it does tell the American story in a very powerful way. Host Ira Glass has created a journalistic non-fiction show that weaves in many non-traditional elements into journalism to tell powerful stories about the American experience. This show is so hard to describe, but it is so beautiful, so different and yet so educational.
- Best of YouTube — This is a daily compilation of the best clips on YouTube. This is a video podcast that is perfect for how many people use podcasts — on portable media players like iPods or on break while at work. Got a few minutes to spare? Why not watch some of the funniest/coolest/craziest clips on YouTube. It’s always entertaining. Sure this isn’t related to news, but it’s important to understand why certain podcasts are popular (this was the most popular on iTunes today by the way).
- The Real Deal — This is another podcast from CNET. CNET gets what makes a good podcast. Many “traditional” news companies may not think highly of CNET, but CNET gets what Internet users want. Unlike most podcasts, this podcast focuses on one topic per episode. It strives to help people understand complicated tech topics by discussing them in detail. The Real Deal can often be 20 minutes on one topic, but I guarantee that by the end of each podcast you’ll understand the topic at hand, no matter how difficult. Imagine if CNN had a podcast like this. They could discuss the whole Super Delegate mess in detail. Instead most people don’t fully understand what Super Delegates are and what purpose they serve.
- Newshour — For whatever reason, this TV program works well in audio form. Perhaps that’s an indictment of the visual aspects of the show, but I listen to this show in podcast form everyday because podcasts allow me to consume content when its most convenient. One of my favorite parts of this podcast is how the show is broken down into individual segments. That way I can listen to the parts of the show I want. Some days I listen to every story, other days I only listen to the stories that interest me. Each story, however, tells a complete story. It’s not some overview like many news podcasts are. I feel more knowledgeable after I listen to these podcasts, which is how every news podcast should make me feel. I don’t have to read or watch anything else to get the full story.
- Hey Tony! — I threw this one in here at No. 6 because it’s not a podcast that will appeal to a huge swatch of people, but it is right up there with Buzz Out Loud for my favorite podcast. It’s awesome. It’s a weekly podcast by the Plain Dealer’s Cleveland Browns beat writer Tony Grossi. This podcast might irk some old-school-ink-stained wretches, but that’s exactly why it works. Tony — huge gasp now — gives his opinion on the current state of the Browns, and that’s the best part of the podcast. There is not a journalist in the country that knows the Browns better. He has followed the Browns for decades, and he knows the ins and outs of the team, the staff, how they are playing, etc better than anyone. So, instead of just merely telling us what happened at the last Browns game or during the draft or whatever, he gives his expert opinion. Perhaps the best part about this podcast is that it is a live chat. While listening to the chat, users can submit questions to Tony. The moderator selects the best ones, and Tony answers them. This podcast manages to combine both being incredible informative, while also being interactive. If you miss the live chat, as most people do, you can download it in podcast form. And hey, this podcast is from a newspaper!
Newspapers need to stop thinking of podcasts as some sort of loss leader to drive people towards traditional content. Podcasts can stand on their own. They can generate their own revenue.
Podcasts are a lot like blogs. When done poorly, they are a waste of staff resources, and they can cause people to question the journalistic mission of a news organization. When done well, however, both can take journalism to new levels by covering news in new and innovative ways — in ways that our audience likes to consume news and content in.
This is my February post for the Carnival of Journalism. It is currently hosted by Innovation in College Media.