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Reading in the bathroom - why podcasting isn't bigger on smart speakers

· By , from his I Hear Things newsletter · 5.2 minutes to read

This week I spoke at the RAIN Global Podcasting Leadership Summit on stage in New York in front of a crowd of over 500 people. Just kidding, I was in my jammies at home like everyone else. But I did speak at and attend the summit. On a panel about emerging podcast media categories, SpokenLayer’s Will Mayo said something that has stuck with me all week (SpokenLayer is a client, btw, but that’s not why this intrigued me.)

The panel was discussing why podcasts weren’t doing better on smart speakers, which is true. Four years of producing the Smart Audio Report with NPR has shown us very clearly that a) most smart speaker owners also listen to podcasts, and b) most of those people do not listen to podcasts on their smart speakers. My friends at Libsyn and Blubrry and other large podcast hosts will tell you that smart speaker listening doesn’t really amount to much, but I see that as a cry for help.

So, why isn’t podcasting bigger on smart audio devices? One reason I’ve heard bandied about is that podcasting is an intimate medium, best suited to private listening on earbuds. To that, I say “pish tosh.” First of all, if you have a Podcasting Bingo Board at home, “intimate” is in the center square. Drink! Second, that sense of intimacy is content-driven, and not prescriptive of the channel. Yes, I listen to many podcasts by myself, but my wife and I listen all the time to Up First, Wait Wait…, 20,000 Hertz, and several other podcasts together, and on our smart speaker to boot. Creating content to suit a shared experience is a tremendous opportunity for podcasting. The last time we all sat around a radio as a family might evoke Rockwellian memories, but guess where you are, right now? Home with your family. So’s your audience.

The most obvious reason podcasts aren’t bigger on smart speakers is the fact that the user experience is “sub-premium.” My friend Steve Goldstein wrote about this a year ago, and most of it is still true. Discovery is hard, listening to back episodes is a struggle, and many times you can’t even get the latest episode of a particular show. My own podcast, The Freenoter, is super easy to find on Google or any podcast network, but if you try asking Alexa to “play The Freenoter podcast” hilarity ensues. The very thing that makes “freenoter” a slam dunk for SEO render it useless for voice, because it’s not a word (though I’m very proud of it nonetheless.)

I’ve been content with that reasoning for a while. That is, until I heard Will Mayo sum up the experience with a simple phrase: “you can’t read a book in the bathroom.” I mean, obviously people read in the bathroom, but you aren’t going to finish a novel in there unless you’ve found some way to vertically integrate your entire supply chain or Wendy’s brings back its SuperBar buffet (this got me through grad school. HAMBURGER BUN GARLIC BREAD.) Will’s point was that the size of the medium (a typical 30-60 minute podcast) is too big for the container, and the container is the amount of time you are in the same room as your smart speaker. And he’s right—even though we do listen to a number of shows on our Echo, we are often moving in and out of rooms, missing bits of content. And it’s also true that most of what we do listen to on our device consists of shorter podcasts, briefings, and other bite-sized content.

I was tempted at first to put this in the same category as “podcasts are too intimate” (DRINK) as descriptive but not prescriptive, but there is a truth there. Last week I wrote about the “jobs to be done” framework, and how COVID-related quarantine has fundamentally changed the jobs we need our information and entertainment media to do. Being home more (and that’s going to continue for a while) means more proximity to and use of our smart audio devices. In other words, we are spending more time in our bathrooms, literally and figuratively.

None of this is to say that you should change your show. But what else could you do? On The Freenoter, the podcast my wife and I do about speaking, we end each 45-minute show with a different craft cocktail recipe and a quick story about it. Should I just go back and lop those 3-5 minute segments off and turn them into “Drinks with Tom and Tamsen?” Maybe? All of this brings to mind one of the most common questions people ask in podcasting: “how long should my podcast be?” Podcast vets hate this question. The standard response is “as long as it needs to be, and no longer.” Many popular shows are an hour long. Hardcore History is frequently cited as the exception that proves the rule—if that show can be successful at four hours or even longer, then we can ALL GO WILD and our shows can be AS LONG AS WE WANT. If I had a daily commute, in a week’s time I could learn about the Celtic Holocaust or the Bay of Pigs. But I don’t have that commute anymore. I’d love Dan Carlin to have a “softcore history” for those smart speaker occasions that was designed to fit the container it’s in.

It’s not as simple as just chopping up your existing content, either. Here’s a thing I have thought about for a while: the experience of listening to an audiobook vs. reading. I am a huge audiobook consumer, and part of the fun of my job is that I get to work with clients like Audible, and the Audio Publishers Association, and I get to be all nerdy about audiobooks. There is one thing that audiobooks can’t do (currently) very well, however, that books excel at. If I am reading a long book, and I have to put it down for a while (a day, a week, even a month), when I pick it up I can quickly skim through previous chapters to reacquaint myself with where I am in the book so that the page I left off on makes a little sense. With an audiobook, the experience is so linear that that kind of “skim” is impossible. It just picks up right where I left off, maybe even in the middle of a word. But what if “skimming” were possible? What if every chapter had an optional audio summary that would catch me up in 30-60 seconds? That would do a lot to eliminate the potential psychic barrier that currently stands between me and my finally listening to that 21-hour unabridged version of Dune that has been sitting in my queue all summer.

Anyway, these are just a few ideas I had in the bathroom.

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The above is adapted with permission from Tom Webster’s newsletter, I Hear Things. Subscribe here, and get the whole thing, free, every week.

Tom Webster is Senior Vice President at Edison Research, and is co-author of a number of widely cited studies including The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer and The Podcast Consumer Tracker. He lives in Boston MA, USA.

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