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Jeff Vidler: Just Because ‘Podcast’ Rhymes with ‘Broadcast’ Doesn’t Mean…

This guest column by Jeff Vidler, President and Founder of Signal Hill Insights Inc. in Ontario, was first published on the Signal Hill blog. Jeff Vidler is a regular speaker at RAIN Summits, and is the co-producer of the Canadian Podcast Listener Report.


I love doing research. I’m a curious person. (My wife says I’m nosy.)

What people do and why they do it fascinates me. And working the audio beat as I have the past 25+ years, I’ve found plenty to please my prying mind.

Most of that time, I’ve been focused on broadcast radio. But over the past five years I’ve also had the chance to dig into podcasts. At Signal Hill Insights, we conduct a lot of Brand Lift Studies for podcasts and we’ve been doing The Canadian Podcast Listener study since 2017, working with Jeff Ulster at Ulster Media.

The biggest piece of learning from the past five years? Podcasts and broadcast radio are vastly different. Yes, they’re both based on audio, so certain audio skills are transferable. But that’s about it.

Here are three big things I’ve found that separate podcast from broadcast:

1.      Broadcast radio is built on reach; podcasting is based on choice.

Radio’s secret weapon is that it delivers unparalleled reach. Even niche stations are usually looking to broaden their appeal to build a bigger audience.

Podcasts deliver engagement. And that engagement comes from choice: with nearly two million podcasts at their disposal as opposed to a handful of local radio signals, podcast listeners seek the content that speaks most directly to them and their interests. The focus for a podcaster then is not to build a coalition of listeners, but to deliver something special and unique to a select (and selective) listener. That’s how something as improbable as a comedy podcast about gruesome and terrifying true crime stories (My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark) lands as the #2 podcast in The Canadian Podcast Listener 2020.

2.      Podcasts are lean-in; broadcast radio is (usually) lean back.

This is an extension of the difference in engagement. A podcast that you love speaks to you personally, so you lean in to listen.

Meanwhile, radio delivers content you can dive in or dive out of. Especially music radio. But even when you’re listening to a News or Talk station, you tune in some stories or conversations and tune out others.

And so it is that podcasts are typically listened to over ear buds or headphones while radio is still most commonly listened to over speakers.

3.      Podcasting offers unfettered individual expression; broadcasting is regulated.

At the risk of being painfully obvious, this is a fundamental difference between podcast and broadcast. But it’s one that has a clear impact on both the content and the listener experience.

Why are so many conversation podcasts so successful? There are plenty of examples—Joe Rogan, Conan O’Brien, Dax Shepard, and Marc Maron, even Karen and Georgia of My Favorite Murder. Their podcasts all carry the explicit label in Apple Podcasts, meaning you’ll hear the occasional f-bomb or the like. Yet, it’s not the profanity that makes these podcasts popular; it’s the free and easy authenticity of the conversation—like those you might have with your closest friends.

A lot of this comes back to the deeply personal choice that listeners make when they pick their favourite podcasts. They know what kind of language and topics they can expect; if they found the content offensive, it wouldn’t be a favourite podcast. Also, while podcast listening is almost always a solitary activity, people often listen to radio with others in the room, the office or the car, and are sensitive to the sensibilities of others.

Of course, a lot of this could change as the podcasting industry matures. As the pace of consolidation continues to pick up, large publicly-traded companies may self-regulate or otherwise restrain the independent spirit that has produced so much unique content.

Likewise, as audio consumption becomes more fragmented, broadcast radio could follow suit and develop and deliver more individualized programming.

Either way, I look forward to keeping an eye on how the listening landscape changes for both audiences and advertisers. It’s always fun to watch!

 PS, if you’re looking to test the waters on how radio and podcasts can increase awareness and build brands, we’d love to help. Be sure to check out our Signal Hill Insights page on Brand Lift Help for a little guidance.

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Jeff Vidler

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