The Download on Podcasts: Discovery is a two-way street

DOWNLOAD ON PODCASTS logo 03 with podcastone BIG LOGO canvas

With over 300,000 podcasts in the market, most of which are jammed into the narrow funnel of Apple’s Podcasts app, it’s no wonder that program discovery is a prominent pain point for this surging audio category.

Podcast networks and hosting platforms have their own discovery portals, of course. but most consumption still occurs through Apple’s consumer apps and a few specialty podcatchers like Stitcher and others which grab small fractional shares of the market.

Specialty projects seek to offer discovery alternatives. One is NPR’s Earbud, which this column has covered as an excellent resource. Startups like Otto Radio (which won the startup category in this year’s annual RAIN Awards) are built along the line of Pandora’s recommendation model, but for podcasts.

All of this is about discovery from the consumer’s vantage. But discovery is emerging as an issue for distributors, too — networks who are beating the bushes for talent to create new programs. (Is more content needed in a glutted market? Well, that’s a network question, which could  just as easily be applied to TV. Content is what rules ultimately, so there is always a search for the next hit.)

“Beating the bushes” is an apt phrase. Since the barrier to entry is so low on the production side (cost of equipment and hosting), the next star could be anywhere. Podcasting is like YouTube in that regard, except that there is no unifying podcast discovery platform that remotely resembles YouTube in scale and ease of access.

This year PRX extended a global invitation to producers, via its Radiotopia division, by launching the “Podquest” challenge. That was a high-profile talent search which gave rewards to 10 semifinalists, three finalists, and one winner. A side benefit of the project was the elimination of standard program categories (business, health, comedy, etc.) made stale by Apple’s utilitarian and unimaginative categorization. If you’re going to be the next hit program, PRX seemed to be saying, you should create outside the lines.

More recently, NPR’s Story Lab funded three “pilots” (more TV imitation there, like podcast upfronts to advertisers), and initiated an open submission platform. this submission portal is marketed like this: “We’re looking for ideas that present new voices, explore innovative approaches, and bring attention to stories that preserve our histories, shape our futures and give us a better understanding of our communities and ourselves.”

Tellingly, there is also this: “We want projects that will appeal to younger and more diverse audiences…” That is NPR hedging against its aging broadcast legacy broadcast audience with an emergent digital side of its brand identity.

Where is commercial radio’s talent search for digital stars? We’ll let that question sit for now. In the meantime, the podcast discovery issue is increasingly a two-way street. Networks and consumers search for content from different directions.

Brad Hill