The Download on Podcasts: Radiotopia contest finalists make traditional podcast categories obsolete

The Download on Podcasts is a weekly feature sponsored by PodcastOne.

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Ten semifinalists were named in Radiotopia’s “Podquest” contest. The 10 pilot submissions, culled from 1,500 entries that came in from around the world, will be winnowed to three finalists in early July. Those three producers get $10,000 each. From that elite group will emerge one new Radiotopia show announced in November.

The 10 semifinalists are developing shows whose description illuminate cutting edge podcast creativity, and their topical descriptions cut an oblique angle through the traditional and staid podcast categories presented by Apple. the contradiction between how these shows are angled, and the way Apple lays out the podcast content industry, is important because Apple is the dominant discovery point for on-demand shows.

Radiotopia has its own discovery and presentation portal, but how would any one of these potential additions to the Radiotopia catalog be discovered outside of that?beyond the

The semifinalist descriptions are rounded to be incompatible with the square holes of Apple categories (Arts, Business, Comedy, Health, etc.), and even seem to offer intriguing contradictions:

THIRD CULTURE: Third Culture celebrates those who are from everywhere and belong nowhere, unearthing stories of juggled identities.

From everywhere and belonging nowhere — that’s an appealing hook which plays nicely into the master “storytelling” ethos which defines public radio podcasting. Audio storytelling, in fact, is part of Radiotopia’s mission to be “a curated network of extraordinary, story-driven shows.”

If the best storytelling hook is to ask a question, then the Podquest semi-finalists do so by flipping their topics into contradictory conundrums.

THIS ISN’T WORKING: This Isn’t Working is a show about “making a living” in the U.S. in an age of corporate domination, industrial transition, and general labor weirdness. (“Making a living” is in quotes — is the show about employment or unemployment? Morelikely, stories of dysfunctional employment, which is more interesting and harder to categorize.)

VILLAIN-ISH: Villain-ish is a show about gaining new perspectives on dubious figures that we’ve been taught to revile, and exploring the hidden details we may have never considered. (The incongruity of villains who aren’t villainous.)

DO OVER: Do Over is the real fake story of how your life could have turned out if you’d just done that one thing differently. (Real + fake = hook.)

Even when not deploying the contradiction hook, some of these cutting-edge new shows are category-busting:

DEAR & SINCERELY: Unemployed, depressed, and living in her parent’s basement Genevieve decides to ask the smartest* person she knows for advice, herself. (If the host of this show ever chuckles, this would probably get dumped into the Comedy section in the Apple Podcasts app, like most other highly personalized programs and chatcasts.)

EAR HUSTLE: Ear Hustle brings you the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it. (Sounds fascinating, and well worth discovering. How will Apple’s categories help?)

MEAT: Meat is a podcast about our bodies and the lives we live because of them. (One of the easiest to categorize, this would probably land in Health.)

REFLECTED MESSAGE: Perched at the edges of music and radio storytelling, Reflected Message is like an update of ‘folk’ – pop-sized experiments with voices, memory, repetition and the everyday. (Music? Science? Technology? Arts? If anybody in the show chuckles, Apple could throw it into Comedy.)

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN: The Difference Between dives into the world of “information doppelgängers”—the stuff you always confuse for that other thing—to find out what makes them truly unique. (The kind of show which must be experienced to understand, and therefore, difficult to find.

Highly niched and original topics help podcasting push back against the homogenization of radio while super-serving listeners who seek fresh content ideas. Radiotopia is admirably championing experimental audio production with this contest. We haven’t heard any of the podquest shows, but Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX which owns Radiotopia, told RAIN News that the overall quality and topical range in the field of submissions was startlingly high. This is good for podcasting and its audience.

When it comes to expanding that audience and promoting awareness of fresh production ideas, Apple’s role is both helpful and hurtful. With its categories and recommendations, the Podcasts directory drives success to established brands. As of this post, the “Featured” section of the Podcasts app promotes new shows by WNYC, NPR, Malcom Gladwell, Bloomberg, The Dallas Morning News, Purina, Nerdist, and other established media brands. Wonderful shows all, no doubt.

But with so much distribution power loaded into one app, how will the nine non-winners of Podquest, potentially brilliant programs, find their much-deserved audiences?






Brad Hill

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