In the 90s, Britain got online. The slow, clunking, modem-based version of online it might have been, but online nevertheless.
In the early days, there wasn’t a whole load to look at. Some company pages, chat rooms, GeoCities pages (remember them), and a few e-commerce pioneers (including one Mr J. Bezos).
Then, the British media got in on the act. Guardian “Unlimited” launched, so did Times Online and of course, the BBC. Others enthusiastically did the same: broadsheet, tabloid, magazines and broadcasters. All rolled out websites full of their news and features.
The only problem, in hindsight, was their generosity. Almost everyone decided free was the way to go. No subscriptions, just an advertising-led model. The rationale at the time was to use the Web as one giant advert to draw people to the main attraction: the print (or TV) product.
20 years on, most of our media is still paying the price for such generosity. Some, like The Times, eventually relented and installed a paywall. Others did not. The Guardian has now even resorted to pleading for money at the end of its articles.
Surely, the British media wouldn’t dream of making the same mistake again, would they?
I believe they might be on the verge of doing so. A similar mistake, just in a different format:
They’ve been around a long time, but have accelerated in the last couple of years. The ubiquity of smartphones, the trend for treating them as standalone media devices, and the rise of blockbuster pods like Serial have all created momentum.
Their popularity may remain niche, but it is significant – industry body Rajar claimed that 9% of UK adults listened to podcasts at the end of 2016. That rises to 15% of the 25-34 year old audience that media (and advertisers) are so desperate to reach. In the US, audiences are even higher.
Many of today’s pods are produced by amateurs, doing it for the love of their subject. But standing proudly alongside these enthusiasts is the British (and indeed global) media.
Here’s a sampling of my own weekly digest: The Times’ Red Box politics podcast; The Ruck by the same publisher; AC Jimbo’s Guardian football weekly show; 5 different pods by The Economist on politics, finance and science; and the FT Money Show.
That’s 4 major media outlets, all giving away their content absolutely, totally free. The FT Money Show centres on its cover story of the week. The Economist is even generous enough to read out portions of the exact articles from its print edition.
Is this a severe and damaging case of déjà vu? Quite possibly.
For one thing, how many podcasts have you come across with a paywall to charge for their content?
Very few is the answer, even if the technology does now exist.
When it comes to advertising, some studies have suggested rates are relatively high, at least in the US. But advertising on pods is far from universal – on my own weekly digest, only some pods carry adverts and even the ones that do don’t carry them consistently. So the old idea of an ad-driven model is looking patchy at best.
Which brings us to the cost/benefit question. The cost of production is, in financial terms, low. All you need is a one-off investment in recording equipment and a place to record.
But what about the time cost? Is it really worth asking your journalists to give up an hour or more of their time to record something which won’t make you any money (or at best a very small amount from advertising)?
And the benefits? The marketing department would enthusiastically argue that podcasts are a low-cost way to “spread the brand” and encourage subscriptions to the main product. They might also add that a more direct link between journalists and their audience “humanises” those reporters and creates an emotional attachment.
Until those marketers release data showing us such a trend though, it remains a difficult argument to make effectively. The good news is we are going to see better analytics from Apple’s podcast store soon. That will help, but more is still needed.
Podcasts are a fantastic idea with a growing fanbase. I get a lot out of them and they’re a great medium for an increasingly mobile (in both senses of the word) society.
Media publishers aren’t making exactly the same mistake as when their news went online, because they’re not reproducing an exact replica of the existing paid-for product. But the fact remains that pods are another example of media organisations giving away their content absolutely free.
So next time you visit Economist.com or walk past a copy on the newsstand, ask yourself this: if the cover story reads a little too familiar because you’ve already heard it on the (free) podcast, are you really going to pay for a similar experience again?