Some thoughts on podcasting and radio

by Jack Thurston

For the past seven years I’ve presented a weekly half hour radio show about bicycling, broadcast on Resonance FM, London’s arts and community radio station. The Bike Show came into being in 2004 at around about the same time as podcasting began to catch on amongst its earliest adopters, according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject or as shown in Google trends.

The Bike Show was initially made available to as an internet listen again service via a Real Audio stream, which continued until March 2007. In May 2005, in response to a request from a listener, I started a podcast of the show as well.

The Bike Show’s home is Resonance, a community FM radio station based in London. This is where the live shows are recorded, it is how the show reaches the airwaves, broadcasting on 104.4fm for a 5 km radius around its transmitter in London Bridge, and via the station’s internet radio webstream.

I have no idea how many people tune in to the show on the FM broadcast. Resonance’s broadcast footprint is too small for it to figure in Rajar surveys. The show is syndicated on a couple of small north American FM stations and again, I have no idea of the audience it reaches. It is possible to know how many people are listening via Resonance FM’s live MP3 web streams, and this is in the range of 800 to 2,000 at any given hour of the day. There are shows on Resonance with large and loyal live audiences. Perhaps the best example of this is Jonny Trunk’s OST show, which airs live on Saturday afternoons and usually features a good amount of live audience interaction, implying that there are more than a few people out there listening.

What I do have accurate figures for is The Bike Show’s podcast audience, which ranges from 4,000 to 12,000 downloads per episode, with an average of 6,000 downloads per episode, giving it the largest podcast audience of any show on Resonance. In terms of comparisons with the BBC, it is way down the chart, somewhere between The Bottom Line with Evan Davis (Radio 4) and Politics UK (World Service) but more than double the podcast audience of the Jamie Cullum show on Radio 2.

Of course I can’t tell if everyone who downloads the show actually listens to it and whether they listen alone or together with other people. I am also not sure about how many times the show is heard through unsanctioned syndication by services like SoundCloud.

I do know that the podcast audience is very much more responsive and interactive than the FM and live webstream audience. How do I know this? Almost without exception the listeners to The Bike Show who enter on air competitions, suggest new feature ideas, ask for track listings, give money during fundraising drives and the like are podcast listeners, not live broadcast or webstream listeners.

When I share this information with some of my colleagues at Resonance they look uncomfortable. For them, radio is all about contemporaneous broadcast. Miss it and it’s gone. They have been known to frown at the mention of ‘listen again’. When I ask more about this some of them say it is taking power away from the broadcaster and gives it to the listener. (If you ask me, that’s a pretty healthy shift of power!) For all the rejection of traditional broadcasting that is at the heart of the Resonance ethos, there is something very Reithian about this attitude – a sepia-tinted view of listeners gathered expectantly around the valve radio, awaiting the weekly broadcast of Hancock’s Half Hour.

They like the idea of people listening to the same thing at the same time. Perhaps they want to create ‘water cooler moments’: shared, communal experiences that bring people together in an increasingly atomised society. It’s true that live coverage of news and sport doesn’t make much sense as a podcast, nor do very long form or one-off radio events. Perhaps they like the enforced serendipidy of broadcast radio. The idea that you tune in and get what you’re given. You can’t skip to the next track – though you can always turn the dial. While this kind of radio offers little in the way of choice, it can offer variety. In the case of Resonance there is more variety than you’ll find on any other station on the planet. This really challenges the listener – as opposed to obediently serving up whatever she commands from an almost limitless selection on the iTunes podcast store. Some of my colleagues say they just like the crackle of FM. The romantics!

I can see virtue in all their points and I love the fact that The Bike Show is broadcast by Resonance. I enjoy the use of a professional studio, the discipline that comes with a weekly slot in the schedule and the feeling of being part of a real radio station. And to its credit, Resonance has been warming to podcasting of late and more and more of the station’s output is available via podcast. Shows like One Life Left have always had a strong podcast audience but this has been wholly driven by the programme-makers themselves rather than by the station. This is unsurprising in a station with just four paid members of staff who are at full-stretch just to keep the station on air and financially afloat. In an interesting recent development, The Pod Delusion, a show that began life and made its name as a podcast, has found a radio home on Resonance and is now a regular in the station’s broadcast schedule. It will be interesting to see how many more podcasts Resonance will invite into the fold.

This is all good because I am convinced that the future for The Bike Show – and ultimately for many programmes on Resonance FM – is the podcast. The most obvious reason is that podcasts are available to everyone with a broadband internet connection, not just the people who happen to be within 5km of Resonance’s FM transmitter and have tuned in at 6.30pm on a Monday evening. There are podcast listeners from Torquay to Glasgow, from California to Australia, from Singapore to Finland.

There are more of them, but that doesn’t wholly explain why I like my podcast listeners so much. I think it’s because podcast listeners have deliberately chosen to download and listen: they have very much ‘made an appointment’ with The Bike Show – not only by subscribing to the podcast but by choosing to listen to an episode. I believe that they listen much more closely and are more deeply involved in the subject matter. They listen to most, if not all, of the episodes, so they come on something of a parallel journey with the show’s own development. This leads to a closer relationship, both to me as the programme-maker but also to other listeners. Francesa Pannetta, creator of the widely-acclaimed Hackney Podcast, makes a similar point in a discussion of podcasting in the Radio Academy’s own RadioTalk podcast.

I get the sense that the podcast audience is already interested in the subject matter of bicycling and may well already know something about it. At the very least, they probably do ride a bike. I don’t feel the need to explain everything as if to the completely uninitiated. This is a double-edged sword as I may be satisfying the self-selecting group of listeners who have sought out out a podcast about bicycling but at the expense of the casual FM or webstream listener who just happens to have tuned in to Resonance when the show is on air. But if every show about the Tour de France includes a five minute explanation of how the race works I will very quickly turn off the ‘specialist’ listeners. I am mindful of this and hope that the first-time non-cyclist will get something from the show, from a good interview, an entertaining discussion to an engaging travelogue. Having said that, compared with much of the (deliberately?) obscure material broadcast on Resonance, The Bike Show is relatively accessible even when we are geeking out. Another good thing about the podcast is that I can include additional material or longer edits in the podcast edition compared to the broadcast edition, which is fixed at around 28 minutes.

Besides being more interactive and responsive via email and twitter podcast, listeners tend to help spread the word about the show to other potential listeners, which is an important way of building the audience. For a show on a community FM station with a tiny broadcast area and a promotion budget of precisely zero, this is something I really appreciate. Some podcast listeners have become programme contributors. Kieron Yates, Tim Dawson, Matthew Sparkes, Jacqui Shannon, Jen Kerrison have all produced their own features for the show. Other listeners have contributed reportage via AudioBoo. Reflecting this sense of community is a bi-monthly Friends of the Bike Show bike ride. The first one ended with a short tour of the Resonance studio. The next one is this coming Sunday. Listeners to the show seem to enjoy meeting other listeners.

None of this would be impossible with a broadcast-only show on Resonance, but it seems much less likely. But the fact is that podcasting is still regarded as an inferior form by many working in radio. A more enlightened view is that its just another mode of distribution for audio, but one which offers potential for a revival of forms that have previously been in decline, a point made in a recent blog post at Radio Survivor:

“the rise of podcasting breathed life into forms of radio programming that had barely been heard from since the 70s, like radio drama and long-form comedy. Turns out that the international reach of podcasting means a particularly esoteric show can find hundreds or thousands of listeners, even if there may barely be a dozen potential fans in the broadcast radius of a single station.”

I believe it does offer exciting new opportunities for anyone looking to take radio (audio?) beyond the traditional broadcasting model. It is more than just a way of breathing new life into declining programming forms. I think we’re still in the pioneering era of podcasting and that most podcast listeners are still ‘early-adopters’. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the medium evolves.