Dear Radio: The podcast conundrum in South Africa
by Paulo Dias (@therealptp) Waiting for the great South African podcast breakthrough is like waiting for an audio Christmas that never comes. Where is our “Serial” moment? That one spark that takes podcasts into the mainstream?
US and UK boom
The US — spurred by a culture of NPR and buoyed by lively political debate — has embraced podcasts as a natural part of its weekly infotainment consumption. Apple finally integrating podcasts into a simple-to-use app is leading the charge on a medium it helped name, and the UK is experiencing a similar podcast boom which coincides with major drops in traditional radio listenership, with even stalwarts such as Chris Evans feeling the pinch.
I believe podcasting is in an ugly place in South Africa and in danger of not reaching its potential, simply because the podcast party is being hosted by the same burly doormen who run the radio stations. The big radio players are ‘embracing’ podcasting — but all they’re really doing is moving the party to another room.
A scan at any of the top local ‘podcasts’ charts is dominated by previously heard-on-air material. Radio stations are lazily splicing-up features, news, prank calls and the like, and placing them online in the name of podcasting — which it is not. Podcasting is about niche content catering to niche audience, giving new voices a chance to be heard; all they’re doing is putting the same voices in different places with content the radio stations think you want to hear.
That is not podcasting. It is the same monopolisation of voice that they’ve been guilty of for decades.
I still have great hope for podcast-only platforms such as Cliff Central and watch their moves with interest. The problem I see with them, though, is that, while they seem to have got the content right and carry really niche shows, they still come across like a radio station and, from my conversations with people (the sort of people they’re trying to attract), they’re seen as a radio station — not a podcast hub. We don’t really know how to categorise Cliff Central and listening to it for a day, where you pick up a very specific format, doesn’t do much to convince that it’s not an online radio station.
So how do we get people on a mic and podcasting? Or what if you’re a podcaster religiously producing a show and marveling at your handful of fans and downloads?
Audio consumption in SA
First, stop thinking as if you’re in the UK or the States, and understand the nature of audio consumption in this country. The biggest reason podcasting has not caught on in SAis simply because our radio market in African Language markets is so strong: ALS stations are telling the stories and carrying the niche entertainment people are looking for.
Radio is also free to listen to and the devices used are cheap — do you even know how much a radio costs? — plus we don’t have to face the data hurdle that is blocking us from adding our voice to worldwide platforms.
Making money from podcasts is a tricky business and overseas models may not work. US podcast audiences are happy to pay subscriptions or make donations to keep podcasts going and ad-free while, in the UK, the opening and closing billboard model, coupled with in-stream ads, seems to be working for now. Let’s be honest; we don’t pay our TV licences and whine about DStv subs, so we’re not going to pay for a podcast and we’re oblivious to sponsorships, so that won’t work.
If traditional radio is so strong, why don’t we put our content there? Think about this — you want people to hear your message and story — so, theoretically, there should be an audience online, but the audience who will resonate with your story is not consuming content in your format.
So fish where the fish are biting and try get your content on traditional radio and, more specifically, the untapped potential of community radio. Community radio listenership is growing with content that is engaging and relevant… but expensive to produce.
So what if potential podcasters produce the content at their own expense and supply it to community stations free of charge, either carrying the full format on-air or used on-air as a gateway to an online platform and by partnering with a community station? The podcasters have just given themselves a built-in sales team that know how to sell the audio medium.
This would be a win-win for everyone: podcaster gets their audiences, along with a sales infrastructure; and the community station gets content for free and gets a run at untapped revenue without spending a cent.
We’ve made the mistake of thinking podcasting is about the platform but it’s not. It’s about the narrative, it’s about the connection and it’s about finding people who want to hear your story.
If it were as easy as switching on an iPhone and pushing out SA’s “Serial”, we’d all be having a go but our market is different and don’t all live in Fourways so, if you’re a podcaster or an aspiring one, let’s change the way we distribute — because the revolution will come and you want to be part of it.
Paulo Dias (@therealptp) is the head of creative integration at Ultimate Media. He works closely with the programming teams at leading radio stations to help implement commercial messaging into their existing formats. He contributes the regular column, “Dear Radio”, looking at the changing radio landscape in South Africa, to MarkLives.com