author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community
Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured
regularly at www.radioworld.com.
Last week, the Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple’s signature international convention, saw some major announcements. One in particular should be cause for community radio to take notice.
Apple has just announced that, with the release of iOS 11, a new version of its Podcasts application will come out as well. Jason Snell outlined a few of the improvements. For producers and stations jumping into podcasting, a new suite of tools is really exciting. The enhancements include listener analytics, being able to specify seasons and previews in feeds and, very importantly, new tags that will help other applications use Apple’s standards. The screenshots hint at a new, attractive look for users too. Such look-and-feel tweaks can certainly undercut any technical hurdles, such as loading one’s own RSS feeds, for novice podcasting fans.
The Podcasts app is important because it introduces mainstream Americans to content that has increasingly become the go-to space for noncommercial media. As ubiquitous as the iPhone is — in spite of Android’s growth, the iPhone 7 remains was the single most popular mobile device in 2016 — what Apple puts in front of users matters tremendously. Twinned with major media interest in podcasting, and the attention on S-Town, The Daily and other new offerings, there’s a growing audience. NPR and many other content producers have taken notice, creating a directory and throwing in big resources. They’re reaping the attendant rewards as a result.
The upgrade of a popular consumer podcast aggregator like Apple’s Podcasts represents a critical venue for noncommercial media. More Americans than ever are listening to podcasts. Such growth cuts across age, sex and race. What we once thought of as just a medium for “kids” is wooing the core noncommercial radio audience, older adults. Stations are feeling that heat. In 2015, promotion on local stations’ airwaves of the NPR iOS and Android offering NPR One was pulled after outlets complained NPR was poaching their listeners and donors. Whether they’re using NPR One or Apple’s Podcasts, community radio’s audience is not immune to the allure.
While there are many exceptional community media podcasts, there are relatively few stations deeply investing in podcasting. Scan 10 of your favorite community radio outlets, and it’s likely only a few are regularly posting podcasts. What will it take for community radio to gain traction?
There are a series of issues, primarily institutional and structural, that thwart wider engagement in podcasting.
First and foremost, there’s an issue with scale at community radio. Resources are always a thing, and I don’t want to feed into the scarcity mentality that can sometimes overtake our optimism. Moreover, it’s a fallacious idea. Stations have the major components — broadcast equipment, computers, websites and software — to make podcasts happen. Sometimes the feeling of being overwhelmed by it all overtakes our reality. It all takes planning, however, and that can feel hardest of all.
The scale discussion goes away a little bit when stations cement stronger community connections with local and regional podcasters. Not knowing what you don’t know about the audience, the technology and how to present to this crowd — radio-formal or not, profanity or no and so on — weigh on station leaders that don’t watch the space or may be sure what the base will accept, while reaching out to prospective fans. A listening session with your community’s podcasters will help. And, yes, your community has podcasters. Trust me on that.
In relation to the quality of conversation, community radio also needs to be open to a diversity of voices, cultures and conversation podcasting potentially represents. It needs to be more than merely a dumping ground for your old one-hour FM radio programs. Intentions matters here. The audience demands attention to detail to some degree. Your organization should accept that challenge. Podcasting gives stations a chance to reinvent themselves with new people and formats. I believe as more stations seize that opportunity, they’ll only benefit.
Finally, broader, coordinated support through promotion and exchanges of ideas is needed. The National Federation of Community Broadcasters is among many that can help noncommercial media organizations work through a series of difficulties. Fortunately there exists a robust podcasting community out there to give a boost as well. Stations just need to engage in it. A wider conversation on community radio podcasting is scheduled next month.
Apple’s new version of Podcasts is expected later this year. Maybe it’s the time for your community radio station to commit to a podcast by the time it launches.