What makes a podcast a podcast? When is a podcast not a podcast? Is a radio show you can stream a podcast? If your answer is ‘not sure’ then don’t fret – you’re not alone! The debate over exactly how to define one is long-running and divides opinion.
The online Cambridge dictionary defines a podcast as “a radio programme that is stored in a digital form that you can download from the internet”. Collins says it is “an audio file similar to a radio broadcast”. But as podcasts continue to expand, evolve and excite, the team here at Ear Plug believe they are very much a unique and distinct form of audio. And since we also believe understanding your own show is key to helping you promote it, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 reasons why podcasts are different from radio – and how you can use this knowledge to promote your show.
1) How listeners find you
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between podcasts and radio is what’s termed ‘discovery’ e.g. how listeners find a show. With radio shows, listeners tend to stumble upon content because they’ve tuned into a station they like or read a programme listing in a magazine. With podcasts, listeners tend to seek out their content based upon word-of-mouth recommendations or searching chart/featured listings. The problem is that with 2 million podcasts out there and counting, they can’t all be listed or recommended. There have been many attempts to ease this ‘discovery problem’, with Apple’s introduction of ‘Channels’ alongside its subscriptions roll-out the most high-profile recent example, but these solutions tend to favour the bigger, more popular podcasts.
What this means for you: Listeners are unlikely to stumble upon your podcast in iTunes or on the web, so focus instead on different ways of getting your show recommended – through existing listeners, influencers, social media, or getting featured in a podcast newsletter, magazine or online listing.
2) Who listens
Going back to the dictionary, before its modern meaning, the word ‘broadcast’ was used to describe an agricultural technique for scattering seeds over a wide area. By the same token, radio broadcasts tend to treat their audience in a broad fashion, their broadcasts washing over a whole town, county or even nation. Podcasts, on the other hand, tend to have a more tightly defined audience and a more intimate relationship with the listeners who have actively chosen to listen to a show.
What this means for you: Think about the specific types of audience who would enjoy your podcast, and then ensure that your podcast promotion is focused on seeking out and building a personal relationship with exactly these kinds of listeners. Everything from your show description to your social media posts and the podcast itself should then involve you speaking directly to these listeners on an individual level.
3) Why they listen
Two recent studies have given us a fascinating insight into the fundamental reasons why people listen to podcasts. A report for Ofcom in the UK and a separate study of Canadians by Signal Hill both identified the top two reasons for listening to podcasts as being ‘entertainment’ and ‘to learn something new’. But the same wasn’t true for radio – in the Ofcom survey, only 40% of talk radio listeners said they did so for entertainment, compared with 61% of the podcast audience. Equally, the Signal Hill study listed ‘to learn something new’ as the main reason for listening to podcasts, while the same reason ranked only 5th for radio. ‘To get information’ and ‘catch up the news’ were the top reasons given for listening to the radio, suggesting that radio is seen as the place to go for updates, while podcasts are the place to go if you want to really learn something.
What this means for you: Knowing that your podcast’s host will be seen as an entertainer or teacher means you can reflect this tone in your podcast promotion - from cover art and show descriptions to social media posts and adverts.
4) Where they listen
Where people are and what they’re doing when they listen to content is important. Radio is typically something listened to in the car while driving or often left playing in the background while doing other things. Podcasts however tend to be consumed in different ways
The same Ofcom survey showed that 63% of podcast audiences said they usually listened ‘at home relaxing’, compared to 45% for radio. And almost a third (32%) of podcast listeners in the UK reported doing so ‘at bedtime or going to sleep’ – second only to audiobook listeners (39%). Listening while walking also rated highly as an activity people do when listening to podcasts. All of these scenarios have something very much in common – they’re personal rather than shared listening experiences. Podcasts tend to be consumed by one person at a time.
What this means for you: Knowing what people are doing while listening to your show gives another head start on how to promote it. For instance, advertising your show as a great drive-time accompaniment may be putting off as many people as it is bringing in, whereas saying yours is the perfect show to listen to while trying to fall asleep could bring in a whole new audience.
5) What they hear
As a result of how people listen, radio shows tend to be structured differently to podcasts. They start quickly to grab the listener’s attention (and stop them changing channels) and involve plenty of reinforcement and repetition from the host to help those tuning in halfway through. Radio shows also almost always have very specific lengths which you can’t go a second beyond (e.g. you have to finish on the hour for the news!) Podcasts, however, don’t face the same constraints. Hosts can spend more time up front welcoming listeners to the show – both old and new – and take time to explain what they’re about to hear. Equally, podcasts aren’t subject to any time (and to a lesser extent) format constraints.
What this means for you: Think about how you can use the time at the start and end of the show to build bonds with your audience and then encourage them to share how they felt about the show with others.
Anyone promoting their podcast as an on-demand radio show may be missing the mark. Understanding what makes podcasting unique allows you to make multiple small changes that can make a big difference when it comes to growing your show. From cover art to show descriptions, having a better idea of who, how, where and why your listeners discover and consume your show – and what they hope to get out of it – can help you stand out from all the other podcasts vying for attention. And the next time someone asks you, ‘what exactly is a podcast?’ Perhaps the best reply to give them is, ‘well, I can tell you one thing it certainly isn’t…’
- The statistics in this article came from a survey of UK listeners aged 18 and over for communications regulator Ofcom in March 2021; and a study by audio researchers Signal Hill of Canadian adults in June 2021.