Ira Glass in Conversation with Mark Olsen
People are having such trouble surviving in serious journalism and we happen to have the winning ticket.
In an age of up and coming virtual reality content and high consumer expectations for the next new thing, audio content has surprisingly continued to thrive in the form of podcasting. Serial, the the incredibly successful investigative journalism podcast, has shown that audiences have a thirst not only for audio content, but well-produced journalistic storytelling. Ira Glass, host and creator of the public radio program This American Life, came to SXSW to discuss what has made podcasting so successful and whether the popularity spike will last.
The amount of successful projects that Glass has had a hand in is impressive. This American Life is heard each week by over 2.2 million listeners on more than 500 public radio stations in the United States, Australia and Canada, with another 2.2 million downloading the podcast. The show was the most popular podcast on iTunes before Serial, This American Life’s first spin-off podcast, took the throne.
For Glass, great ideas aren’t forced, but emerge organically from genuine interest in a topic.
“Honestly it’s not sophisticated,” Glass said of his process. “It’s looking for something that would be amusing and kind of hard.”
Glass is also very open to change in the technology and form of radio.
“I like new stuff,” Glass said. “I don’t like being bored. Mainly I just want to be interested, to do something that’s interesting. This American Life has been on for 20 years and it’s still weirdly hard to put on the air. It’s just hard to make anything good.”
As the world moved over to podcasting, it was this distribution technology that really affected the business of radio. In August the audience numbers for This American Life met in the middle with the same number listening on podcast as on radio, and the podcast audience is only growing. Glass still sees room for improvement in distribution, especially in how audio content is shared on social media.
“Audio would do way better on social media if you could share it better,” Glass said. “We’re investing money in inventing that because we could be doing so much better on social media.”
In creating Serial as a spinoff of This American Life, Glass and his team looked to the culture of binge watching. They thought of all of these TV shows that people binge watch because they get hooked on the characters and the story. Serial set out to make this model work with investigative journalism.
“We didn’t anticipate that [the podcast] would necessarily work,” Glass said. “Can you do an investigative story that’s so compelling at the beginning that people stick around for the whole story?”
When Serial first came out, podcasting wasn’t quite a thing yet. Apple came out with the podcast app near the launch of Serial and suddenly people really started listening to podcasts. Glass partly attributes Serial’s success to good timing in line with podcasts becoming more discoverable.
“The world wasn’t ready for podcasts,” said Glass, but then Apple added the app. Then there was a huge boom partly off of the technology change. “We were just lucky, and Serial became it’s own thing, which we never thought would happen.”
Serial’s success also comes from Sara Koenig’s natural aptitude for storytelling on an audio platform. “The thing that we thought was interesting about the story was interesting to everyone,” Glass said. “To have someone [Koenig] who is the most classic, old school reporter in every sense to be able to perform and tell the story on audio” is was really made Serial stand out. “Almost no one could do it. What she’s making is super delicate and she’s making it in real time.”
The popularity of podcasts begs the question of what’s really different about the content, and will audio content endure? Glass says that the main difference with podcasting is reach.
“More people hear it, it’s on all over the world, in a way that people weren’t,” Glass said. “It gives us reach.”
Podcasts also offer freedom in length and advertising. A 60 minute show can become 63 minutes, adding acts and additional information.
“Often we’ll have moments and stories that we couldn’t fit in the radio show,” Glass said.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of podcasting is that podcast ads bring in more money than radio ads do. Monetization matters more than ever in an age where serious journalism has to fight to be heard. Print journalism and network TV news are having trouble, but podcasting is thriving.
Despite recent success, Glass expects the podcasting bubble to burst. As virtual reality gains more attention and becomes more commonplace, Glass expects audio content to fall by the wayside, but he hopes to remain relevant.
“The most common thing that happens is somebody does something really special and no one knows that it exists,” Glass said.
Thankfully, for now, podcasts are here to stay.