By Ben Pack
Photos by Frank Leal
It seems like just yesterday when that one really tech-savvy friend of yours was starting his new “web-log,” or as he called it a blog. Flash forward to today. With the advent of Tumblr and microblogging sites like Twitter, blogging is still around in full force. But what’s the next medium?
The idea of podcasts are nothing new. Radio programs with similar topics and production values have existed for decades. With television putting a serious blow in public radios’ numbers, many thought that these types of shows’ life was nearly over. This was true until the mid-to-late 2000s, when what we know today as podcasts began to manifest.
The term podcast was originally used as a term to refer to a type of RSS catcher that would grab audio interview recordings and play them on a computer. Podcasting has grown quite substantially as a medium. According to Pew Research, in 2009 there were 63,000 English podcasts, and a projected 115,000 in 2012.
San Francisco, being a hub for technology, is unsurprisingly home to an astounding number of podcasts, with higher listener numbers than many major American cities, with several of the top podcasts downloaded originating in San Francisco, including the IGN family of podcasts.
More hardcore podcast listeners spend hours a week with their favorite shows, and even enjoy listening to podcasts more than listening to music or watching television. Sean Wu is one of these listeners.
“I listen to podcasts on my hour-long commute to school,” says Sean. “I don’t mind laughing like an asshole because Muni is miserable enough.” Sean listens to podcasts on his iPhone, opting to download several hour-long episodes a week of his favorite shows for free, rather than music which he would have to pay for.
“I get all these podcasts for free, which is a way better deal than movie or cable prices.”
He would not listen to iPhones if not for his iPhone. Listening on-the-go is crucial for Wu. Pew reports that from 2010 to 2011 the growth of people that listen to podcasts on mobile devices increased by nearly one hundred percent. There are also dozens of third-party apps, both free and paid, that offer podcast downloading and listening features that the standard Apple music player do not.
A Podcast Empire
So with thousands and thousands of podcasts out there, what makes one good? One person who knows a bit about the game is Jesse Thorn is a giant in the podcasting circle. A San Francisco native, Jesse started podcasting after graduating from UCSC in 2004. He was already doing the KCSC college radio show, and had heard from some of his more tech-oriented friends about podcasting
“It sounded like a good way to get a few extra listeners,” says Jesse. “It would probably take me an hour and a half of extra time.”
In 2007 after moving to LA, Jesse received a distribution deal from Public Radio International for his show, “The Sound of Young America,” but the revenue projection was only $8,000 dollars for the first year, and $30,000 after five.
Jesse focus was in public radio, but he also decided to host and help produce a few other shows for what he would go on to call the Maximum Fun network of podcasts, including a podcast version of TSYA, a podcast of his sketch group Kasper Hauser, and Jordan, Jesse, Go!, a comedy podcast with Jesse’s college friend Jordan Morris. Today Maximum Fun hosts over a dozen shows, including the popular advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me and Judge John Hodgman, featuring author and television personality John Hodgman.
“All shows from Maximum Fun are funded by listener donations,” Jesse says discussing whether or not he charges for any content. Every year they host a pledge drive, aiming for the goal of 1,000 new donors. They received 1,400 new ones in 2013.
Many people question if radio is the same as podcasting. “At the moment there’s a clear divide, at the moment podcasting is driven by the things that are driven by web media, radio is drove by mass media,” says Jesse.
Jordan, Jesse, Go! is a very personal show. The duo of hosts (usually accompanied by a guest) tell very personal stories. People get to know not only the hosts on a professional level, but also on a very personal level. What Jesse believes one of the key differences that make podcasting stand out from radio are “powerful, personal connections.”
The beauty of podcasting lies in the fact that as long as you have a microphone and a computer, you can make a podcast. Take, for example, Joe Fitzgerald. Joe is a reporter for the “Xpress Newspaper,” and host of “Swamp Gas,” an SF State podcast. They have released two episodes and look to release more starting this summer.
“It’s great outlet to release the shackles of journalistic style and have fun, but still be a journalist,” says Joe.
Joe, along with his co-host Brian Rinker, record what it’s like to be an older student at SF State. And by record they mean “be curmudgeonly toward.”
The idea of creating a podcast was just another medium for Joe to explore. He had been the editor on feature length documentary, created short training videos and even teaches in the multimedia department at San Francisco School of Arts
They’ve recorded in many places, including from the back room of the newspaper’s production room, to the campus library. “The intercom would come on in the middle of the best bits, and it ruined everything. Someone suggested we record in a car, but who has a car in San Francisco.”
Joe believes that podcasts do a great job of normalizing people. He’s a fan of podcasts such as Savage Love, Star Talk with Neil DeGrass Tyson (whom Joe refers to as “a total pimp), and This American Life.
It won’t make us rich (but that’s ok)
The question still remains, though, if podcasting is a marketable medium. Aside from a few notable personalities like Jesse, there are few people who make their living from podcasting, and rather treat it as a passion project.
One of the most popular podcast genres is gaming. There are thousands upon thousands of gaming podcasts out there, including the insanely popular Giant Bombcast. The Bombcast started in 2008 (then called the Arrow Pointing Down podcast) after Jeff Gerstmann was fired from his job at Gamespot.com, forming his own blog with former co-worker Ryan Davis. Prior to that, Jeff was on the also super-popular “Hotspott” podcast for Gamespot with Davis as well as several other co-workers who would go onto work at Giantbomb.
“We had heard about podcasts and wanted to get into it. There wasn’t anyone getting into game podcasting,” Jeff says in reference to starting the Hotspot in 2005. They received some pushback from corporate. “It took convincing that was a good use of time because Gamespot wasn’t a good use of time.”
Jeff had done some radio work in his youth, but really thought that podcasting had a viable future, especially in the realm of video games.
Now the Bombcast is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes, even snagging the No. 1 one most popular podcast spot briefly in 2013. Jeff shares Jesse’s thoughts on staying connected to the fans.
“There are podcasts out there that are dry fact-based reports. I hate to compare it, but in some ways it’s like morning radio, it has that same sort of stuff,” says Jeff.
While most podcasts range in the hour to 90-minute range, the Bombcast’s weekly show often lasts more than three hours.
“Three hours isn’t right for every podcast or every crew, The number one feedback we get from people is we wish it was longer. The three hour mark lets us say what we need to about games. We don’t think about it, it naturally ends up around that length.”
Jeff said they surprisingly get a lot of feedback from soldiers who cannot access the internet regularly and spend times listening to their show to make up for it.
Still, none of this is directly for profit. “You can’t justify direct monetary results to podcasts. Subscribers sub to support podcasts,” Jeff says. It would be very easy for a man in a suit to walk in and say ‘it’s costing us bandwidth.’”
And the Bombcast certainly does cost bandwidth, with “a few hundred thousand” listeners and three-hour episodes.
Patent Trolls and the Future of Podcasting
Still, someone out there sees the potential value in podcasting, even if they’re doing it in the worst way possible. A Texas-based company called Personal Audio has filed suit against Adam Carolla, as well as sending out several cease-and-desist letters claiming they patented podcasts. The following statement has been issued on their website:
“We invented the technology that enables podcasting back in 1996 as part of an effort to develop a portable and personal audio system that would offer users a customized listening experience using content and data downloaded over the Internet.”
What this means for the podcasting community is unclear. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is working on legislation in favor of the S.H.I.E.L.D. act passed, along with support from Mark Cuban. Jesse believes this could be dire for podcasters.
“Recently a group of LA podcasters have been getting together recently to talk about response options. We’re in a very difficult position. Defending against the lawsuit costs between a million and a few million dollars, which is why patent trolling is so effective,” Jesse says.
“It’s a scary situation, a very scary situation.”
Jesse concerned if it comes to the point of having to defend the suit in courts. “There may come a time when we podcasters have to raise a legal defense fund, and I don’t think we desire going directly to the audience.” His business is audience funded, so money given isn’t money donated to creation of our content.
“I’m an NPR affiliated psudo-journalist so I wouldn’t take a stance, but I recommend that people learn about the situation legislatively and contact their representatives.”