There is a moment when you wonder if this is ‘a meaningful moment’ or… just ‘a moment’. It happened to me this summer when Little Volcanoes Cathy Fitzgerald’s ground breaking podcast about Pilgrim’s Hospice in Kent beat formidable competition from major broadcasters to take first prize at the Whicker's World Foundation inaugural Audio Documentary Award. Coincidence or trend?
James Cridland, the perceptive self styled Radio Futurologist, describes radio as a "shared experience and a human connection”* So the next question is; ‘can a shared experience still create a deep human connection when it is not being shared simultaneously.?’ In other words ‘what place does podcasting have in the future of Audio Documentary?’
It is a question I sprung on the BBC’s Rob Ketteridge. Whicker's World Foundation were privileged to snaffle Rob as a judge on our first audio pitching session next March. Seeing that his day job is …deep breath… ‘Head of Arts, Documentaries and Drama for BBC Radio & Music Production’ for a broadcaster who casts a very long shadow across across our understanding of audio documentary, I assumed he might be sniffy about the rise of the upstart ‘Portable-On-Demand- Casting’. Not at all. He cites Sarah Koenig’s ground breaking true crime podcast spin-off, Serial, from This American Life as something to learn from:
“The trick that Serial has taught us” Rob observes “Are those narrative tricks, those hooks, those cliffhangers and the way of bringing you back to the next instalment of an ongoing series”. It worked: by February 2016 the Washington Post reported that one episode of Serial had been downloaded over 80 million times.
Rob says the ripples soon reached the shore BBC Radio 4. Their commission, The Untold, hosted by Grace Dent “Is undoubtedly influenced by a podcast sensibility” although “Its main tap-root is in a very British radio documentary tradition, foregrounding the experiences and stories of the subjects of the programme”. Rob is proud of result. Be My Baby, one in Dent’s series of compelling human stories, was a finalist the ARIAS last month. Not in the documentary category, because… there isn’t one (discuss) but as one of the “Top Radio Moments” of the previous year.
However this trend towards a heavily narrated, linear form storytelling in the style of This American Life does not thrill everyone. In an online article for us this month the award winning audio doc producer Eleanor McDowell told us “We have far too much [Story]’telling’ on the radio and not enough ‘showing”. McDowell, who was twice nominated for this year’s Audio Production Awards, explained “I’d like to hear more discussion about how sound, music and action scenes can place you in a present tense unfolding story rather than just tell you about it.” She cites Silent Evidence, podcast on The Heart at theheartradio.org, which immerses the listener in one woman’s quest over 4 episodes to make peace with her past as one pod-doc example of a difficult thing done terribly well.
So, given the undoubted availability of the talent and the technology perhaps a better question would be: “Why isn’t pod-doc growing at a faster rate in the UK?” Here only 6.9 per cent of those over the age of 15 listen to podcasts once a week. In the US the figure is nearly double that at 13 per cent. Rob Ketteridge thinks differences in the funding model may hold the key.
“In terms of the British market, a lot of the funding of radio documentary still sits with the commissioners in BBC Broadcasting House but the US podcasters have shown us that other sources of funding are available - whether its sponsorship, crowd funding, subscription or embedded ads or what they call ‘native ads’ where the host of the programme just seamlessly takes you in to an advert. Clearly in the public service space, which I’m obviously a part of, we’re not going to go down the latter route, but I have been slightly surprised that more British independent producers haven’t started to explore those possibilities”
However Ketteridge feels a change will come once more immediate and detailed data becomes available. For TV and online viewing there are already an array of companies competing to bring viewing figures to our door overnight but audio planning is reliant on data collection from RAJAR.
RAJAR, which stands for RAdio Joint Audience Research, relies on approximately 110,000 adults over 15 yrs old to keep a diary of their daily listening. But these figures are only published 4 times a year. If this was radio I would have to wait till 9th February 2017 to know if anybody heard it. Ketteridge thinks this is a disincentive to advertisers. “I did talk to an executive from the United States who was saying that that the data on podcast consumption and the metrics aren’t robust enough yet for the very big brands, say Nike (Note: Rob immediately thinks ‘running shoes’ I immediately think ‘Hobnobs’ at this point) those people with large advertising budgets to be confident that this is going to offer value for their advertising dollar and that is something that is holding back the development of those funding streams”.
Meanwhile Australian software companies such as Omny Studio and Blueberry in the US are starting to deliver terabytes of up to to the minute data and there are moves to develop something similar for the UK and “If that can be cracked in the UK, the home of innovation” says Ketteridge “Then the floodgates could really open.”
And this ‘opening’ would bode particularly well for Pod-Doc: one of the things that RAJAR have been able to show, (in their Time of Day Listening Figures this summer) is that podcast listening peaks at the most ‘reflective’ times of the day. Away from the multiple distractions of ‘drive-time’ podcast listening peaks in the evenings and mid afternoon. By late evening, around 11pm, as many are listening to podcasts as live radio and this pattern is ideally suited to the attention deserved by an absorbing documentary.
Which brings me back to Cathy Fitzgerald’s cracking podcast Little Volcanoes because while we wait for these Mega Brand Documentary Funders to materialise I am delighted to offer modest assistance: The Whicker’s World Foundation, who support documentary though the generous legacy of broadcast journalist Alan Whicker are offering, for the very first time, £5,000 and £2,000 to the winner and runner up to realise a simply brilliant audio documentary idea. Anyone can apply on line via our website There is no application fee but the deadline is fast approaching. Applications close on the 28th February, so it’s time think running shoes rather than Hobnobs.
Applications via www.whickersworldfoundation.com. The submission deadline has been extended to Midnight on 28th February 2017.
[* Podcast talk for ABC Extra, September 2016, now available on YouTube]