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Let’s start with some good news. According to studies by Voxnest and Podtrac, podcast consumption does not seem to be decreasing, at least not in aggregate. So while some individual shows are noticing a drop, these two early studies see evidence that people aren't staying away from podcasts overall. Instead, the data indicate the mix of shows people choose to listen to -- a listening habit -- is changing.
As working podcasters, our challenge is blending that macro-level good news of sustained-if-not-growing audience and the micro-level reality check of changed listening habits into something we can use on our shows. Because all of us are (or soon will be) wondering what the heck are we going to do on our programs.
As I said at the beginning, this is impacting all of our lives. Us as working podcasters. They as listeners. They as potential listeners. Everyone is facing a new reality. All we can do is adapt to it.
The moment the first episode of your podcast was downloaded into someone’s podcast listening app, you entered into a contract with your listeners. We call that a social contract, even though neither of you signed anything. This contract says, broadly speaking, that you’ll deliver a certain amount of content in a certain style and that they, in turn, will listen. As any business person knows, in times of trouble we often tear up contracts that no longer fit the current circumstances and renegotiate with the other party.
It's time to renegotiate the social contract between you and your listening audience. Thanks, Coronavirus.
In the last week or so I’ve had a wave of podcasters -- some clients, some friends, some just random connections -- seeking out my advice about what they're supposed to do with their shows in response to the new world we find ourselves in.
My advice, you might be surprised to hear, has changed. For the initial weeks of the COVID19 crisis, I led with the notion that podcasters should keep on keepin’ on. My now-changed position was that people were likely to use podcasts as an escape from the constant barrage of bad news. I thought that people needed a sense of normalcy in their lives, and I thought that listening to podcasts was a great way to help them achieve that.
That was my opinion and approach until last week. Now, I don't think that way anymore.
I changed my opinion and approach because this isn't a blip. This isn't something that will go away next week or the week after next. And as discussed on yesterday’s program, this is going to cause long term changes to listening habits. We will come out of this, but we’ll come out to see a different world, different within our own nations, and different as people.
If you agree with my bleak-yet-rational position, then you need to make some changes to your podcasts.
Specifically, you really have to choose between one of three options.
1. Ignore it. I don’t recommend taking the ostrich head-in-the-sand approach. Not only is that a myth, but it makes you seem rather out of touch. If you’re lucky, it only makes it seem like you produced your episodes months ago before the crisis started. At worse, it looks like you're ignoring the problem we all face and are hoping for divine intervention to make the pandemic go away tomorrow.
That's bad. While there are certain instances where not addressing the pandemic might make sense, it should not be your default choice. Your listeners -- all of them -- are impacted by this. If you ignore that, you risk coming off as ignoring them.
2. Acknowledge and embrace it. That’s my new approach, as you can plainly see. And it should be your default approach if you don’t have any idea what changes you should make to your show. But only if your show allows you to do that. If breaking the format of your show is problematic -- perhaps you're doing a long educational series and you’re just midway through, or maybe you're producing entertainment content specifically designed as an escape from the world, or some other reasons why you might not be able to acknowledge and embrace it -- then don’t.
But if it doesn’t completely wreck your show and your audience’s expectations, then I highly recommend you acknowledge and embrace the world we live in. Come out from behind the curtain for a moment and let your audience know how you are doing. I promise you that a good number of your listeners want to know how you and your crew are being affected. Because they are affected, and they are human. So are you, right?
3. Do a complete and total overhaul. Hey, if the world where your podcast nade a lot of sense no longer exists and likely won't exist again for the foreseeable future, then you need to adapt to the new world. That may mean throwing away your current playbook and starting over on your very next episode.
We’re already seeing listeners adjust their listening habits. Specifically, they’re shifting away from podcasts that don’t deliver what they want/need in the new world. So shift with them. Deliver new content that better fits their needs
As you choose among those three options, you also might be tempted to do three Very Bad Things. Do not do these three Very Bad Things, dear podcaster. You’ll just be adding to the problems, and we don’t need that right now.
1. Do not give advice outside of your own expertise. Unless you are a practicing health worker, do not give medical advice. Unless you work in the field of epidemiology, resist the temptation to give advice or prognosticate on the nature of this (or any) pandemic.
Not that you should avoid talking about COVID19. Just do so within your field of expertise or stay focused on your personal experiences living through the crisis.
2. Do not spread information that has not been fully vetted. The microphone on your desk is a powerful tool. It’s easy to see a post getting lots of traction on Facebook and assume that you should use that powerful tool to amplify that message.
See the prior “what not to do” item. Just because a post has thousands of likes and has been shared by a bunch of your friends, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate, helpful, or won’t cause undue harm. If you can’t verify the veracity, do not spread it.
3. Do not quit. Seriously. Don't quit. Your audience listened to you before this pandemic happened. Your audience still wants to hear from you during this pandemic. And they're going to want to hear from you after we all come out the other side.
Sure, they might want you to change up the content you deliver. Or they just might want a quick update from you before going back to the escape your show provides. But they don’t want you to quit because you think that you're able to give relevant information to them in this time of crisis. That’s not true. They’ve plenty of places to get relevant information. But they can only hear from you… well, from you.
Yes, that’s heavy stuff. And to be honest I'm pretty sure I'll be dealing with heavy stuff for some time to come on this program. Because this where we live, and the charge of this show is to help us all understand the future of podcasting in order to make it better. That means raising the right questions that impact your shows rather than blindly focusing on other aspects of our business.
I'll be back tomorrow for yet another Podcast Pontifications.