Developer Allen Pike thinks the market for a professional podcast app is too small to be viable. It is. Creating tools for existing podcasters is not the interesting part of the market. In order to make a podcasting app viable, the target is not the current universe of podcasters, but in growing the size of that universe. To do that will require creating a tool that makes it easy for more people to create and publish more podcasts. A tool that grows the podcast universe will have to simplifying the multi-ender recording method and the entire process of recording and distributing podcasts. A viable podcasting tool needs to make it simple and easy for anyone to plug in a microphone, record a good-sounding podcast, and distribute it, all without any technical knowledge other than plugging in a USB device and pointing a mouth at a microphone. Oh, and, it probably also needs to be free.
In other words, this is not just audio recording software, but a simple publishing tool, like Blogger for podcasts. That idea sounds familiar. In fact, it’s what Blogger founder Evan Williams hoped to create at Odeo, which launched in 2005. Evhead: How Odeo Happened
I’m super-excited to see where this goes. Podcasting is going to be freakin’ huge. I don’t have time in this post, because it’s 2am and I gotta be on stage at 8am, to give my pitch for why. But it’s the same story as blogging (with several unique charastics of its own), but in a whole new medium that is much bigger than people think. And it’ll happen much, much faster.
(Whatever happened to Odeo? In 2006, they created and launched a messaging service called Twttr, which ended up becoming slightly more popular than podcasting, especially after it voweled-up into a little thing called Twitter. Not surprisingly, Odeo reorganized into Obvious Corp. and sold off the Odeo assets.)
Now, as podcasting is entering its next phase of growth, with smartphones, dedicated podcast listening apps, connected cars, and decent mobile data making it easier and easier to subscribe and listen to podcasts, no tool has made it easier to make podcasts. Apple’s Garage Band now has better tools for making music, but hasn’t drastically improved its tools for making podcasts. FaceTime, Garage Band, iCloud and iTunes could work together very easily to make a very easy podcast production flow for Mac users. It could be possible to enable simple subscriptions for podcasts (and drive revenue to Apple and producers), but it’s a tiny amount compared to iTunes and App Store revenue, and even tinier compared to Apple’s core business.
Part of this is technical. Recording audio is much more technical than publishing text. But a tool that makes it simple to plug in a $50 USB microphone and get good results without needing a producer, professional audio software, or mixing double-ended recording files would drastically expand the number of podcasters, just like Blogger, Movable Type and WordPress drastically expanded the number of web publishers.
After listening to this week’s ATP (“A Spirited Defense of Pong”) and sketching out some notes, I am less pessimistic than Marco, John and Casey that there is an opportunity. But I think the challenge is even more difficult than they discussed, because it’s not just software, it’s an entire platform.
What does this platform need to do?
1. Multi-end recording
This is the area that Pike discussed in his post. The application needs to create a reliable VOIP connection and each side of the conversation needs to record. Since the same application is running the call and recording, it should be able to help with the first difficult part of publishing a multi-ender podcast, syncing up the recordings. Ideally, if bandwidth allows, the software would silently upload the guests’ recordings to the cloud during the call, so the host has access to all of the audio.
Before even getting to the podcast hosting side of the equation, we’re already talking about major cloud integration, so there’s that.
Oh, and ideally there are at least three versions of the software: a web app, a Mac app and a Windows app. If possible, also iOS and Android.
The recording software needs to make it easy to edit out gaps and digressions. Ideally, it would automatically run something like Overcast’s Smart Speed to get rid of excess gaps. It would highlight in the editor places where people are talking over each other (where more than one track is over the noise floor) and allow the host to quickly mute, cut, or space out the crosstalk.
The software would have to provide access to a simple compressor, limiter, and EQ adjustments. Ideally, it would automatically apply a reasonable amount with a simple “magic setting” tool. That’s obviously trivial to build.
In most cases, the podcaster will likely want to have a regular theme music or intro section. Some may want to have section introductions or to assemble a podcast that uses a combination of field recording, studio segments and discussions. The software will need to provide the structure (in the same way that blogging tools provide templates) and ability to combine different audio bits.
4. Stock media
Podcasters need access to high-quality, free (or inexpensive) royalty-free music and sound effects. There is an opportunity to both provide a quality library as a value-add to users as well as a revenue opportunity to license additional music and sound effects. So this requires a billing system and integrating a third-party API to the stock media library.
So, hosting and serving media files, no big deal in the cloud era, right? (Aside from paying the storage and CDN bills.) In addition to just hosting the podcast files, this service also needs to have a way to easily build simple attractive websites and valid podcast RSS feeds. Again, this is not a cutting edge problem, but is a matter of non-trivially difficult execution. Oh, and throw in an API to allow third-party recording tools to tie in to the platform.
A small podcast doesn’t have enough listeners to make it worthwhile for advertisers. But thousands of small podcasts running advertisements, it becomes a viable platform for advertising. Advertising makes it possible to offer this as a free service. Of course, there’s significant capital involved in marketing and advertising the free service enough to become a platform for advertisers. Part of the templating structure is ad units, which the software would drop in after every few minutes. And the template system would have to be flexible enough to allow individual podcasters to control where the ad breaks are and record bumpers.
In order to keep successful podcasts from fleeing the platform, there needs to be revenue sharing with podcasts that generate traffic. So we also need to build the analytics to track and the payment system to pay out the podcasters. Revenue-share podcasters should also have the opportunity to record their own native ads.
And if the product is good enough to entice podcasters who are already professionals, there’s the minor problem figuring out how much to charge for an ad-free version of the service that is profitable and not ridiculously expensive.
This is not a necessary part of the service, but it is a revenue opportunity. Since audio recording is dependent on quality equipment, the other business opportunity is in selling kits of microphones and interfaces and accessories. Again, not a difficult problem to solve, but a difficult thing to do well, since you’re adding in wholesale relationships, packaging, retailing and fulfillment.
So, is this a difficult product to build?
Definitely. This is just a high level overview of the problems that would need to be solved in order to create the product. Already, much of the software required to build this exists as part of Mac OS features available to developers and open source projects. AWS, Azure or Google Cloud make it easy to start a web-scale project without buying racks of servers and colocate them. But integrating all of the different pieces, marketing the product and scaling enough to start selling advertising is certainly not trivial.
Is it a business?
Maybe? Using podcasts to distribute media is going to be at least an order of magnitude smaller than the web overall. Audio is a linear medium that takes a set amount of time. It’s deliberately long-form in a world that is becoming increasingly short. The professionals already have workflows and distribution. The only way to tap into that market is to add something that’s better or cheaper than their existing workflow. And “cheaper” likely means burning capital to pay someone else’s expenses and having underwear gnomes figure out how to fill the gap.
Are there enough creators who will want to create podcasts, but don’t because it’s too hard? How many of them will keep with it? How many of them will develop an audience? How do you keep a popular podcast when they can sell their own sponsorships?
Was this a 2005 product that’s missed its opportunity? In a world where YouTube dominates the short form video space and enables creators to make real money, can an audio-only service be relevant outside of the artisanal podcast movement? Or do you add to the costs by supporting video, too?