Speaking out

The recent explosive growth of podcasting can teach us many things. For starters, the old radio assumption that “young people don’t like speech content” has been well and truly trashed. But another lesson is that we could all do with diversifying our skill-sets. It’s an amazing time to explore opportunities in audio, and several publishers have started doing so, often brilliantly. But I wonder if the publishing industry has been playing it too safe for too long? I believe there are bigger splashes to be made by thinking less like a publisher and more like a content creator.

This is why Trapeze has decided to create a bespoke original audio and podcast commissioning role. Working with the whole Orion team, I’ve been brought in to help find fresh and interesting ways to take what is essentially content—storytelling and ideas—into the audio space. It’s a bold move, and recognition that there is more to the audio side of publishing than audiobooks.

The podcast/original audio world is moving fast. In the past few weeks and months alone, podcast episodes have started showing up in Google search results with a direct play button next to them; Spotify has been busy buying up the likes of US podcasting giant Gimlet to create its original speech content; and the newest subscription podcast service, Luminary, has launched. TV companies have been quick to get in on the act, either using podcasts as a cheaper way to test the water for TV ideas, or simply buying up successful series (such as “Dirty John” or “Homecoming”) and re-making them for TV once their captive audience has been guaranteed.

The pioneers, the ones experimenting with form, genre and style, are frequently making the biggest impact. It’s such a “new” platform that as soon as expectations are built around what constitutes a “podcast”, they are almost immediately shattered. The mould is being constantly broken and creative boundaries tested—not least because so many people from so many different disciplines are having a crack, which certainly makes it an exciting industry to be caught up in (if you can call it an industry— we’ll come to that).

A UK example of someone doing exactly this is George the Poet, with his supremely original and breathtakingly beautiful series, named “Have You Heard George’s Podcast?” Co-produced with composer Benbrick, it has broken new ground by combining elements of social commentary, drama, soundscape and poetry. It cleaned up at the recent British Podcast Awards, winning gold in five of the categories.

Other people doing well in this world are those taking a side step from one industry into the other. See the newspaper the Australian, with its two highly addictive, Whatsapp-group-chat-worthy series “The Teacher’s Pet” and “Who the Hell is Hamish?” bringing the things it does best in its own world (investigative journalism) to audio—and to great effect.

The write stuff

Book publishers will benefit greatly from some of this expansive thinking. They have something to hand that both audio and TV producers thrive on: great writers. There are opportunities to use their writers in creative ways, because as we all know, if they don’t, there are plenty of other people circling around waiting to do exactly that.

There’s a tendency for publishers to think of audio as either audiobooks, or a podcast about books. There is a place for both of those things, and the growth in audiobooks is a great opportunity in itself. But for me, and for Trapeze, the exciting areas to explore are around other types of original audio. It could be using authors in different ways, not just to talk about writing or publishing. It could be using podcasts as testing grounds for potential books that originate in-house, as well as the other way around. It could be diversifying the company into a production house and exploring genre or trying out some creative partnerships.

There are really exciting opportunities. There’s just one issue: precious few are able to monetise it yet. There are only a handful of podcasts with multi-million downloads (e.g. “Serial”) making good sums of money. For everyone else, it’s a matter of trial and error—and that includes the big companies such as Spotify, which has been consistently changing its strategy. No one knows the answers yet and with bold new thinking comes risk, but this is the time to jump in and experiment with opportunities before someone else does.
For years, those of us working in the audio industry were told it was under threat in some form or other: from television, from gaming, from YouTube, then from music-streaming services. In a complete reversal of fortunes, those very streaming services have moved towards the speech radio model that we were told was dying out.

This spark of opportunity in the audio world is unprecedented. No wonder TV is looking towards it for inspiration. Publishing is of course doing the same, and that’s why I’m thrilled to move into this world, because the opportunities are as big as you want to make them if you are willing to think about things differently, create content, find new voices and start conversations.

Alice Lloyd is commissioning editor for audio and podcasts at Trapeze Books.