The third annual Podcast Movement conference took place last week in the Chicago Loop. As a veteran podcast listener and journeyman podcast host, I decided to check it out and hear for myself what’s the latest and greatest in podland. It was a trip well-rewarded: meeting others who share the same brand of geekery was exciting, learning about it from insiders was fascinating, and contemplating podcasting’s future was, well, just a bit alarming. Here are five takeaways from the conference:

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1. Everyone’s selling pickaxes—Though the conference name refers to podcasting as a “movement” it is no less an industry, and the conference program reflected it. As the saying goes, the real money in a gold rush is in selling pickaxes, and so there were panels on how to make podcasts, how to get more listeners for your podcast, and how to make money from listeners of your podcast. Yet the biggest corporate sponsors everyone’s heard of were Dropbox and Audible, followed by companies only podcasters would know. Interestingly, ubiquitous podcast advertisers like Mailchimp and Squarespace were nowhere to be found. This might be a great opportunity for unknown companies both present and merely mentioned, like Auphonic, Blubrry, Ecamm, Hindenburg, Podbean and Podtrac. On the other hand, the ultimate value of these pickaxes is still unclear, and the next section explains why.

2. Advertising is a huge question mark—One of the best presentations I saw was by Lex Friedman, EVP of Sales for the podcast ad broker Midroll. Framed as a history of podcast advertising, Friedman’s talk also raised some fascinating questions about the future of the medium. The majority of advertisers use direct-response techniques like promo codes to measure the success of the ad spend, but this doesn’t work for brand advertisers, who are the biggest spenders of all. This is why you’re still hearing ads for Stamps.com but none for Coca-Cola.

But there’s more: if you sell an ad promising however many downloads, that only accounts for a limited period of time. Beyond that, the advertiser may be getting more value than they paid for, value which the podcaster fails to realize. On the other hand, old ad copy and old promo codes aren’t worth as much. It’s in the interests of both sides to find a solution, but experiments like “dynamic insertion” haven’t yet struck gold.

3. iTunes rules everything around us—Apple’s relationship to podcasting is long, but surprisingly shallow. The word itself derives from “iPod” and its defining moment was the launch of the iTunes podcast category in June 2005, yet Apple neither interferes with nor profits from the industry in any meaningful way, content to rule indifferently like an absentee god. (Some podcasters, but not all, are lobbying for Apple to take amore active role.) Rob Walch, VP of Podcaster Relations at hosting company LibSyn was especially illuminating about the mysterious oracle of iTunes. Is it true that getting to the front page of iTunes is everything? Not really; it’s usually worth 200 to 2,000 additional downloads, and most who do won’t return. Is there anything you can do about the 301-episode limit? Nope. How does the Top 200 list rank shows? Like this; D = downloads per day:


4. A looming identity crisis?—In the conference’s opening keynote, Glynn Washington of WYNC’s Snap Judgment declared: “I don’t care about podcasting. What I care about is storytelling.” His comments were received with enthusiasm, but I thought it was a funny thing to say at a podcast conference. It also opens a window onto a divide within podworld yet to be explored, between the public radio-pedigreed elites and the long tail of semi-pros recording from a home studio.

Shows from the public radio sphere tend to be highly produced, involve reporting, and definitely count as “storytelling”. But the majority of podcasts follow an interview or talk radio format (minus the toxic politics) that are easier and less expensive for non-radio persons to make. No one really knows where the center of podcasting actually is and, in our darkest moments, we suspect there isn’t one.

5. How much gold in them thar hills?—As NiemanLab put it recently, podcasting today feels a lot like blogging a decade ago. This is both good: there is growth ahead! And maybe bad: the big shows will be the real industry, and everyone else will have to be content participating in the movement. Power laws aren’t unique to blogging or podcasting, of course, but while podcasting is a community for some, it’s increasingly a means to an end for others. As Walch noted, if your podcast gets 173 downloads per episode, you’re in the top 50% of all podcasts. It takes just 1400 downloads to be in the top 20%, and 54,000 puts you in the top 1%. As Friedman acknowledged, a podcast needs a minimum of 50,000 before Midroll can take you on. That number is more likely to get larger, not smaller. If you love podcasts, or pickaxes, then you’d better love it even if it you don’t strike it rich.

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Thanks for reading! If you’re so inclined, consider trying out Enter The Void, my podcast about mind-bending movies, now in its third season and available on iTunes. You might also like my previous show, KubrickCast, which is about exactly what it sounds like, and is also on iTunes.