Does Podcasting Need a New Format?

While VR podcasts are a way off, adding a visual layer to podcasting is an area that’s heating up. We’ve seen product experiments last month with Spotlight from Spotify and last week The Guardian revealed a show called StrangeBird that adds images to a documentary podcast. Spotlight feels much like watching a portrait video while The Guardian takes a less interruptive approach - no video, but timed stills with a small audio cue to tell the listener that there is a new thing to look at. Try StrangeBird here.

If you’re an indie creator wanting to experiment with more visuals, you might think you’re out of luck. Spotify only works with big publishers to create Spotlight (Buzzfeed, Cheddar and Gimlet Media) and The Guardian’s offering is all made in-house. But Marco Arment has also released a system for adding visuals to podcasts. His Forecast MP3 encoder, makes it easy for creators to mark cue points in a podcast and insert images and links that will appear to the listener in his Overcast player. Note that this all uses existing protocols (chapter markers are just an under-used part of the ID3 spec) and doesn’t need any proprietary tech to create so any creator can use this right now to add synced visuals to their podcast. If you know of any examples of shows using this in Overcast to good effect, please send them in (contact details at the top of this very page).

Do Podcasts Need More Visuals?

I’m not yet convinced that adding video or time synced images to podcasts actually improves the experience for the listener.

Once you add moving images to a podcast, you have moved the experience from being additive (“I love to listen while I… commute/clean/walk the dog”) to being immersive (“I’ll sit on my couch and consume this episode”) and now you are competing for attention with the likes of YouTube and Netflix. Which feels like a fight you don’t want to be in.

The experience of StrangeBird is deliberately less interruptive but I still found myself with this anxiety of not wanting to miss a photo - “Quick! Look at my phone before the next beep!”.

Maybe the best experience isn’t actually in real time with the audio? I would go seek out the S-Town and Serial websites after each episode - maybe the solution is just better show notes? Image support is there in show notes, in fact any HTML can be used but why aren’t creators using shown notes more creatively?

As James Cridland found when he surveyed how 19 podcast players treated show notes, its a very messy landscape right now. Who wants to go to the effort of creating great show notes when there is such poor support for the listener to actually see them?

It is also time consuming to add images using the current podcast hosting platforms. You have to go upload an image to a 3rd party host and then manually paste the link back in to your publishing platform. I would love to see something like GitHub’s easy method for adding images to HTML (drag an image from your computer and GitHub uploads it to their own servers and inserts a Markdown link for you).

The final problem with enhanced show notes is that on most players the default action is to delete an episode as soon as its finished it and so that makes it difficult for the listener to go back and see the show notes after they have finished the episode.