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Talking podcasts with Eardrum Founder Ralph van Dijk

The world-renowned expert in all things sound talks the present, future, art and business of podcasting.

A world-renowned expert in all things sound, Ralph van Dijk is the Founder and Director of Eardrum, the most awarded radio and audio agency in the world. Here, he talks podcasting – a form entering its renaissance – with a bonus question at the end concerning Prince (RIP).

Mahlab First off the bat: what are the top podcasts you listen to, and what is it about them that you love?

Ralph van Dijk In no order of priority, mind, these are the ones that make up my weekly diet. I’ll start with Heavyweight
– which in my view is the most well-written podcast I’ve heard, with lashings of self-effacing wit and pathos. The host and presenter is a writer, and he just has a style that I love – very dry, very droll, but really funny.

S-Town, that was incredible. You know it’s good when you’re so immersed in the story, you find yourself shouting “NO. What?! You’re kidding!” out loud. That was in a public place too – it didn’t matter. S-Town tells a wonderful story, rich with accents and phrases and stories from an alien world. I love it.

This American Life and Radiolab – they were my first podcast ‘bromances’, if you like. The good will they’ve engendered over the years means I’ll trust them with just about any subject matter, no matter how obscure. It’s boring to put them on the list, but they need to be – they’re there for a good reason.

The last I’ll mention is StartUp. I set up Eardrum London in 1990 and the Sydney office in 2006, and we’re in talks to set up an office in the US at the moment. So we’ve been in a perpetual state of startup, and this show, it keeps me company. It reminds me that there are other people going through what I’m going through.

M The last few years have seen the podcast industry take off, overseas and more recently in Australia, with consumers downloading and discovering at a pretty terrific rate. What do you see as the social and technological forces and trends behind this?

RvD You’re right, podcasts are taking off. And for the first time in my entire career I feel like I’m in a vaguely fashionable industry. It’s nice.

When it comes to media consumption though, we’re all ‘watching what we eat’. The changes in technology make it easier to access the highest quality entertainment on demand, with the smartphone the main driver. It’s the holy grail for any new technology, and the way podcasts have been integrated into it is just amazing.

A great podcast also gives us an enriching escape – wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. With our lives being so busy, the ability to consume the entertainment we want without having to interrupt whatever else we’re doing – with our hands or our eyes – this is all feeding into the success of podcasting.

M What is it about podcasts that can make them such a unique and engaging storytelling medium? And relating to this, what makes them a valuable marketing/outreach channel for brands?

RvD I’ve always believed that audio is the most intimate form of storytelling because the listener is the co-author; we create the ideal images to accompany what we’re listening to. To do that, we have to physically let the sound in our heads to process it. That’s what I always loved about audio, and that’s why I left the agency world to specialise in it.

As for the branded side, advertisers benefit from minimal ad avoidance in a podcast environment and a very high level of engagement. But the message needs to be sympathetic to that environment. That’s how Eardrum’s approach is very different compared to radio advertising – we write in a more colloquial style and find a way to demonstrate that the brand that is on the podcast is as much of a fan of the show as the listener. That’s a critical component.

Another thing: audio consumers tend to accept the trade-off that comes with brands being part of quality content. Arguably, we do so in audio more than in visual media. It’s so easy to avoid advertising in visual – we can fast-forward ads on broadcast TV or we can stream stuff without any ads at all. When we can’t avoid these ads visually, it feels like we’re being bombarded, or like it’s an intrusion of the content that we’ve curated. But with podcast and radio environments, we’re a little more forgiving of the brand.

It still doesn’t’ mean we accept it regardless. A bad ad in a podcast is really bad. The engagement is so high, it feels like a slap in the face.

M Having hosts read the script of the ad themselves – as ‘influencers’, you could say – is increasingly common, isn’t it? Like, where Ira Glass will talk about these amazing mattresses before or in-between episode acts.

RvD Absolutely. It’s easily the most seamless way of bringing a brand in. On the other hand though, the brand is using borrowed property – it doesn’t ‘own’ that space. It’s just an endorsement from the presenter you like. There are limitations here, but I think in the future this will change.

M What are the kinds of questions brands need to be asking themselves before they launch into podcasting?

RvD Before you get the usual questions in branded content like “What business problem does this podcast solve?” or “How will we market it?” or “What is a realistic audience?”, the first thing you need to ask is: “Does the world really need another podcast?”.

Unless you’re making something totally original that you know will find an audience, or you’re able to make the best version of an existing genre, you need to think twice about going forward. There are plenty of companies that will take your money and make a passable podcast that no-one will listen to.

We at Eardrum often get brands asking us to make them a podcast. When this happens, we sit them down and go “Why?”. Unless we’re sure that the show will reach critical mass, we’d rather make a really engaging advertorial that fits organically within a really successful existing podcast.

The brand needs to take it seriously. And just like any branded entertainment, they need to work really hard to overcome the cynicism that your show has a commercial agenda. They’ve got to be in it for the long haul and they’ve got to back it up.

M How do you see the art of podcasting evolving over time?

RvD Firstly, I think we’ll see more topical shows reaching people’s feeds faster. It’s basically reimagining the radio model – when something happens, I want to be able to hear the people I respect talking about it now. And that could be sport, in the way that a talkback show happens immediately as the game’s on and you hear other fans talking about it. If there’s a way we can be topical, that’ll be an area that will develop. But that will require the channels to change.

Shorter episodes – we’ll also see more of those. People are going to vote with their ears; they’re going to zone in and zone out, or switch off if they feel something’s lagging. We’re still forgiving a lot of shitty podcasts of being lazy and flabby because they’re new, or we’ve invested in that show before. But I think we’ll be more demanding and shows will need to be tighter.

M How about the S-town and Serial phenomena? Can we expect to see more long-form podcasts on the back of these mega hits?

RvD Serial and S-town are very pure – and you know there’s a finite life as a series. I think there’ll always be a place for them, and these shows are proving the audience will stick with them. But I do think there will be more examples of bite-sized content on the whole.

I also think there’ll be more scripted drama. At the moment it’s harder to make money out of it, so people are writing their stories for TV. In the UK though, we’ve made a lot of comedy radio shows over the years and that’s been a really great testing ground for BBC. Think Little Britain, Mitchell and Webb, Flight of the Conchords< – they were all top-performing radio shows before they were TV shows. I think we’ll see the same kind of pattern emerging with podcasting.

M How do you see the business of podcasting evolving?

RvD The advertising model is definitely going to change. New technology will allow us to have ads that are dynamically inserted for user-based relevance. Every listener prefers relevant advertising – if they can create a profile on the platform they use to download their podcasts, then everyone wins.

It’s crazy that it hasn’t happened yet. It feels so old-fashioned to listen to an ad for a car brand that I’ve never heard of, or an online food service brand that will be rather disgusting by the time it reaches Australia because it’s made in the US. It feels so backward.

On another point, there’s a limit to how many messages a host can deliver before it just starts to sound completely sold out, or the content and advertising starts to blend into one. As the pressure on the inventory increases, I think we’ll see more midroll advertorial style messages. So there’ll be standalone mini-pieces of content that are sympathetic to the environment for instance. But as is always the case, the quality of the creative has to match the quality of the environment it’s in.

M In the previous question, you talked about how there’ll be more scripted drama podcasts – do you see product placement or product mentions coming into play too, or do you think that’ll be a detriment to the podcast quality?

RvD Yes and yes. It will be a challenge to do that seamlessly though. Product placement worked great in the fifties – with Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, soap operas – because it was new and exciting and electric, and people kind of went, “Ooh! I’ll take whatever you can give me!”. But now we kind of see through those tactics.

It’s easier to do product placement subtly on a visual medium too. In audio, everything is of equal importance. There’s no subtitles, there’s no background; everything is foreground. It’s just one linear channel.

M Bonus question: Who would be your ideal podcast host, and what would they be talking about? (Mine would be Jeff Goldblum reviewing new McDonald’s menu items with various guests).

RvD This is complete fantasy? Alive or dead? Okay. Then it would be Prince, hosting a Song Exploder – style series about every song in his back catalogue. For context, Song Exploder is a podcast where musicians break down their songs and tell how they were made. I’m not going to listen to every song breakdown by every artist on there. But I love everything Prince has done. Even the crap songs, I’ll go “There’s a reason!”. I’ll forgive him. But Prince, what is that reason? Tell us!

You can hear Ralph van Dijk at his ‘How to Make Good Podcasts (and How to Get Them Heard)’ session at Sydney’s Mumbrella Publish conference on October 19. Our own Bobbi Mahlab will also be speaking in the earlier session, ‘Who is the Content King? In-house Versus Agency‘. Learn more here

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