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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Nobody’s listening

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

An audience of 40,000, give or take a few million watching on TV

Those of us in the media business—and I use that term loosely, since I’m really talking about anyone who makes stuff and puts it out on the Internet for people to see—like to imagine our Audience. With the capital A.

I don’t think most of us imagine them in a physical setting, because if we did we’d probably run screaming. (I estimate The Incomparable’s listenership at around 25,000… I’d rather not picture us performing a podcast in front of a basketball arena full of fans. That’s terrifying.) But we do imagine, vaguely, that they’re out there. We interact with them on Twitter, get emails, sell them t-shirts, that sort of thing.

But it’s just not true. There’s no Audience. If you tried to plot an audience you’d get a crazy set of overlapping and non-overlapping circles. Your Audience is the sum of many different audiences, all with different habits—and opinions about you.

It’s in the show notes

A couple of years ago I ran a contest on The Incomparable, shamelessly ripped off from The Flop House. I asked listeners to write iTunes reviews of the podcast—good or bad, didn’t matter—and in return I’d pick a random reviewer to choose the topic of a future episode.

When it came to pick the winner, I gathered the names of every iTunes reviewer from every international iTunes store, put them in a spreadsheet, sorted them, and used to pick a number. The winner, from the Australian store, had an indecipherable iTunes name. I did Google searches to no avail. So in the end, I shined the Bat-Signal, and tweeted from @theincomparable seeking the winner. Many times. Over the course of a couple of weeks. Nothing.

So I added a plea to the show notes for our next episode, asking for this person to write in and identify himself. Nothing.1

Finally, driven to desperation, I put a plea to the contest winner in audio form at the very beginning of our next episode. Within a couple of hours, the winner contacted us via email.

This was a great lesson. I like to imagine that the podcast’s Audience is represented by the fans we talk to on Twitter, or the ones that scrupulously study our show notes. But @theincomparable only has about 3300 followers. While I love interacting with them2, they are not the Audience, just a tiny fragment. When we record an episode live, I love talking to the people in the chat room… but even there, that’s not the Audience. I can see our live-stream statistics—there are many more people listening live than actually interacting in the chat room. Even there, we’re dealing with a fragment of a fragment.

Functional high ground

I think of Accidental Tech Podcast as a huge podcast, because in our little realm of tech podcasts it and The Talk Show are the heaviest hitters in terms of audience. But it all depends on your perspective. Only a fraction of the people who read Daring Fireball listen to The Talk Show, I’d wager. Not everyone listens to podcasts. And that’s just within the Apple web. Pull back and now it’s the tech web, which is even larger, but still a tiny fragment of the entire Web.

Remember when Marco Arment posted about Apple’s software reliability problems and his sentiment rapidly spread to Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and a televised conversation on CNBC? For anyone who’s been listening to ATP since it’s existed, Marco’s complaints in his post were nothing new. Yes, his language was inflammatory, but he’s probably used similarly inflammatory language—maybe even worse!—on previous episodes.

So why the big deal about Marco’s post? Simple: It was written down, rather than embedded 40 minutes into a 90-minute-long podcast. Because it was written down, it reached an audience that doesn’t listen to podcasts. Because it was written down, it was easily passed from person to person and processed in a way that a bunch of weekly podcasts just can’t be.

Tech podcasts, like tech blogs, are narrowcasts to specific audiences. But because podcasts aren’t as easily shared as blog posts, they’re more likely to stay within that narrow community. Marco’s post blew up because it went outside that community and into a larger world, which was happy to use his words to their own ends.

You see this kind of audience clash all the time. Threads on Hacker News, for example, will show how words intended for one audience will be interpreted entirely differently by a different audience. When I would write an article for Macworld that was later repurposed for PCWorld, there was a similar result. And anytime one of the pieces I write here is linked to from Daring Fireball or anywhere else, an audience that is not my audience sees it3. They bring an entirely different context to the proceedings, and would probably fill up my comment threads, if I had any.

This is one of the greatest liabilities of the podcast medium, as well as one of its strengths.

It’s a liability because podcasts are not easily chunkable, shareable content. At least with YouTube videos, there’s a standard way to link to a specific time code. Podcasts like Serial can go viral, but podcast content doesn’t. Large parts of the Internet are powered by an economy of link sharing. Podcasts sit outside of that.

It’s a strength, because when you’re making a podcast, you’re speaking to a very specific audience. They know you, they want to hear from you, and in large part they understand the context of what you’re saying. Nobody freaked out about Marco complaining about Apple software quality on ATP because they’d been listening to the conversation that Marco, John, and Casey have been having about Apple for an hour or two per week over the course of a couple of years. We know them, we know their background, and we know the context of their remarks. It’s a powerful thing, that depth and continuity.

So who is the Audience? Take your pick. It can be Google News referrals. It can be loyal RSS readers. It’s chat-room jackals. It’s people you’ve never heard from, who will never email you and never Tweet at you and never buy your t-shirts but still listen to you faithfully, week in and week out.4 It’s all of them, and none of them. Welcome to the Internet.

  1. Just the other day my pal Monty Ashley mentioned that he listens to 10 hours of podcasts a week and has never once read a podcast’s show notes. 
  2. They are my besties and never let anyone tell you different. (Hi Joe and Clinton and everyone!) 
  3. One would hope that some percentage of them like what I wrote and will decide to read me again sometime…. 
  4. Yep, it’s also you nice people who actually read the footnotes. 

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