How the podcast scene in Australia compares to ours

Richard Fidler, host of the radio show and podcast Conversations

For those following the podcast industry in the U.S., you’re likely aware of the large strides the on-demand audio medium has made in recent years. Ever since the explosive popularity of Serial in 2014, podcast listenership has grown considerably. This year, podcast advertising is set to draw in $220 million. Podcast networks have attracted millions of dollars in venture capital, and a few podcasts are even being adapted into TV shows and movies.    

But lately I’ve wondered whether this same success has been seen in other countries, particularly our English-speaking brethren. I’ve listened to a few non-American podcasts over the years — Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, The Bugle, Science Vs. — but I had no idea as to whether these other countries had their own “Serial moments” in which podcasting as a medium began crossing over into the mainstream.

To answer this question, I decided to look at the Australian podcast market. Kellie Riordan has been a part of the Australian podcast scene arguably since its very beginning. A manager at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (roughly speaking, our version of NPR, but probably more closely analogous to the UK’s BBC), Riordan began thinking in 2005 about whether she could take ABC’s most popular radio program — a Fresh Air-like interview show called Conversations — and convert it into a podcast, which back then was a brand new medium. “I was the foundation producer on that show,” she told me. “It just occurred to me that there was this thing called podcasting and people were getting these things called mp3 players, and because this was such fantastic, well-produced longform content, this seemed to me to fit what I thought podcasting might be all about.” So she searched for someone who could handle the HTML coding part and, without seeking any formal permission, launched the podcast version of the show.

That bet paid off, Conversations continues to be Australia’s most popular podcast, with a reported 20 million downloads in 2017 alone. But for several years after ABC initially dipped its toes into podcasting, almost all of its efforts simply involved taking an already-existing radio show and placing it on podcast apps. Eventually, however, the network began to consider programming that wasn’t limited by the confines of a radio broadcast. With ABC’s listener demographics skewing a bit older, Riordan saw this as a way to go after slightly younger demographics. “We could see that gap for 30 or 40 somethings,” she said. “And we said let’s create amazing digital podcasts for them. The first incarnation of that was Science Vs, which was hugely popular straight away.” ABC also launched Rum, Rebels & Ratbags, an Australian history show which focused on “the characters and events left out of your high school history class.” It also proved to be extremely popular.

Of course, “popular” is a relative term. Australia only has 24 million inhabitants compared to our 323 million, so raw audience numbers alone won’t do much to provide an apples to apples comparison. I think the best contrast can be made by looking at two studies from Edison Research: one for the American podcast market and one for Australia’s. According to these two studies, the U.S. beats Australia when it comes to per-capita podcast consumption, with 40 percent of Americans reporting they’ve listened to at least one podcast while only 29 percent of Australians can say the same thing. However, podcast awareness seems to be higher in Australia, with 72 percent of Australians saying they’re familiar with the term “podcasting” versus 60 percent in the U.S.

According to Riordan, this education component for how to actually download and listen to a podcast is one of the biggest hurdles she and her colleagues face in terms of increasing podcast consumption. “I go to barbecues, and some barbecues I go to I’m with a bunch of younger folks who are all into lots of different podcasts,” she said. “And then I’ll go to a family barbecue where I know all these people listen to radio all the time, but I’ll have to actually whip out their phone and subscribe them to a podcatcher and show them how to download some podcasts. They’re willing to do it, they want to do it, they’ve heard of this thing called podcasting, but they haven’t quite translated that into the how.”

[LIKE THIS ARTICLE SO FAR? THEN YOU’LL REALLY WANT TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER. IT’S DELIVERED ONCE A WEEK AND PACKED WITH MY TECH AND MEDIA ANALYSIS, STUFF YOU WON’T FIND ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE WEB. SUBSCRIBE OVER HERE]

So has Australia had its own “Serial moment”? Sort of. True crime shows are certainly popular there, and earlier this year ABC launched a serialized show called Trace. The podcast, which spans over four episodes, revisits the unsolved case of Maria James, a Melbourne bookshop owner who was murdered in 1980. The podcast proved so popular that it spurred renewed investigations into the murder, led to new evidence being uncovered, and resulted in over 1 million downloads over its entire run. Of course that’s a much smaller audience than, say, S-Town’s 40 million downloads, but again, it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons between the Australian and American markets.

But what about the business side? Have Australian podcasts been met with interest from advertisers and investors? “We don’t have the tradition of VC funding the same way you guys do,” said Riordan (it’s worth noting that, though some podcast companies in the States have attracted investors, most VCs have been hesitant to put money into podcasts).

Since Riordan works at a publicly-funded broadcaster that doesn’t rely on advertising or other forms of monetization, I also spoke to a few people on the business side of the Australian podcast industry. One of those people was Robert Loewenthal, CEO of a company called Whooshkaa, which provides hosting and monetization services for podcasters both large and small. I asked Loewenthal how mature the podcast business is in Australia compared to the U.S. “I feel like we’re maybe one to two years behind the States,” he said.”There are a lot of good crime podcasts, lots of good interview style podcasts, but there’s no Australian Gimlet or WNYC, so I think that’s the next way this is going in Australia.”

In terms of advertising, there are both differences and similarities between the two countries. In the U.S., podcast advertising has been dominated by direct response advertisers that issue special discount codes so they can directly track the amount of revenue a specific podcast sponsorship generates. “In Australia it’s a lot different,” said Loewenthal. “We have a lot of brand advertisers already. In fact, we have a shortage of direct response advertisers. We do take some ads from the Dollar Shave Clubs of the world, but we’re not accepting anything where it’s a success-based campaign and you’re getting paid based on the number of conversions.” This different dynamic can be traced back to the fact that many of Australia’s most successful podcasts are simply recorded versions of commercial radio shows. “They bundle,” said Sharon Taylor, CEO of podcast hosting company Omny Studio. “They say it costs X to sponsor the radio show, and for an extra however much it’s going to be, you also get an ad in the podcast as well.”

In recent years, a few U.S. corporate brands — Goldman Sachs, GE, Tinder, eBay — have launched their own podcasts, often in partnership with podcast companies like Panoply and Gimlet. Loewenthal said that Whooshkaa has helped to produce five or six of these branded podcasts, including one called Best Food Forward, a show funded and branded by baby food and infant formula company Danone Nutricia. “We’re seeing it as a way for brands to produce content for their already-existing customers,” he said. “It’s a way to give back more to their fan base.”

Omny Studio CEO Sharon Taylor told me that Australia is starting to see its own versions of podcast-specific advertising agencies, which can serve as a key driver in educating brands about the medium. One such agency, called Placard Media, could be compared to Midroll Media, which played a large part in building out the podcast advertising market in the States. “With the likes of Placard Media, we’re starting to see this huge swell of podcast networks,” she said. “There’s like four now in Australia. There’s Planet Broadcasting. There’s Auscast Network that just fired up. Ear Buds Network just fired up. You’re seeing all these podcast networks that are banding independent shows together to drive listenership and discovery in their own way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Australia’s podcasts often find themselves in competition with American shows. Riordan said that on any given week, you’ll see episodes of the TED Radio Hour and Radiolab topping the iTunes charts. Given the disparity in market sizes, where the American podcast audience is at least 10 times the size of Australia’s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the top U.S. podcast networks can put much greater resources into their shows. “Those podcasts are so well produced, they have three times as many people working on them as any of our podcasts do,” she said.

But she didn’t seem worried about the competition. Given that the podcast industry, in terms of overall market penetration, is still in its infancy, any hit podcast that drives new listeners has the potential for increasing the audience sizes of downstream podcasts. “That’s great for all of us,” said Riordan. “We want the whole industry, podcasting full stop, to become more ubiquitous.”

***

FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com