I wrote this paper in April 2021, for my Master of Media in Strategic Communication. It analyses the growing pains that are likely to impact the podcast industry over the next few years.
In particular, it outlines the role that Strategic Communication professionals should play to build credibility and authenticity in the podcast industry. Podcasting has enormous potential, but the path forward is not clear.
What are the most pressing challenges and opportunities for strategic communications professionals in the podcasting industry?
Over the last seventeen years podcasting has grown rapidly. More people can now make a podcast, or listen to one, than any of us might have thought possible. Podcasting has increased participation in the production and consumption of diverse media, but it is still not clear what impact podcasting will have on the public sphere. In this paper we will analyse community solidarity, forms of maximal participation, source credibility, and the role of authenticity as they relate to podcasting, so that Strategic communication professionals can gain additional insights into how to manage the development of podcasting.
Before I became involved in podcasting in 2016 (SAGE International Australia 2021), my experience of participating in the media involved regularly being interviewed by local and national radio and television journalists about my areas of expertise: International Security, Terrorism, and Counter-Terrorism. Live to air broadcasts generally felt significant, in terms of adding something to public debate and understanding, while pre-recorded segments were normally edited to the point of triviality, or distorted to contribute to a heightened level of societal fear. What I took away from these experiences was that mainstream media is not primarily focused on informing an engaged community, and that there had to be a better way to participate in the media—to contribute to public debate and political awareness.
Carpentier et al. effectively summarise my experience of participating in the media prior to becoming a podcaster: “When we look at the mainstream media, media production is restricted to a specific group of people, who are here termed ‘media professionals’, who are characterized by the possession of specific forms of expertise and skills, institutional embeddedness and autonomy and the deployment of management and power strategies to achieve specific objectives.” (Carpentier et al. 2013, p. 290) From Carpentier et al.’s perspective, what I had experienced was a form of minimalist participation in the media: one in which my expertise and desire to communicate effectively with the public was both facilitated and limited by the professional media, as they went about maintaining their own agenda (Carpentier et al. 2013, p. 289).
At the time I knew I wanted to be involved in a more democratic form of media, but I could not have effectively described what this meant. Now that I am studying Strategic Communication, I can articulate what I wanted: to participate in the media within a form of maximalist participation. “In the maximalist forms, (professional) control and (popular) participation become more balanced and attempts are made to maximize participation. Here, we see the acknowledgement of audience diversity and heterogeneity and of the political nature of media participation.” (Carpentier et al. 2013, p. 289) Podcasting represents a form of maximalist participation in the media, and is the inheritor of a long tradition of new media technology, which has contributed to political development and democratisation. The low cost of the technology required to both produce and consume podcasts suggest that podcasting might be the most accessible form of media that societies have experienced.
To appreciate how podcasting might contribute to further democratisation of media and political development in the public sphere, it is helpful for us to have an understanding of the role that media has played in political development. Benedict Anderson’s famous book, Imagined Communities (Anderson 2006), presents an argument within which media technology, national identity, and political development are explicitly connected. According to Anderson’s argument, the creation and spread of the printing press enabled progressively more people to read the same books in the same language, leading to both a heightened sense of shared identity and common interests. As a consequence, the people who consumed the same media came to see themselves as part of the same community, and different to other communities who used different languages and had different common interests.
The printing press enabled more people to participate in the public sphere through the media they were consuming, and when the printing press became more affordable and widely available a greater proportion of people were able to participate in producing media that influenced the public sphere. As radio technology emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, and television technology spread and developed after World War II, this pattern of increased participation in the public sphere through media, followed by increased participation in producing media continued, resulting in a rich ecosystem of independent and community media. As Castelló argues: “The scope for creating an ‘imagined community’ is clear from studies on television (and more recently) on the Internet. Thus the availability or otherwise of the technology is available (TV and the distribution network) to push a given idea of the nation has implications regarding the scope for articulating a national consciousness.” (Castelló 2016, p. 61)In the 1990s internet technology enabled the most recent wave of media participation, resulting in podcasting still seeking to define its contribution to the public sphere and democratisation.
Instead of bringing people together through shared consciousness, as printed books, radio, and television did in turn, podcasting is predominantly made by individuals and consumed by individuals who will not necessarily gain a sense of solidarity out of the experience. As Sienkiewicz and Jaramillo argue: “From the perspective of traditional public sphere theory, podcasting is an opportunity to reclaim a lost potential of mass media. And yet, podcasting is also startlingly unpublic, solitary, and personalized. It is the medium of the earbud, the quiet voice nestled cosily, almost out of sight, and chosen just for you.” (Sienkiewicz and Jaramillo 2019, p. 268) Production and consumption of podcasts are both remarkably democratic, but it is hard to imagine how podcasting can lead to the levels of social and political solidarity that printed books, radio, and television have engendered.
At present, mainstream print and radio media are investing heavily in the production of their own podcasts (García-Marín 2020, p. 52), while everyone from isolated individuals to non-media organisations are finding and disseminating their voices via podcasting (Wall 2015, p. 797). In Gramscian terms (Gramsci 2009), hegemonic and counter-hegemonic voices are competing for audience and influence, one listen at a time. Consequently, strategic communications professionals in the podcasting industry need to determine how to build influence, and an audience, in a podcast landscape defined by heterogeneous messages and listeners.
Traditionally, how credible a media product is perceived to be has influenced its success. “Research has typically focused on two main dimensions of media credibility: source credibility and medium credibility. Source credibility research typically focuses on the characteristics of the message source (such as the speaker, the organization, or the news organization), whereas research on medium credibility focuses on the medium through which the message is delivered (for example, newspaper compared to television).” (Golan 2010, p. 3) Source credibility is still very important in podcasting, particularly for mainstream print and radio producers of podcasts, who are trading heavily on their historical media credibility. For strategic communications professionals working in the mainstream media podcast industry, maintaining and leveraging off of this source credibility is very important, whereas strategic communications professionals working in the independent and/or community podcast industry have to identify and develop a modified sort of source credibility.
For example, when I started the Blind Insights podcast with Tim Whiffen in 2018 (Olney 2021), I brought a surprising amount of personal credibility with me to the project. I had lectured at The University of Adelaide since 2002, been an expert interviewee in the media since 2003, worked as a consultant since 2014, and worked as a Senior Analyst at a think tank since 2018. My credibility had grown out of working at a University, but, as time went on, it became more of a personal attribute than an attribute related to an institution. Strategic communications professionals working in the independent and community podcast industry need to help podcasters to develop and present a cohesive, credible personal narrative, so that their credibility can anchor them in the sea of podcasts.
Since podcasting often feels like one person talking directly to another, source credibility is frequently augmented by a perception of personal authenticity. As Lindgren argues: “audio stories (readily available on smartphones) explore our lives through sounds and spoken words, intimately whispered into our ears. The personalized listening space created by headphones further accommodates the bond created between voices in the story and the listener.” (Lindgren 2016, p. 23) Authenticity is harder to define than credibility, but most people seem to be sure when a voice, or a message, sounds authentic to them as they listen to a podcast.
“In our contemporary age,” as Cobb defines it, “authenticity is not simply the quality of being authoritative, of “possessing original or inherent authority” as the OED would have it.3 There is another feature to authenticity that connects the term to a deep structure within the development of modernity in the Western world. This is the notion of authenticity as a correspondence between what a person says and what he or she truly feels,” (Cobb 2014, p. 2) If a podcaster feels that what they are saying is true to their sense of self, and they believe that what they are saying is true in relation to how they understand and relate to the world, then they are manifesting the sort of authenticity that an Existential Psychologist like James Bugental was writing about in the 1960s (Bugental 1965). An Existential perspective sheds the clearest light on what authenticity is, as from this perspective authenticity is always subjective. In terms of a podcast, as long as the podcaster and the listener both feel that the podcast is authentic, then it is as authentic as it can be. Strategic communications professionals in the podcast industry need to be aware of the power of authenticity in podcasting, while also working to develop the source credibility of podcasters and podcasts, so that measurable credibility is not forgone in pursuit of a perception of authenticity.
As podcast listeners choose what to search for and what to listen to, podcasting is going to find it difficult to be seen as an objective medium. “People do not passively stand in a wash of stimuli. Instead, they always try to incorporate, in some meaningful way, the dynamic perceptual flux going on all around them. And when individuals select particular podcasts, what often attends is a heightened perception of personal relevance regarding that content.” (MacDougall 2011, p. 718) Consequently, strategic communication professionals in the podcast industry need to be vigilant that their industry does not unduly add to the litany of misinformation and fake news (Rid 2020).
The podcast industry offers remarkably democratic access to the production and consumption of media, providing more opportunities for new voices and messages to be heard than at any other time. Unfortunately, podcasts may not have a significant impact on the public sphere, or on further democratic political development, because both podcasters and listeners are relatively isolated, reducing the potential for increased social and political solidarity. Strategic communication professionals in the podcast industry need to develop source credibility, manage the impact of subjective authenticity, and guard against misinformation and fake news, so that podcasting might live up to its potential as a form of maximalist media participation.
Anderson, B., 2006. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books.
Bugental, James F.T., 1965, The search for authenticity. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.
Carpentier, Nico ; Dahlgren, Peter ; Pasquali, Francesca, 2013. “Waves of media democratization: A brief history of contemporary participatory practices in the media sphere.” Convergence (London, England), Vol.19 (3), pp. 287-294.
Castelló, E., 2016. “Anderson and the Media: The strength of “imagined communities”.” Debats, (1), pp. 59-63.
Cobb, R. ed., 2014. The paradox of authenticity in a globalized world. Springer, pp. 1-9.
García-Marín, David, 2020. “Mapping the factors that determine engagement in podcasting: design from the users and podcasters’ experience.” Communication & Society, Vol.33 (2), pp. 49-63.
Golan, Guy J., 2010. “New Perspectives on Media Credibility Research.” The American behavioral scientist, Vol.54 (1), pp. 3-7.
Gramsci, A., 2009. Hegemony, intellectuals and the state. Cultural theory and popular culture: A reader, 2, pp. 210-216.
Lindgren, M., 2016. “Personal narrative journalism and podcasting.” Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media, 14(1), pp. 23-41.
MacDougall, Robert C., 2011. “Podcasting and Political Life.” The American behavioral scientist, Vol.55 (6), pp. 714-732.
Olney, David, 2021. Podcasts. https://davidolney.com.au/podcasts/
Rid, Thomas, 2020. Active Measures: A History of Disinformation. Hachette Audio UK, Audiobook Edition.
SAGE International Australia, 2021. Strategikon. https://omny.fm/shows/strategikon
Sienkiewicz, Matt ; Jaramillo, Deborah L., 2019. “Podcasting, the intimate self, and the public sphere.” Popular communication, Vol.17 (4), pp. 268-272.
Wall, Melissa, 2015. “Citizen Journalism: A retrospective on what we know, an agenda for what we don’t.” Digital journalism, Vol.3 (6), pp. 797-813.