With the iPod came the birth of the podcast. Although it was first seen by broadcasters as a way to get their content heard by a few more listeners, podcasting has become so much more, with much of the content produced 'just for podcast' by anyone from newspapers to old Fred the pigeon-keeper next door. From astrology to zoology, there's a podcast on just about every subject you can think of. Dean Whitbread from the UK Podcasters Association says that in terms of listeners, podcasting is almost at the stage where more people are listening to podcasts than local radio. "We [podcasters] are not quite above [north and Midlands station] Galaxy yet, but we're getting there," says Whitbread.
Whitbread estimates that there are 385 podcasters in the UK Podcasters Association directory, and when you take away all the big media outlets, it leaves around 350 independent podcasters in the UK. Whitbread pointed out that many of these podcasters are not making any money from their podcasts, which means it is clearly a very compelling medium if people are spending their own money producing content. "Once the economic barrier had gone then people were ready to do it. And they are spending money to do it," Whitbread said.
So are any of these independent podcasters doing this as a career step to broadcasting, or is it just a hobby to them? "I think it will bring in a lot of new talent, but how much of them are passionately engaged enough to make it full time, one can't say. All you can do is look at longevity, you can see the people that are on [the podcast charts]. Have they kept going? Are they developing their work? I think that's a better way of looking it," Whitbread said.
For Heather Gorringe, founder of natural gardening company Wiggly Wigglers, the podcast has become more than a hobby, it is now her main marketing tool. As a guest speaker at the Radio Festival, Corringe said her company is now looking at reallocating its advertising budget, previously spent in gardening magazines, with a renewed focus on podcasting and other social media: a saving to the business of around £120,000 a year. This kind of move will no doubt concern the publishing industry. "People order from all over the world now, and the podcast is at the absolute core of it. It generates a conversation; it generates an interest," Corringe says. "I come from small business, and I've had no radio experience. As a small business the whole point is to connect with people. We really felt we had something that could be useful for people's gardens. And yet I was thinking 'how do I get it out there?' So for me podcasting really was a light bulb moment."
Someone else who had their own light bulb moment with podcasting was BBC London 94.9 presenter Danny Baker, who started his All Day Breakfast Show podcast in March this year. The podcast, which is totally independent from his BBC London show, is regularly in the iTunes top 20 list, and has around 370,000 downloads a week just from the All Day Breakfast Show website. Baker and executive producer of All Day Breakfast Show Paul Myers, who were both speaking at the festival, told the story of how on his BBC London show in January, Baker had said how bored he was on returning to work after Christmas. Baker had invited listeners to come into the studio and in walked Myers. They got to talking about podcasting and the sort of things that were possible. The next day Myers sent Baker an email. Baker remembers: "It said 'If you're serious, we can all make a tidy sum here', and for some reason that spoke to my depths!"
Baker says what he likes about doing the podcast is the freedom to just be the broadcaster he wants to be: "It suits an old fashioned kind of broadcasting that I do, which is unscripted. The way that commercial radio has been suffocated - in terms of 'less talk, more rock' - has dominated radio and smothered it for too long at the expense of stimulating speech radio." So why did Baker want to do it this way, rather than a podcast for his BBC London show? "I was never asked. A couple of people said 'just try it'. For me it's [the podcast] another microphone. But this isn't some kind of vanity project, it can work. People find us from all over the world and that's the beauty of the internet."
Though Baker's All Day Breakfast podcast is currently free to download, the team certainly have one eye on making money from the show, and may look to charge £2 per week for 5 shows, which could indeed make Baker and his team "a tidy sum." Many feel though that while the podcast industry is still in its infancy, people shouldn't be looking to make a quick buck from it, but instead be developing the medium and encouraging listeners. Speaking at the Radio Festiival, Guardian reporter Jemima Kiss put it succintly: "It doesn't matter if it's not making money. Long term it is about building audiences; we should be expanding and engaging with people."