Microphone header for podcasting

How YouTube Conquers Podcasting

Preamble

I’ve been a podcaster since 2004. I was the first comics podcaster. I was in the comics podcasting book, and even O’Reilly’s podcasting book (released August 2005!).

I have a podcast today, even if it isn’t the most regular thing in the world.

I listen to several comics-related podcasts.

Podcasting is important to me, including how it concerns comics. It’s taken over all the long-form interviews that used to fill magazines and websites that taught me so much about comics through the 90s and into the early 2000s.

The question of whether podcasting could be in for its biggest change yet is one that piques my interest and prompts this essay.

YouTube and Podcasting? Seems Inevitable.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. YouTube is showing an interest in podcasts these days. Some small moves seem to be adding up to– something.

But why would YouTube be interested in expanding its services in the audio-first market? Follow the money, of course. When it comes to a company that’s under Google’s Alphabet umbrella, follow the ad dollars, in particular.

Advertising sales in the podcasting world are only a twentieth the size of YouTube’s, but every statistic and every analyst would tell you that it’s growing every year. Doesn’t every tech company want to continue to find new ways of making their business bigger? A billion here, a billion there, wait a few years, and it’s a real revenue driver.

Plus, YouTube is already a major player in the podcasting space. Most of the biggest podcasts already have video editions of their shows available on the platform. There are tools from podcast hosts and third parties to help podcasters upload their shows to YouTube by adding a simple graphic or minor animation to play on the screen alongside the audio.

Podcasting is already halfway there. A move to YouTube — or, at least, a big expansion to YouTube — feels inevitable.

But First – What Is a Podcast?

Now, the big problem with this is the definition of “podcast.” For many, unfortunately, a “podcast” is any interview show in any format anywhere on the web.

This is wrong.

Just last night, YouTube recommended me a series of videos it classified as “podcasts” that were anything but. Most were just live streams of people talking to each other, often with so little visually going on that they could easily become podcasts without throwing off the audience.

A podcast is an audio (or video) file that is available for download through an RSS feed to any podcast client you choose.

Video podcasts haven’t ever truly taken off through podcast clients because the clients aren’t interested in supporting them. In the early days, it was a bandwidth issue, too. Audio files can be a megabyte a minute or less. Video files are huge.

Podcast clients on phones also have relatively limited space to store them. Even if you’re the type who only “streams” their podcasts, streams are merely downloads that you listen to in progress. You’re still downloading all that data; you’re just not storing it all locally. The bandwidth issue remains.

There are plenty of podcasts now that record video of the hosts creating the podcast, and upload that to YouTube. It’s a TV talk show instead of a radio show, and the audio is easy to export out into a podcast feed. It only gets awkward when the video show references images and videos that podcast listeners can’t see.

Sadly, many of those so-called “podcast” hosts don’t bother to do the simple thing of extracting the audio and linking it to an RSS feed.

The Takeover

Before I get too ranty, let’s get to the big topic for discussion:

Let’s talk about the moves YouTube could make to become the new de facto home of podcasting.

Make no mistake about it: If any company could take over podcasting, it’s YouTube. Not Stitcher or Spotify or SiriusXM.

Apple barely cares anymore, sadly, but their benign neglect keeps the whole environment running. If they were to ever repeal access to their directory, the entire podcast client ecosystem would implode — or switch to Podchaser overnight.

We also know that people already use YouTube as an audio-first platform.

So let’s look at why YouTube is such a great outlet for podcasts and why this move is inevitable:

Free Storage

YouTube hosts videos for free. Videos, again, are orders of magnitude larger than audio files. A podcast may take up a megabyte or two a minute, depending on its quality. The 4K videos that YouTube streams will be hundreds of megabytes a minute.

I recently turned a nine minute audio podcast that was 4.5 MB in size into a video with a few static images that came out to nearly 400 MB. Don’t for a second think that YouTube has any issue with spare hard drive space. Podcasts could fit in the minor nooks and crannies on their SSDs between videos.

Audio files would be a rounding error for YouTube. There’s no reason why they can’t store them, for free.

They could even offer a button to copy all of the files on your current RSS feed to the YouTube servers to host. Keeping that history would be important for any podcaster. YouTube is smart enough to respect that.

Think of all the content they’d have access to instantly this way. It’s not just all future podcast episodes that might be hosted on YouTube, but also the last 15 years of audio as a back catalog. That’s an immense amount of content that they could just scoop up.

If they didn’t provide such a tool, I bet some smart programmer would whip up an open-source project overnight to help script the process.

I’ve heard some pundits say that YouTube could charge for this, but I think that’s ridiculous. Hosting and serving podcasts is even easier and cheaper than video. Make it free and you’ll get EVERYONE on your site. Put up even a $5/month paywall and you’ll be just another podcast host to too many people.

If YouTube really did want to make a play in this space and grab all that sweet advertising revenue, they’d be putting pennies in front of dimes by charging podcasts for hosting. It makes no sense.

Free Video

YouTube can offer the option to play the podcast audio back with some kind of video screen of their own design in front of it. Put the episode artwork or podcast show artwork on screen with some text of the title and some kind of pulsating light thing animated to the audio in the show and they’re done.

These are not shows people are actively watching, after all. You only need minimum video production to make it fit in with the rest of YouTube, which would be a good thing to have for discovery. In fact, if YouTube did it right, it could be a programmatic thing and not a straight MP4 thing. They could save an enormous amount of space that way.

Podcast apps often allow users to export clips to Twitter, for example, and those apps can create something like this super easily. (I use Overcast, which does this.). YouTube should have no problem providing something like that, as well, in the same style that they allow you to embed videos on your webpage or social network of choice..

Maybe, if they needed an upsell, they could offer additional templates for it on a monthly fee, but even that seems penny-ante.

Free Player

The biggest problem right now is how to play podcasts back on your phone. Currently, you need to be a YouTube Premium member to play videos in the background while your phone is “off” or doing something else.

That tech is already there. They could just take it out from behind the paywall and make it part of their app.

They could also build a separate YouTube Podcasts app, so people could subscribe and arrange their podcast subscriptions in a more traditional way. They could also throw money at the problem and buy an existing podcast app.

And, of course, they could be a good citizen of the podcasting space and provide free and open RSS feeds so that every application can play podcasts hosted by YouTube.

Google can prepend a 15 second ad to the front of every one of those episodes to make their money back. Speaking of which…

The Advertising Is Built In Already

YouTube already does in-feed advertising. Unless (again) you’re subscribed to YouTube Premium, you see the pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll ads. They’re often as little as 5 seconds, but YouTube knows how to pack them in.

There’s another canary in the coal mine here: A year ago, YouTube started making audio-only ads for videos it classified as music or podcasts.

It would be so simple for YouTube to offer advertising with podcasts it hosts. It could even offer the podcaster the option of where to put their ads. Podcasting already has the idea of Dynamic Ad Insertion. It’s not as effective as host-read ads, but it serves its purpose.

The podcaster can get a cut of that money in much the same way that video content producers do. If you follow any podcaster sites, you’ll see one of the first questions for newbies is always “How do I find advertisers?” They’re always putting the cart before the horse there. They should worry about getting a hundred listeners first, but who’s going to be able to talk sense into such dreamers?

With YouTube powering podcasting, though, the aggregate of all podcasts in their system might make it immediately available. Or, as with channels today, there could be a metric to work up towards to qualify for monetization. (So many subscribers and so many minutes listened.)

The infrastructure is already there. It’s in place. Making it apply to podcasting is workable.

Free Feed

Here’s where things might get interesting. And by “interesting,” I mean aggravating with a side of the destruction of everything podcasts have meant in the last 17 years they’ve existed.

YouTube could not offer an RSS feed of the podcasts they host. I would hope they wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t need to. They could still insert their ads into the podcasts before they send them down the RSS feed. They can’t get the metrics back on who listened to them, but at least they’re out there.

Given the way the world is going these days between ad blockers and web browsers removing third-party trackers, the stats on ads such as these are only getting worse (for the ad networks, not the users), anyway. Not being able to track those ads terribly well in Overcast or Castro, etc. wouldn’t hurt them too much. And, to be honest, I bet most of the podcasts they host would be viewed via a video anyway.

So I can understand why YouTube would want to keep these podcasts on their site and their app where they can do better tracking.

Hopefully, they also recognize that there’s a large audience out there with podcast players they like who also want to hear these shows. Serving those people ads would still be a good chunk of revenue, but likely not enough to compete with YouTube-based plays.

Why YouTube Would Be Great For Podcasts

The tools that YouTube has built for video turn out to be great for podcasts.

YouTube offers a playback speed option on its videos now, so you can watch in 1.5x, 1.5x, or 2x speed, which are much-used settings across most podcast players these days.

YouTube offers transcriptions and translations. Those are both things podcasters have wanted for ages. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the nothing that mosts podcasts have today. And we’ve recently seen that transcripts are turning into a big — and legal — deal. SiriusXM has been sued for not providing podcast transcripts to deaf users.

Upcoming updates to the RSS feed standards used for podcasts include a field for transcriptions to be delivered with the audio file, itself. Some podcast hosts are already supporting this field.

Discovery. This is the biggest one. Nobody finds podcasts through directories. It’s all through word of mouth. YouTube has a bigger audience than any podcast player — or all of them put together. They have over 2 billion monthly active logged-in users.

YouTube is GREAT at linking people’s viewing choices to other possible videos they might like to watch. Could that algorithm work as well with podcasts? Could the podcasts possibly even be mixed in with the videos?

Honestly, this is the biggest reason I’d like to see YouTube take a swing at this. If I were starting over today, I wouldn’t do a podcast. I’d definitely do a YouTube channel. I still might eventually.

In fact, if YouTube Podcasts started tomorrow and offered free distribution with an RSS feed, I’d have a hard time saying no to it. It would save me the monthly bill on my podcast host, for starters. It would give me access to a bigger audience. And I could still keep my current audience. I might even be eligible for a cut of YouTube’s ad program. It’s all upside.

The only hesitation I’d have is that it’d be a Google product, and we are all familiar with the Google Cemetery. Many of us are still complaining about Google Reader’s death, and it’s been years since that happened.

The Down Side

The negative potential is that, yes, YouTube doesn’t provide an RSS feed, but their monetization offer is so good (compared to the nothing most podcasts have today) that podcasters can’t wait to switch to YouTube.

More ads. They’ll be programmatic ads, not host read ads. They’ll likely break into the middle of episodes seemingly at random. Backlogs of podcasts with ads already baked in would have even more ads.

They could grow so large so fast that it puts podcasting hosting companies out of business and the competition in that space dwindles, leading to slower “innovations.”

Would podcast apps support it? Most podcast-catching apps use one source of information for their feed. Most, I’d hazard a guess to say, use Apple’s podcast directory. Some run their own.

But if YouTube offered an RSS feed and not everyone signed up for it, would users use two different apps to listen to all the podcasts they want? Would that force podcatching clients to bring in both the Apple directory and the YouTube directory? (Again, this is assuming YouTube allows for such action to be taken by developers.)

Could It Happen?

Something is happening. It’s not IF, but WHEN.

I think it’s happening in 2022. I’ve been working on this article for the last couple of weeks, but I’m rushing it out now because I think something’s going to happen real soon.

The tools are all there now. The hardest work is already done. The rest that would be needed is relatively simple. Package it all up, market it properly, offer users a good experience, and away they go.

Disruption!

WIll YouTube ago all the way and make a play for the industry’s attention and attempt dominance?

One thing I know for sure: I’m glad I don’t own a podcast hosting company right now. They’re not going to go away overnight, but I could see this limiting all of their growth potential overnight. (Captivate.FM, which hosts the Pipeline Comics podcast, just sold at the end of last year. That might have been very good timing for them…)

Comics Podcasts I’m Subscribed To

Here’s what’s included in my “Comic Book” playlist on my podcast player. I don’t listen to every episode of every show, but here’s what I’m looking at. If I get a chance to add links later, I will.

  • 3 Point Perspective: The Illustration Podcast
  • 11 O’Clock Comics
  • Alex Toth In Depth
  • Around Comics
  • The Awesome Comics Podcast
  • Comic Book Historians
  • Comic Lab
  • Comic Shenanigans
  • Comics Experience
  • Comics, by Perch
  • The Felix Comic Art Podcast
  • The HumaNoise Podcast
  • Hypothetical Island Podcast
  • iFanboy
  • The Illustrious Gentlemen
  • InkPulp Audio
  • The Invincible Podcast
  • Justice League International: Bwah Ha Ha Podcast
  • Letters and Lines
  • Off-Panel
  • Portrait of an Editor
  • PW Comics World
  • Robservations
  • Savage Fincast
  • Shot x Shot
  • Word Balloon

Someday, I’ll have to put together a list of the comics-related YouTube Channels I’m subscribed to.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

2 Comments

  1. Is your definition of what a podcast is the most widely accepted one ? At first I couldn’t understand your point, everything on youtube is technically a podcast already, be it audio or video, from the most obscure channel to Whitney Cummings insane rants.
    I never listen to youtube live, I download the stuff on my computer where I watch it offline. No ads, no interruptions. If it’s music or pure audio, I convert it to mp3 and transfer it to my music player. So everything there is a podcast to me. I suppose not having a smartphone makes me an exception in that regard.
    I’m honestly not sure why Youtube would bother, why limit yourself to audio when you can have video as well ? Most french radio show I can think of are now filmed and they drop the whole thing on their own website, on dailymotion or on specialised streaming platforms. Doesn’t everyone do that at this point ?
    I can vaguely remember the couple of videos you made in your car, that was obviously a cash grab for Jerry Seinfeld’s audience (lol). Youngsters all do video first on insta now. Methinks pure audio is dead like network TV is. Am I wrong ?

    1. My definition of a podcast is the correct one. A podcast requires two things: A multimedia package (whether audio or video) and an RSS feed to allow for its distribution. That’s the technological breakthrough of the thing. It’s the ability to self-syndicate a multimedia file. In 2004, this was a big deal. Before that, RSS feeds (or XML feeds) were limited to just text. It’s what gave you things like Google Reader. But podcasting allowed for the mechanism to pass MP3s around, and a whole infrastructure built up around it.

      YouTube doesn’t offer a free and open RSS feed for its channels. It’s a great video host, but it is centralized. You can embed videos on your webpage, but YouTube doesn’t distribute its videos to anyone who has a podcast client. Thus, not a podcast.

      Sadly, like so many words, people using the word wrong long enough has caused the definition of it to change in some minds. I’m dying on this hill, though. 😉

      Not all podcasts are recorded for video, but it is a great distribution mechanism. It’s good to take one piece of content and repackage it for as many outlets as possible. I wish I had video of me recording my podcast, but I edit too much for that to be any fun. Also, I don’t have the time to do full video editing.

      The big problem with podcasting is just the awareness. It’s ALL word of mouth. The reason why podcasts on YouTube is so potentially exciting is that YouTube knows how to recommend things to people. They might get it right in recommending podcasts you might not have otherwise heard of based on what you’re listening to now. Also, for podcasters, it’s a great centralized ad selling machine. It’s potentially the best and easiest way to monetize a podcast, if YouTube goes through with this.

      We shall see…