How do we make podcasting futureproof? What needs to be done to challenge the industry to innovate and produce daring content? In this new column titled “Revelations”, Meera Kumar pokes and prods the audio industry and its creations to reveal the shows worth listening to and their place in the zeitgeist…
Much like a cockerel can tell when the morning is near without even seeing the sky, I can tell when the end of the year is nigh without a calendar due to the slew of Best Of 2022 lists that eat up my hotmail storage.
So the Year of Celebrity Podcasts, formerly known as The Year of the Ox, draws to a close. Talent agents are no doubt keen to put their OOO on, but not before they politely reject the 14th request of the day for Tom Hanks to guest on a chat show. Freelancers chase their final invoice. And production companies send that invoice to their junk folders with a contented sigh.
It’s been a year full of excitement and commissions, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the shows produced and currently in development look similar in content and format. I’ve only been in the industry for 18 months but as the APA Gold winner of the Best Entertainment Producer award (humble brag), I feel justified in saying that not every idea needs a chat show. I too indulge on occasion, but there must be balance in the world. I have however developed a good coping mechanism – every time a potential client mentions recreating Diary of a CEO, I dry my tears whilst listening to The Real Tom Banks or Ghetto Life 101. And then I cry again in the knowledge that I haven’t made anything as good as that yet, but hopefully there’s still time for me to channel my inner Ira Glass ‘before the podcast bubble bursts’ – a prediction that was shared with me over Zoom earlier this year. Many of the prophecies that I’ve heard in 2022, such as ‘video podcasts are going to kill traditional podcasts’, are yet to come true but just in case 2023 is our last year of producing content then let’s make something remarkable.
I believe that interactive and personalised audio is the next frontier. Having been inspired by ingenious projects like VICE’s The Unfiltered History Tour, I’ve been keeping my eye out for other signs of innovation in the industry. Perhaps Spotify’s latest acquisition will lead to something exciting. Last month, Spotify confirmed the acquisition of voice AI company, Sonantic. Their AI turns text into a realistic-sounding voice, and was used to generate Val Kilmer’s voice in the movie Top Gun: Maverick. There’s a lot of interest in this space at the moment – Bruce Willis sold the rights to his likeness to a deepfake company and James Earl Jones sold his voice to Respeecher. Maybe Spotify intends to commission a series bringing back voices from the past like JFK Unsilenced, or to preserve voices that may not last much longer. During last week’s Radio Tech Con, Respeecher’s co-founder Alex Serdiuk demonstrated how the AI could clone Churchill’s voice and make him sing the Britney Spears hit Toxic. I found it incredibly exciting and I think Respeecher will have remarkable applications in podcasting. If you’re new to deepfake audio and all of this is going right over your head, then check out ‘Deepfake Dallas’ and ‘Sleight of Ear’ from 20 Thousand Hertz. Who knows what Spotify has planned for their deepfake AI, maybe they intend to use the technology so that celebrities can voice audiobooks without ever reading a line of script out loud, but if that’s the biggest that we can dream then please tell me where to hand in my resignation.
Also at Radio Tech Con, I watched Rebecca Saw and Ian Forester demonstrate their work in Adaptive Podcasting for the BBC – which I mentioned in my last column. In short, it makes use of a smartphone’s sensors (the pedometer, the accelerometer, the ambient light sensor and so on) and alters the script and SFX of a show to make it personal to your environment. Adaptive Podcasting could take a true crime show to an eerily personal level, slow down podcasts if you slow your running speed, or even alter the content of political shows depending on the country you’re listening in to make it more relevant. I’m not sure whether headphone gestures are already integrated into the programme but I’d love to make shows that listeners can personalise with a simple nod or shake of the head, eliminating the need to even get your phone out of your pocket. Currently Adaptive Podcasting is only supported on BBC Sounds’ own Android player but I’d love to see it incorporated onto all major platforms. Although let’s be real, if we don’t even have automatic transcriptions yet then this isn’t going to happen for a while.
I can’t tell you to stop listening to/making celeb podcasts; in the words of the Grinch: “one man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri”. I’m just saying, let’s mix it up a little next year.
Meera’s Podcast Recommendations:
The Unfiltered History Tour
The podcast from VICE that made Meera cry, VICE World News brings you the stories of ten stolen goods on display at the British Museum. Listen now on your podcast app >>
(If you enjoy this, you can also try ABC Podcasts Stuff The British Stole).
Twenty Thousand Hertz is a lovingly crafted podcast that reveals the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. This episode from September 2020 looks at and gives examples of deepfake audio. Listen on your podcast app >>
‘Slight of Ear’
This episode talks about the secret of sound design, including a look at audio deepfakes, sonic branding and analogue versus digital.
Meera is an award-winning Producer and Content Development Exec. She was selected as one of the Rising Stars of 2022 in the British Podcast Awards, was named Best Entertainment Producer in the 2022 Audio Production Awards, and has won two Lovie Awards. Meera has produced stories for the BBC, Sony Music, Universal, UK Parliament, Waitrose, and other well-known brands. Meera is Ambie nominated, and has had her work featured in The Guardian and The Times and selected as one of Spotify’s Best Episodes Of 2021.