I just returned to my Boston home after a week in Downeast Maine that wasn’t exactly in my plans, but that is when life actually happens, so they say. The purpose of my trip was to bury my father, who passed away from cancer last weekend, and to help my aging mother sort through all of the details of a life. We all knew he was sick – it was stage four bone cancer – but he was actually scheduled to return home last Monday to begin hospice care. So the timing was a bit of a shock, even if the outcome was certain.
I spent the week in a lakeside cabin, sorting through insurance and wills, talking the ear off of my therapist, and consoling my mother. As I drove back and forth around the small town I grew up in, running errands with bankers and lawyers and morticians, I got to hear a lot of stories about my father. Everyone who knew Thomas Webster Sr. recalled him as gregarious, funny, and above all very proud of his son, whom he talked about with anyone who would listen. “He always talked about you,” they would say. “Said you did something with the radio.”
Now, I am pretty sure Dad knew that I did “something with podcasting,” but as a 79-year old man talking to other older and middle-aged Downeast Mainers, my father gets a pass for altering it to “something something radio something,” I mean, I used to work in radio research, and Sounds Profitable has many broadcast companies in our stable of partners. More than that, though, telling people I did “something with radio” meant that he didn’t have to explain podcasting to anyone. I mean, we do a poor enough job of that IN the business without outsourcing the job to non-listeners.
As I sat and talked to my mother for hours over the last week, this came up again as she recounted all of the well-wishers and friends with whom she’d spoken since my father’s death. “They all wanted to know how you were doing, Tommy” (you don’t get to call me Tommy, by the way, so we are clear). “I told them you were doing very well for yourself – but you know, I am not exactly sure what you do! What should I tell them?”
I suppose it would have been easier for both of them if I had been a teacher, or a firefighter, or a grifter, but no, I am whatever this is. And though it didn’t cross my mind last week, I thought about this on the drive home to Boston in relation to the research study we published last month, The Podcast Landscape. One of the many findings in this report was that there is a well-defined segment of Americans who don’t listen to podcasts, but are absolutely open to the idea, if we could only tell them exactly what we do. We called this segment “The Persuadables,” and among other things, they over-indexed as women, 55 years of age and older. You know, like my mom. Heck, like one of my classmates, who I ran into last week, who asked me if I was still “doing something with the radio”.
It struck me then that we just need to do a better job translating what we do – what all of us do – to nonlisteners. I’ve advocated many times in the past for some kind of industry-wide PR campaign (the “Got Milk,” or “BEEF – IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER” of podcasting), but we can’t be too cute about this. It all has to be anchored not only in what they know, but what they want. Not what we want. We want engaging content and intelligent discussions and thoughtful debate and mind-bending fiction. That’s not necessarily what The Persuadables want. I know, because they told us:
The most persuadable segment of non-listeners available to us want something to listen to while they drive, or walk, or clean house. They want to hear radio programs on demand. And they want something to keep them company.
I think about all of this, now, as I consider a life moving forward without my father, and how my mother will fill the days. She loves to read mysteries and thrillers and Stephen King novels, which I send her from time to time. There aren’t many radio stations up there, and what little there is for talk radio is not of interest to her. There are loads of podcasts that I bet she would LOVE – book clubs, interviews with her favorite authors, maybe even audio fiction! But she is not going to download Pocket Casts. She doesn’t have a smartphone. And even if she did, she isn’t going to find the shows she wants, and that would frustrate her. Hell, it frustrates me.
But I can’t shake the thought that there is so much out there that she would really enjoy, and it would keep her company while she putters around the house, or even just closes her eyes at night. And maybe, instead of trying to explain to her “exactly what I do,” I’ll just burn a bunch of these shows (know any?) to an audio CD and mail it to her. Maybe she’ll enjoy them and tell a friend, and maybe that friend has a smartphone or a web browser (and let’s be clear – one key to reaching The Persuadables is a single website to listen to shows, not a Nascar-like pastiche of logos for podcast apps). And in doing this, maybe I have helped to grow a listener, and maybe I haven’t. I don’t know.
But maybe I’ve helped to keep my mother company, and that’s a small, good thing, to quote Raymond Carver. That’s probably more important than knowing exactly what I do. In any case, this is the mindset that is going to grow the audience for podcasting, and make careers in this space – truly understanding that our job is not to talk our friends and family into listening to podcasts. It’s to understand what they want, what would cause their eyes to widen in delight, to bring them joy or comfort, to have someone to talk back to, and to make them feel wonder…and give them those things, not an RSS feed.
The first thing you can do is to call your mother, and/or your father, if you still can. This is pretty good advice, regardless.
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