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What to listen out for in 2021

Defend Truth

Opinionista

What to listen out for in 2021

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Neroli Price is a writer and audio producer from Cape Town, currently based in Seattle. She's worked for the independent podcast Sound Africa, the anti-corruption non-profit Open Secrets and the "Sundance for Radio", Third Coast International Audio Festival. Her audio work has appeared on BBC's Short Cuts, Reveal from the Centre for Investigative Reporting, Sound Africa, Field Recordings, KNKX and KEXP. Neroli now writes a weekly podcast review column for Maverick Life. You can find her website at neroliprice.com.

Last year was a big one for South African podcasts, but what does 2021 hold in store?

The Covid-19 lockdowns have accelerated the growth of podcasting at home and abroad. The desire to connect in times of isolation has attracted new players to the medium. Internationally, the continued growth of podcasting is following the well-worn capitalist expansionist logic of seeking out new consumers. Here, we look at a few trends and what they can tell us about what’s on the audio storytelling horizon for 2021.

For many years the nascent South African podcast industry has been stuck in the audience/advertising bind; without high enough audience numbers, it is near impossible to attract substantial advertising investment or listener donations – the model that funds much open-access media the world over. Without access to affordable data or widespread wi-fi it is hard for podcasting to gain traction, and without revenue it is near impossible to produce quality shows.

One way to bypass this bind is through partnerships. Either with established brands or personalities who could bring their following with them, thus solving the audience problem. Or by setting up a for-profit shop that makes up podcasts as a paid service. Both of these are already happening.

These practical mechanics are important if a South African podcast industry is to emerge and grow with enough resources to cultivate a diverse cohort of audio producers, reporters and editors. Having a skilled team is expensive and takes time to build up, but it is how some of the best podcasts are made.

If you’ve ever wondered why South Africa doesn’t have a local This American Life equivalent, the answer is in large part due to money. It takes a team with very distinct skills to make a riveting story sound good – balancing narrative and sound design; information and emotion; pacing and plot. There’s a lot that goes into making artful narrative audio stories and they need investment to thrive. There are a few places that these kinds of stories could emerge from.

The most obvious place to start is newsrooms. It’s a no-brainer for established news outlets to be investing in podcasting. Some, like News24, Polity.co.za and the Mail & Guardian’s Bhekisisa, are already embracing the medium and experimenting with different types of podcast styles.

Much like the migration to digital, those who forsake the shift to on-demand audio are missing out on cultivating new audiences and revenue streams. And I’m not only talking about the low hanging fruit of chat shows that involve interviewing journalists on staff, I would also love to see more legacy newsrooms flex their investigative muscle and bring us serialised deep dives. We have brilliant investigative journalists in this country, why not have a podcast series unpacking the VBS bank heist or the David and Goliath battle over the Xolobeni mining rights? I hope to hear some of these rich story veins tapped in 2021.

One of the most obvious places to expect more local quality podcast productions is radio stations. They already have much of the gear and expertise in house to pivot from broadcast to podcast. Sadly, many big radio stations opt to simply archive their broadcasts online and label these “podcasts”. While technically true, it’s simply a recycling of content rather than any real investment in a new form.

There are some exceptions to this rule – notably Radio 702’s Unresolved series investigating unsolved apartheid-era murders, the SABC’s remixing its archive into a series of profiles, and PowerFM’s dabbling in radio documentary. Perhaps 2021 will be the year that more traditional FM and AM radio stations embrace on demand audio format to draw in new listeners?

Some more familiar spots, like Daily Maverick and New Frame continue to experiment with publishing and creating in-house podcasts. The non-profit podcast production house that got into the game early, Sound Africa, is still creating excellent local content and has plans to expand in 2021 with a series focused on African thought and philosophy. New for-profit podcast ventures like Volume are carving out new spaces for partnerships in podcasting. These include upcoming collaborations with Corruption Watch unpacking the Zondo Commission and an investigative series about political assassinations made with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. I expect many of these emerging spaces to keep growing in 2021 and hopefully push the boundaries of the medium to suit a local context.

There are some very promising developments on the horizon coming from less directly obvious quarters. Lockdown has spurred many universities and NGOs to create podcasts in order to reach audiences no longer attending lectures and workshops. Notably, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and UCT’s Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) and Archives and Public Culture (APC) units. Other exciting collaborations include the International Labour and Research and Information Group (ILRIG) and the Botsotso Arts Collective’s reinvigoration of the local radio drama tradition with a series of working-class critiques of the status quo.

Perhaps more theatre and music groups will follow suit and venture on to the airwaves like the recent stage adaptations to radio in New York City during lockdown. This podcast future sure looks a lot like times gone by when families would gather around radio sets to listen to a weekly installment of a radio play, like a sonic soapie.

Local businesses are also seizing on podcasting’s allure, with companies as varied as JoJo Tanks to Sanlam partnering with producers to tell branded audio stories. These branded longer-form series make space for well-funded original content that is much more entertaining than traditional ads. I don’t know about you, but I would certainly love to hear a Nando’s satirical podcast! While branded content brings its own constraints and is ultimately about selling stuff, on the practical side, it pumps money into content creation and is one model that helps to get shows off the ground. A savvy production house could leverage funds from branded work to subsidise less profitable story production or passion projects. This model alleviates the financial pressure while making space for unbridled creativity.

Looking forward, there are more moves afoot to invest in growing the local podcast scene from the ground up. The BBC is hosting a competition looking for podcast producers from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The Children’s Radio Foundation (CRF) has just launched the Radio Workshop – an enterprise aimed at creating podcasts and training a new generation of producers across the African continent. To add to the momentum of audio storytelling across the continent is Africa Podfest – a collective based in Nairobi that supports podcast producers on the continent through research, networking, audience engagement and events such as the upcoming Africa Podcast Day virtual celebration on 12 February.

All of these developments are promising for podcast creators and listeners alike. In a place rich in oral traditions and with so many great stories to tell, the future of podcasts in South Africa and beyond is very bright indeed. DM/ML

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