Over the last week or so, the conversation around podcasts turned to the question of ads and editorial integrity. I’ve stayed mostly out of it, but then I read Jaime Ryan’s impassioned piece from this weekend. In his own words:
Much of the conversation centred around podcasts and whether or not the host(s) of a podcast would be able to freely discuss a topic that may potentially paint a sponsor in a bad light. As far as I’ve seen this is all still hypothetical because nobody actually has a solid example of where this has already happened.
As he explains further, I don’t have any skin in the game insofar as Critically Speaking doesn’t run ads, but I do in the sense that I record a show every week, consider my audience, and hope some day to generate income from my online content creation efforts.1
For me this argument is not, and never has been, about editorial integrity. Audiences are difficult to acquire, difficult to maintain, and extremely fragile. The trust a writer builds with his or her audience is possibly the most important factor in creating a successful online presence. Betraying that trust is very different from when similar conflicts happen in other media. Often in such cases, show hosts, reporters, and columnists have massive audiences maintained by the monolithic, old-media outlets for which they produce content. Unless the whole audience (or at least an enormous segment) is offended, these producers have little to worry about. This is not the case on the web, especially with podcasts.
In podcasting, the audience shows up every week for the particular voice of the host(s). And not just in the physical sense. The best shows, the ones that not only make it onto my devices but those that actually get played, have a personality and connection to the audience unlike any other medium I’ve ever experienced. In addition, aside from a few massive shows, the audience numbers are much smaller overall with podcasts, so each individual is more present as an audience member than with other forms where the subscriber count is higher.
So what does that mean for ad-driven podcasts vs. ad-free? It boils down to this. It is my opinion that some people simply hate ads. They spoil site designs, add elements of unpredictability from a user (and sometimes creator) perspective, are often repetitive or only loosely connected to the content of the show, and generally represent the established, click-obsessed web. The question of integrity is merely an additional item in this list, another reason for certain creators to keep ads at arms length—especially when they hate all of the others listed above.
In the end we’re dealing with a question of user experience. As a content creator, podcaster or otherwise, do you want your audience to hear a handful of (sometimes overlong, sometimes repetitive) ads in return for a viable monetization strategy, or do you want to preserve the (perceived) cleanness and clarity of an ad-free production while somehow generating money through other avenues or by producing your show for free? Either way, the acceptance of ad revenue does not implicate any sort of editorial bias. It does create the possibility, just as it creates the possibility of a listener dropping the show on account of ad fatigue. And, it does not mean that the ad-free show chose to stay as such solely because the host is afraid of having their editorial voice placed in jeopardy (whether they claim it or not).
The possibility of bad behavior does not guarantee its inevitability. Both models are design choices and, as long as the producer has the audience in mind (and the importance of audience trust only further ensures that it will), both can provide great material.