Where Is George Gibney? raises the podcast bar but how to measure it?

Everyone is listening to podcasts but their viability is threatened by lack of listener data

Former Irish swimming coach George Gibney, the subject of a new BBC Sounds podcast. Photograph: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Former Irish swimming coach George Gibney, the subject of a new BBC Sounds podcast. Photograph: INPHO/Billy Stickland

 

We’re still only in the second week of Where Is George Gibney?, the heartstopping new serial podcast produced by Mark Horgan and Ciaran Cassidy for BBC Sounds, but it already seems sure to set a new benchmark for the genre in Ireland.

The story itself – of child sexual abuse and cover-ups over several decades in Irish competitive swimming – has been well described recently by Irish Times journalist Johnny Watterson for this newspaper, but it’s also worth noting the quality of the soundcraft and the storytelling skill on display in the series.

The podcast world is an exhilarating free-for-all of ideas, subjects and styles from a mix of small, independent players and megabucks global stars

Nothing comes from nothing. Horgan has spent many years as producer with groundbreaking indie sports podcasters Second Captains where, among many other things, he’s been responsible for their hallucinogenically brilliant archive mashups. Cassidy has an impressive background in radio and film documentaries, including the award-winning Jihad Jane which received a cinema release last year. You can hear the benefit of all that experience in Where Is George Gibney?, in the pacing, the interweaving of multiple narrative strands, the temporal shifts back and forth across the decades, and in the way all that creativity serves the ultimate objective of allowing Gibney’s victims to tell their stories in their own words.

Podcasts are growing up and taking over, but you’re probably sick of hearing that again. What is true is that the format appears to be entering a new, more stable phase, with audiences expanding at a steady clip across all the major delivery platforms. Significant questions remain, though, about commercial viability, the apparent reluctance of sponsors and advertisers to get on board and the recurring bugbear of uncertainty over listener numbers (full disclosure: as a podcaster myself for The Irish Times, I’d love to see more clarity).

Audiences

Every podcast has its own internal metrics based on data from its primary publishing platform. But like-for-like comparison is impossible and what public numbers there are can be misleading. For example, Apple’s charts assign more importance to shows which have been recently released or whose numbers have increased substantially in the previous week, while Spotify’s version is more reflective of the actual weekly listenership of each title (or so we’re told).

So Apple has Where Is George Gibney? straight in at number one this week, with another new podcast featuring Tommy Tiernan, Hector Ó hEochagáin and Laurita Blewitt also in with a bullet at number three. Spotify, meanwhile has The Michelle Obama Podcast at the head of a top 10 that includes longstanding Irish-made favourites such as Blindboy and David McWilliams. In both charts, international stars such as Joe Rogan jostle for position with local names like Eamon Dunphy. There’s a lot of health, wellbeing, comedy and sport. Perhaps due to an older age demographic, Apple features more “listen back” versions of traditional radio shows than Spotify.

On one level, the podcast world is an exhilarating free-for-all of ideas, subjects and styles from a mix of small, independent players and megabucks global stars. On another, it’s a bit of a mess which will inevitably reach a crisis point when many of those smaller players fall by the wayside. Neither chart features a lot of standalone, high-quality series on the model of Serial or Audible’s West Cork – both of which, it should be noted, were backed by large, well-funded organisations (NPR and Audible respectively).

Which brings us to BBC Sounds, the backer of Where Is George Gibney? and the flagship of the BBC’s sometimes tortuous attempt to retool its audio services for the post-broadcast world. (Helpfully, the BBC’s commissioning editor for podcasts, Jason Phipps, and the podcast commissioning executive at BBC Sounds, Dylan Haskins, are both Irish and receive credits on the Gibney series.)

Like its TV equivalent, the iPlayer, BBC Sounds has been criticised for a clunky user experience and is often compared unfavourably with digital pure-plays such as Netflix and Spotify. It’s an unfair comparison which ignores the public service obligations and legacy technologies with which the Beeb has to contend. But it does accurately reflect the scale of the challenge faced by any traditional broadcaster as it tries to steer its tanker away from the approaching iceberg of everything-on-demand.

RTÉ, in its smaller, leakier tanker, may feel it has even less room for manoeuvre, but that’s not necessarily the case. As some of its own Documentary on One strand has shown, along with its initial foray into serial podcasts with The Nobody Zone, audio, done well, can achieve remarkable things on relatively limited resources.

As Horgan himself wrote recently in The Irish Times: “In a podcast series you can go deep on the subject, you can produce it without a gigantic budget or large staff and, best of all, with the help of a big host broadcaster, you can take it to an international audience.”

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