Why aren’t there more podcast phone-ins?

With talk radio still hugely popular, its absence from the digital airwaves is baffling

Everyone mark your bingo cards; it looks like Spotify may be the latest tech company to backtrack on its investments into live audio. The streaming company was just one of a number of platforms that sniffed an opportunity amid the unexpected (and short-lived) success of drop-in audio chat platform Clubhouse, which briefly shot to prominence during the pandemic when everyone’s need for human connection convinced them that live audio was the next big thing.

This, however, has not proved to be the case, and Spotify’s confident assertion that live podcasts with audience participation features were the future was met with resounding apathy. Similar features rolled out by other apps have also failed to take off, and Clubhouse itself hasn’t exactly become a household name. 

All of this has got me thinking about live audio, and how poorly it’s represented in the world of podcasting - because despite how much variation exists within the world of podcasting, live shows are almost a nonentity. Very few podcast superstars do live broadcasts, and almost none do so while taking audience calls. 

That’s surprising, as according to the latest RAJAR MIDAS report, live radio still absolutely crushes podcasts in terms of popularity, reaching 88% of people on a weekly basis. Admittedly, a sizeable portion of this will be music-based, but the continuing popularity of talk radio stations - in both traditional linear and podcast format - shows that there’s still an appetite for participatory call-in shows.

On the digital side, livestreaming video has become a titanic juggernaut, with services like Twitch boasting millions of daily users tuning in to hang out with creators, chat and ask questions. This isn’t just restricted to high-profile streamers, either; and it’s possible to garner decently-sized audiences just through so-called ‘chat streams’ - identical, for all intents and purposes, to a low-budget version of one of LBC’s talk shows.

In theory, podcasters should be absolutely cleaning up in the live audio space. Most already operate on a regular cadence, with set recording and release times, and putting out a live audio broadcast is much less resource-intensive than a video livestream, given you don’t have to worry about a camera, lighting or set dressing. Taking calls has also become incredibly easy thanks to modern remote recording tools like Riverside, Zencastr or even Zoom. 

And yet, despite this, services like Spotify Live consistently fail to take off, with seemingly neither audiences nor creators particularly interested in engaging with them. This might be down to an inherent conflict with the traditional nature of podcasts as on-demand content, rather than appointment listening, but that doesn’t explain why more podcasters don’t simply broadcast their shows live and then put out a normal recording for people who want to listen at their leisure. 

There is, however, one podcast I know of that is leveraging both live broadcasts and audience interaction. The PC Pro Podcast has been running for 15 years, and puts its shows out as live broadcasts via Mixlr, where it gets a healthy regular audience tuning in week after week. I’ve appeared on the show a number of times in my previous role at sister brand IT Pro and have seen the same faces popping up again and again, contributing to discussions and sharing their views. 

Although The PC Pro Podcast doesn’t do phone-ins, the comments (many of which are read on air) are a lively and vital part of the show, and more podcasters should follow their example. In many cases, a podcast’s audience is its greatest asset, and participatory podcasts could be an effective way to shape an audience into a community. It’s not going to be an appropriate fit for everyone, of course, but with two-way interaction between creators and fans becoming increasingly prevalent, live broadcasts seem like an open goal for the podcast industry.