Big fish, small sea: Irish podcasting within the wider anglo-phonic market

Why we should take a ‘digital native’ approach to Irish stories and voices

Back in June 2022,Reuters’ Digital News Report revealed that Ireland had the highest per capita podcast audience in the world. It was a remarkable testament to how quickly Irish ears had embraced a medium many had never even sampled a few short years before. 

As one might expect, media companies who had already invested in this space in Ireland werequick to celebrate, but were they failing to grasp the glaring challenge hiding in this data point? The Irish appetite for podcasts may indeed be among the largest globally, but the available audience most certainly isn’t. Plus, there’s no guarantee that they’ll choose to listen to the ever-growing array of podcast content established media brands have begun to create.

‘Big fish, small sea’ syndrome is fine in a market predisposed to consuming regionally produced content - a Swedish listener may naturally prefer to hear a show in their first language for example - however, a brief glance at podcasting charts reveals that Irish audiences choose content from across the anglo-phonic world.

As an avid listener of podcasts, I delight in listening to shows produced by top talent from Canada, Australia, the UK and the USA and as someone with a vested interest in these things, I know I’m not alone in those choices. As I write this, a quick scout on my phone reminds me that only four of the top 10 shows in Apple’s All Ireland podcast chart today are Irish. I check this a few times most weeks; on any given day it may be even less, and it’s rarely more.

So where are all the Irish shows, the Irish stories and Irish production talent? They’re there, but competition from bigger markets can make discovery and impact a challenge. That’s not to say that Irish stories haven’t made a mark - let’s face it West Cork is regarded by many as the first smash hit in the industry's relatively short history. In the years since, the professionalisation of podcasting has brought with it the attention of more established peers in the form of radio and print organisations. As a result, Irish media organisations have often defaulted to creating content designed for Irish ears only. While this is suited to a nationally focused sales model and editorial scope, it does seem somewhat at odds with both the medium and the way that audiences consume it.

So, media outlets who once had to worry about going head-to-head with Ryan Tubridy or Ian Dempsey must now vie for attention amongst heavyweight competitors that include Barack Obama, Emily Maitlis, Bruce Springsteen and Oprah Winfrey - although it would appear that many have simply not realised this yet. Those big fish, comfortable in their small sea, are being forced into a very big ocean

By contrast, listeners of any BBC podcast will be familiar with the tagline informing them that the show has been funded by "advertisers outside the UK". This approach has allowed the organisation to scale their output alongside global players like Audible, Wondery, Spotify and NPR. Often, it is global players like these that dominate the Irish podcast charts.

We know Irish podcasting faces some unique challenges but I do believe that our position in a small, anglo-phonic market presents numerous opportunities too. My recent experience as a judge for the Irish Podcast Awards leaves me in no doubt of this - the sheer volume of quality content, the diverse range of voices and the innovative production work was genuinely exciting to see. At the event itself, I was struck both this year and last by the rich community the industry is attracting too - with hobbyists turned professionals rubbing shoulders with experienced broadcasters, all receiving warm support from the crowd.

So what can Irish podcasting do to ensure a bigger impact for homegrown shows? For one, I think we’d be wise to follow the example of The Kinahans (the podcast not the family) and think internationally when it comes to audience targeting. Likewise, My Therapist Ghosted Me wears its innate Irishness easily and is readily enjoyed by audiences across the UK (where it is ultimately produced). But in saying that, I’d hate for us to lose the more niche shows or uniquely Irish perspectives that add so much to the scene here, as was so evident on Tuesday evening. There should be room for everyone at the podium.

So let’s embrace the fact that we are unlikely to see Irish brands dominate the Magellan AI Podscape at any point soon, and take a ‘digital native’ approach to Irish stories and voices. Irish podcasting could therefore reset the balance somewhat by broadening our horizons to focus on international charts when appropriate, or being agile about our monetisation model if not. Because we can’t expect to support the professionalisation of the industry via the wholesale import of a monetisation model better suited to larger markets - one which relies on sheer scale of audience to deliver any meaningful reward. At Poddle Audio for example, we’ve developed a monetisation matrix that will hopefully help podcasters find the appropriate approach for them, their intended audience and for their content. 

Ireland has a long history of successful cultural exports - so there’s no reason that spoken word audio shouldn’t be part of that. In fact, Irish audio production talent already makes a huge impact abroad so wouldn’t it be nice if we could export the podcasts and not the people who make them? With any luck “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” for the Irish Podcast Awards next year.