You've Heard Of Podcasts. Now, Make Way For 'Microcasts'

Microcasts are little audio shows that brief a listener on a single, usually tightly thematic topic in under 5 (or at most 10) minutes. Much like these colorful blocks, they come in different shapes and sizes — and people can listen to them in any configuration they like. (Alexandra Troyan/EyeEm via Getty Images)
Microcasts are little audio shows that brief a listener on a single, usually tightly thematic topic in under 5 (or at most 10) minutes. Much like these colorful blocks, they come in different shapes and sizes — and people can listen to them in any configuration they like. (Alexandra Troyan/EyeEm via Getty Images)

If you're reading this, it's probably safe to assume you know what a podcast is. But you may not know about a new category expanding across the audio landscape: "microcasts."

They are basically just what the name suggests: little audio shows that brief a listener on a single, usually tightly thematic topic in under five (or at most 10) minutes. They typically require less production, making them easy and efficient to create on a daily basis.

WBUR has produced two such shows through Project CITRUS, including Morning Conditions, an in-depth two-minute daily forecast from meteorologist Dave Epstein, as well as Coronavirus, Briefly, a three-minute curated selection of WBUR's best coronavirus coverage. Both are produced daily and available across a variety of listening platforms including (but not limited to) NPR One, Google's Your News Update, Alexa Flash Briefings, any given podcast app and even Twitter.

Who's Making Microcasts?

Writing for Hot Pod, Cherie Hu defined a microcast as "an episode lasting around five minutes or less." Hu highlighted "Shots of Science Vs" — bite-sized versions of Gimlet's "Science Vs" podcast — and noted that these shorter stories are tailor-made for listening experiences like Spotify's Your Daily Drive playlist.

Other publishers have joined in as well, creating much shorter versions of their longer podcasts. Vox recently unveiled "Vox Quick Hits," a single RSS feed of mostly sub-10-minute distillations of their hit podcasts like "Today, Explained" and "The Weeds." Interestingly, Vox also makes the bold assertion: "Vox Quick Hits isn’t a traditional podcast, but rather a playlist where you can hear a mix of short episodes from Vox podcasts you know and love, plus some brand-new series." (Though this seems to conveniently ignore the flexibility of RSS; once it's out in the wild, the user is under no obligation to listen to it as a "playlist" or in any particular order.)

Even podcast titan Joe Rogan is getting into the mix. His show of course became a Spotify exclusive late last year, meaning there was no longer a need for an RSS feed. But Podnews recently pointed out that "The Joe Rogan Experience" has started "posting clips of shows on its old, open RSS feed. Currently, a clip from a recent Elon Musk interview ends with a 40-second promotion for Spotify at the end, voiced by Rogan."

There are also a number of new apps hitting the scene, all of which focus on making long-form audio shows more discoverable and sharable by clipping them into shorter snippets (in some cases, with a helping hand from machine learning). They include Hark, Shuffle and Podz. Imagine a personalized podcast highlight reel — or if you took a podcast app, crossed it with Twitter and added a dash of TikTok. These apps don't promote microcasts per se. But they certainly suggest that there is a growing market for shorter, more digestible audio formats.

Of course, public media is also no stranger to microcasts. APM produces "Marketplace Minute;" NPR has shorter podcasts like "The Indicator from Planet Money."

What Makes A Microcast?

If podcasts are audio for a road trip, microcasts are audio for a short commute — or even for brushing your teeth. Other useful descriptors for this still-emerging format have cropped up recently, like, "an alternative to listening on 2x," "TL;DR as a Service" and the audio equivalent of  "[an] hors d'oeuvre."

You often only want the latest episode of a microcast. Given their ephemerality and timeliness, microcasts typically have a shelf life of just 24 to (at most) 48 hours. Therefore these are not shows with endlessly replayable back catalogs. But because of their comparatively simple production, practicality and habit-forming publishing cadence, they offer other distinct advantages.

They are also a much more reasonable investment for people who have, you know, other things to do or who are otherwise distracted. Microcasts can be consumed in their entirety in whatever pockets of the day feel appropriate. For instance, while whiteboarding out Coronavirus, Briefly, we hypothesized about the persona we might reach. We kept coming back to someone who's too busy with home schooling, or working from home, or with some other overwhelming time constraint, to catch up on the pandemic in any great depth. Nevertheless, they want to keep tabs on the latest developments.

Indeed, microcasts open up a new world of increased availability. You can distribute them like podcasts, via RSS and web pages. But they are also tailor-made for interfaces with shorter engagement timeframes: Flash Briefings, fridges, gas pumps, elevators, taxi cabs, etc.

Let's not treat all podcasts ... as program-length, in-depth, highly produced episodes.

Microcasts also vastly improve the user experience of continuous listening applications (CLAs), like NPR One and Google's Your News Update. Short, single-topic audio news — that can be slipped seamlessly into these streams of content from a mix of producers — is becoming immensely valuable and, as the landscape matures, potentially lucrative. In the same vein, algorithmically personalized playlists like Spotify's Your Daily Drive are another good fit for this kind of audio.

With microcasts, you're in and out — and hopefully leaving more informed. As former Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey put it, "Saving people time is always a good product strategy."

Why Make Microcasts?

For starters, microcasts offer a low-cost way to get the most mileage out of your audio news. If you're at a public radio station, think of all the content that airs once during newscasts and is never heard from again.

Granted, because of the nature of news, a majority of that content doesn't have a shelf life. Stories get updated — the cycle moves on. But what about the best story (or two) that retains value across the day? Packaged and distributed properly, it can reach new listeners who favor on-demand, nonlinear listening.

Microcasts represent a natural evolution for public radio, which for decades has been the standard-bearer of concise, consistent, segmented news. Instead of lifting stories created for one medium (the radio) and crossing our fingers that they will resonate with audiences on another (digital) — as we have been doing for years — microcasts are produced with digitally native audiences and platforms foremost in mind. They closely mimic the low-risk, high-reward nature of those beloved radio features — they're just far more independent and re-usable from the jump.

In fact, the mainstreaming of microcasts is still relatively new to public radio. And the platforms are still catching up. As we've written before, Spotify's personalized playlists could be improved if they focused more on spoken word. But even better would be a playlist solely composed of shorter, newsier segments — following the model of NPR's drive-time Morning Edition. But for now, Spotify does not seem to distinguish between spoken-word types, and disregards length. Similarly, Apple has just one big bucket for all its spoken word: podcasts.

Even NPR One has just two categories: stories and podcasts. Its "flow" creates a session for each listener that is heavily front-loaded with segments, working on the assumption that the segments are much shorter, and the podcasts longer. Of course, a podcast is by definition simply an audio file syndicated by RSS. But just because it's delivered via RSS, we should not assume it's a "podcast."

Let's not treat all podcasts, in other words, as program-length, in-depth, highly produced episodes.

Where Can I Hear A Microcast?

We thought you'd never ask.

Along with checking out some of the examples cited above, give this episode of WBUR's Coronavirus, Briefly a listen.

OK, yes, it's a shameless plug. But we truly feel this episode demonstrates the capabilities of the microcast format: For listeners, it quickly breaks down a complex and newsy topic (coronavirus vaccines) and — we hope — did so with a refreshing, authoritative sound. And for producers, this kind of episode can reasonably be executed on the fly, with low overhead.

Need some more inspiration? Here's a table of nearly 400 public radio short-form feeds.

David Moore Twitter Lead Developer, Emerging Technologies
David leads Project CITRUS, which explores the future of on-demand audio on emerging tech platforms.

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Jack Mitchell Twitter Digital Audio Editor
Jack Mitchell works on Project CITRUS, which explores the future of on-demand audio on emerging tech platforms.

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Franziska Monahan Twitter Assistant Digital Audio Editor
Franziska is the assistant digital audio editor with WBUR's Project Citrus. 

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