Is There Any Such Thing As A Video Podcast?

On one hand, that’s a ridiculous question. Of course there is. There are tens of thousands of video podcasts, with more published every day. On the other hand… no. There really isn’t, and there really cannot be. This is a paradox, and I believe it comes from a fundamental divide in the podcast community: two groups of creators with very different definitions of what a podcast is and what it is for. 

To find an answer to this question, then, let’s look at each of these groups—who I like to call “The Roganites” and “The Glassians”—and see what we can learn from how they see things. I think it will reveal some interesting things about the capabilities of podcasting (whether that includes video or not). 

Both of these groups were drawn to podcasting for the same reason: accessibility. It’s a fundamentally inexpensive medium—even the largest podcast production budgets don’t come anywhere close to what’s needed to produce a TV show or movie—and it’s open to all. There are no gatekeepers. Anyone with a microphone and a website can publish whatever they want to the same platforms as the big, successful shows. These are very attractive qualities, chock full of possibility. What divides the podcast world into these distinct groups is what they want to do with that possibility. 

To the first group, podcasting is a format—homemade talk shows. It is fundamentally a home to either interviews or looser recorded hang-outs, and its greatest power is allowing them to spend lots of time with their audience, spreading their message and expanding their personal brand. Very often, this group is drawn to podcasting as a way to promote something else—their business, their book, their consulting practice, their line of beauty products. They love podcasting because it keeps their social media feeds and e-blasts full of interesting content and generates reams of quality algorithm fuel. They love a weekly—or even daily—series, so they are constantly on the hunt for more and better guests and ways to make production faster and cheaper. 

In this camp we find the thought leaders, the entrepreneurs, the business coaches, the self-help gurus, and the vast majority of actors and comedians. They have no problem at all being thought of as “podcasters.” We will call them “The Roganites”. 

When a series produced by Roganites is good, it shines for its intimacy and accessibility. The people on it feel like they’re in the room with you, including you in their conversation. Audiences come to think of these hosts as their friends, and advertisers love them because they can plug products with the ease of a friendly recommendation. When these shows are bad, they are sloppy, formless, and dull—a conversation you wish you hadn’t stumbled into. 

To the second group, podcasting is a delivery system—a stream of audio programs delivered via an RSS feed—and what they want to deliver are beautifully-crafted stories for the ear. To them, the medium’s most true form is the documentary, or possibly audio theater. They love limited-run series, because they allow them to take time poring over every detail of every episode, carefully considering the entrances and exits, the rhythms of speech, and the shifts in texture in a desire to make the most emotionally compelling narrative arcs. They honestly could give a rat’s ass about efficiency, and are usually worked into states of extreme emotional distress when faced with a real deadline. The tools they crave are high-end microphones, deeply functional and intuitive DAW software, sound libraries full of beautiful music, and piles of fascinating archival tape. 

Here we find the media studies graduates, the spoken word artists, the storytellers, the fiction writers, the NPR alumni, and most of the True Crime people. They hate being referred to as “podcasters” because they are “audio producers,” thank you very much. We will call them “The Glassians”. 

When a Glassian is doing good work, the results are immersive and emotionally transporting, as compelling as anything done on film. When they miss the mark, the shows slide into being overwrought, pretentious, and silly—undergrad term papers set to music.  

These are, of course, the far ends of a spectrum, with room for middle ground. Capital “J” Journalists, for instance, tend to straddle both philosophies depending on the assignment at hand, and even the stalwarts of one camp can find themselves borrowing the techniques of the other. Whenever a Roganite interview show starts editing for length they have taken a step towards the Glassian, because now they are making decisions about the shape of the narrative rather than just recording what was said. Whenever a Glassian documentary series commits to a long-term weekly release schedule, they must welcome in the tactics of the Roganites, because they will almost certainly have to work more efficiently. But the true heart of almost every podcaster (or audio producer) tends to lie firmly in one of these two camps.

One of the surest field markings we can use to identify which philosophy an audio producer (or podcaster) espouses is to ask them how they feel about video podcasts. Their responses will often be totally opposite and remarkably passionate. 

For Roganites, video recording your conversations and putting the show out in both formats is an obvious and exciting step. Why in the world wouldn’t you want to have a video version of your show on YouTube and TikTok, with those beautiful algorithms working overtime to bring you listeners and ready-made social content dropping in your lap with every episode? What are you, nuts? For production companies with a Roganitic frame of mind, to not recommend adding video to your output would be dangerously close to malpractice.

Glassians see things entirely differently. Everything they love about podcasting is based on the fact that it is an audio-only medium: the intimacy, the accessibility, the ability to craft and edit with reckless abandon. 

There are two ways high-end Glassians take stories and make them so compelling to listen to: first, they try record in a very non-intrusive way, putting people at ease and helping them forget they are being recorded so they speak naturally and share freely; and second, they edit the living bejeezus out of their stuff, taking hours and days and possibly weeks distilling, reorganizing, and supplementing what was said until it finds its most impactful form. All of this is thrown to the dogs when video is introduced. Were they to work in video, in place of a discreetly-placed microphone on someone’s coffee table they’d have a truck full of cameras and lights. Instead of being able to calmly say “go ahead, and take as much time as you need,” they’d have to spend hours framing and lighting each shot and then even more hours finding and filming appropriate B-roll to cover all those edits. Instead of being able to create entire worlds with just a voiceover, some music, and a sound effects library, they would actually need to create entire worlds. Ask an audio documentarian why they just can’t go ahead and add video to their podcast and they’ll look at you like you just asked them to grow carrots out of their ears.  

But here’s the thing: wherever you fall on this spectrum and however you feel about the idea of video podcasting, you are absolutely correct. These viewpoints are completely contradictory but somehow both equally true. Podcasting was built as an audio medium and it was built that way for a lot of really good reasons, but integrating video can be a powerful tool for visibility and marketing, but when you take that step, you really are moving away from what podcasting is and making it into another medium entirely, with a different syntax and strengths and weaknesses, but so what? Isn’t the point to reach as many people as possible? Well, yes. And also no, and also… 

Maybe we need to look at this in a different way. What are the implications of this choice for your show? What do you gain and what do you lose when you either incorporate video or choose to ignore it?

The first big selling point of video is how it promises to address the D-word of podcast promotion: discoverability. It’s true that the native video apps—YouTube, TikTok, Reels, etc.—are much better at presenting an audience member with new content from new creators than the podcast apps are, but this is not the slam dunk it is sometimes made out to be. YouTube is more searchable and better at serving up suggestions than Spotify or Overcast… but that’s not much of an accomplishment. There are somewhere around 4,000,000 new pieces of video uploaded to YouTube every day, so being found in that pile is far from a sure thing. TikTok’s astonishingly intuitive algorithm is much better at connecting creators with viewers, but, unsurprisingly, the only people who really succeed there are those who are doing the kind of thing that people like to watch on TikTok. If you’re not an attractive 20-something making pithy and entertaining 1-minute stand-alone snippets, it’s challenging to find an audience there. 

More promising, to my mind, is the value of video clips in your social media feed. There is no question that a nicely-made short video will grab more eyes on LinkedIn or in the Meta-Zone than a still image, an audiogram, or a block of text… but what new difficulties do you take on when you try to gain the advantages of video? Quite a lot, it turns out. Here are four to consider: 

1. You have to be a much better host (and guest). One of the really great things about audio is how much you can edit without destroying the flow. A quality audio post-production engineer can not only push around sentences, not only move words from one place to another, but chop out syllables, remove breaths, and change the length of pauses between sounds. They can go down to individual sound waves and manipulate them to make things sound the right way. 

Compare this with what is capable in video editing, or at least the level of video editing that is available to the podcast community (I assume no one reading this has the budget to hire Industrial Light and Magic). It’s less like computer-assisted microsurgery and more like moving cinder blocks around while wearing oven mitts. Yes, you can move paragraphs, or even maybe sentences or the occasional word, assuming you have multiple camera angles to cut between, but stutters? Weird pauses? The dreaded “ums and ahs”? Forget it, buddy, you’re on your own. 

The upshot of this is that the on-camera talent have to be really good at what they do. They have to be clear and well-spoken and relaxed or they will look and sound lousy. What your production team can fix afterward is reduced by an order of magnitude. The reason the real pros—from Howard Stern to Conan O’Brien to Mike Birbiglia (and yes, Joe Rogan)—can make podcasts that work as well on video as they do as audio is because they are really good talkers. Being charming on demand into mics and on screens and on stages has been their job for decades. Their guests, also, are largely professional comedians and actors and writers and musicians. They are comfortable on camera, and they come in with prepared anecdotes and bits of business they have worked over with their publicists and practiced on the twelve other talk shows they did that week. All of these people have the ability to tell a story in front of an audience for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes without stumbling, stammering, or swimming in circles. Most people do not. In an audio-only medium, your editor can do a lot to fix that. On video, it’s much, much harder.

2. When people can see you, they can see you. This means that even for the simplest interview show, you’re going have to start considering what the damned thing is going to look like. What is the host going to wear? Where will they sit, and in front of what? What about the guests? How will you make that consistent? You’re going to need graphics now for that intro and outro, where are those going to come from? Who will design them? Can you afford to have them done well? 

The tech questions have now multiplied as well. You now have cameras to consider. You have video files to manage, which are enormous. Every step of your workflow now has twice as many elements, and so every part of it has gotten more complicated and more expensive than when it was just people talking into microphones.

3. Audio is intimate and easygoing, video is aloof and demanding. A podcast in its most pure form—played on a mobile device, on headphones—is an astonishingly intimate piece of work. You are literally whispering in someone’s ear. Think about the emotional power of that, and how much it is compromised when the shift to video is made. Instead of voices in your head, these are now faces in a box with a border around them. That is a huge difference. 

Audio is also amazing at fitting itself into corners of peoples lives that video can’t approach. You can listen to a podcast while you’re doing the dishes or driving or walking the dog or playing a video game or showering or a thousand other things. A video is something you have to sit down and make an appointment with—OK, I’m doing this and only this for the next five or ten or twenty or forty minutes. This makes it much harder for long-form videos to be consumed. It is much more likely that people will find the time to consume a weekly thirty-minute audio series than a weekly thirty-minute video. 

4. Welcome back, Gatekeepers. Remember what we said attracted all of us—Roganites and Glassians alike—to podcasting in the first place? That amazing accessibility? Say what you want about the podcast apps, nothing in all of media is more open and democratic. Type in the name of a show you want, from any podcaster anywhere in the world, and boom! There it is, for free. Hit “subscribe” and whenever they post a new episode, it will appear and make itself known. You can choose to listen to it or not, whenever you want. 

This is not the case with any website that is using an algorithm to feed content to its users. That robot is ruthless in its determinations, and if it’s decided that people won’t like your stuff, it won’t show it to them, even if they once claimed they want to see it.  

The truth is, a video podcast isn’t really a podcast anymore, it’s a web series. If that’s the best medium for who you are and what you want to say, awesome! Just be aware that “adding video to your podcast” is not a simple task, it’s a radical rethinking of every piece of your workflow, removing a lot of the flexibility and freedom that makes working in audio so appealing. 

So is there any such thing as a video podcast? Yes, except no, because maybe.

(David Hoffman is the Founder & Principal of CitizenRacecar)