Why accessibility matters for podcasts

Joel McKinnon, CPWA
An illustration of a podcaster at the microphone thinking about the needs of disabled listeners.

Let’s start with the obvious. We wouldn’t be podcasting if we didn’t want listeners, right? And the more the merrier. To be specific, we want people to notice what we’re putting out and to want more. Some of those people may not be able to listen for various reasons, and accessibility is about including those people in our audience.

What's the problem?

For some, hearing is the problem. This total includes more than 70 million people in the world today. Many of them may have a great interest in what we’re putting out, but have no way to hear it. For others, seeing may be the problem. Now we’re talking about more than 2 billion people or more with blindness or low vision. But why can’t they just listen to the podcast? They may not be able to find it! Many podcast websites pose accessibility problems for people who use screen readers to navigate a web page. Even if they succeed in reaching the episode page, the embedded player may not have accessible controls.

There are also many people with mobility issues that make it difficult to use a mouse, or cognitive disabilities that make it difficult to process audio, read a transcript, or even understand the complexities of our websites. Many people are temporarily disabled, such as can occur following a stroke, or temporarily disabled, as can occur when any of us is in a noisy environment where listening is difficult. In short, there are a lot of reasons why someone may want to listen or read a podcast and not be able to. The good news is that there are solutions to these problems, and a lot of them are easier than you think.

There’s one more reason you should be aware of that has nothing to do with disability. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is enhanced through the same processes that help with accessibility. So our podcasts will get more attention if we fix the problems that make it difficult for disabled listeners to get to our content.

What can we do about it?

So how do we guarantee that our podcasts are accessible? By making our podcast website accessible and providing transcripts. On this website, and through direct consultation if necessary, I’m going to give you the keys to improving your accessibility and bringing more attention to the content you’ve worked so hard to produce.

The first thing to pay attention to is making your podcast website accessible. This can be challenging for a couple of reasons. You might not be a coder who built your website yourself, or you’re using one of the popular tools that create a website automatically from your RSS feed. Some of these are pretty accessible, and some need a lot of attention and the fixes might be out of your reach. I’ll help you to understand what tools are most accessible and how you can improve those that aren’t. 

Another essential part of a podcast website to look at is the embedded players on episode pages or sometimes in a list of episodes. These need to be accessible too, and there are a lot of players available with varying degrees of accessibility.

Lastly, we should all be including transcripts for people who can’t hear your podcast, but could certainly read it. Transcripts are essential for these people, but they’re also valuable in other ways. As mentioned above, SEO is improved when transcripts are provided, and they have a lot of potential value for even those who can listen. For one thing, they’re searchable. Have you ever been out doing some activity while listening to a podcast and heard something interesting you want to go back and pay more attention to? With a transcript, you can go right to that content when you have a chance, maybe at a desktop computer later on, or even on your smartphone or tablet. You can even copy and paste an excerpt of a discussion and share it with someone. That’s a lot easier than listening to the whole episode again to hear just that one part that intrigued you.

But transcripts are hard!

Transcripts can be challenging, but there are more and more options for how to create them, some of which are extremely quick and require little time and effort. AI transcription has come a long way, and can do a huge amount of the work for you at very low cost, or even for free. The problem with just using AI, though, is there are inevitably some transcription errors and some can be pretty embarrassing in print, so you will want to review these and fix them and that can take time. There are plenty of professional services competing in this market to reduce the time and effort, and I can help point you to those options.

One thing I’m working on, along with a partner at a company called Fanfare, is a new kind of transcript that is relatively easy to produce, but offers a lot of additional value in the form of a dynamic interface that mixes audio, text highlighting, and embedded images and links to create a whole new way of presenting your podcast content, and is surprisingly easy to create. With one of these “active transcripts” you can have a whole new way of promoting your show and draw a lot of attention from new fans and potentially sponsors. I’ll be happy to show off some of what we’re working on.

Let everybody in!

So there you go! Accessibility is clearly important for podcasters and many of us can level up and do a better job of it. As a podcaster who has faced a lot of these challenges myself, I’m happy to help you make your podcast among the most accessible out there. Let’s let everybody in!