Podcasts, capturing the hearts, minds (and ears) of a generation?
A little over 10 years ago, there was no such thing as podcasts. But given the explosive rise of blogs invading almost every corner of the web (now affectionately called the ‘blogosphere’), Apple’s iTunes discovered a gap in the market in 2005—if people are reading other people’s musings on blogs, then surely there’s capacity for people to listen to other people’s musings through their smart devices. And thus, through this most simple of logical contemplations, podcasts were born (the ‘podosphere’, if you will).
The ‘podosphere’ is a minefield, filled with everything from podcasts about manoeuvring life as a 20-something (‘Millennial’) to serialised radio dramas (‘Alice Isn't Dead’), to thousands and thousands of podcasts with a comedic element (‘The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium’, ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’ and ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’ to name just a few). It would take days to reel off the hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there, but to surmise by paraphrasing Apple’s marketing mantra—whatever your interests and sense of humour, there’s most likely a podcast for that.
If it were possible to sum up the growth of podcasts in just one example, there’s no better example than Serial, a podcast borne from the smash success of a Netflix original series ‘Making A Murderer’ (a 10-part documentary serialising the conviction of Wisconsinite Steven Avery after the 2007 murder of a young woman). Serial is very much the audio equivalent, in which a team of radio producers delve into the case of Adnan Syed, a man convicted of the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore at the age of just 17. Listeners were transfixed, after just a couple of episodes pontificating with such vehemence on the case and Adnan’s guilt (or subsequent lack thereof). Many argued the case as if there was an emotional involvement—just a cursory Google search around Mr. Syed’s case shows the sheer volume of ‘armchair investigators’ Serial produced. It’s hard to explain why and how it’s possible to emotionally engage with the story of a man the vast proportion of listeners had never met, how millions could be so affronted about a crime that occurred nearly two decades ago, in a city in the United States of America that perhaps the majority of listeners had never even been to (and probably would never go). Yet listeners were transfixed nonetheless, waiting almost breathlessly for the next instalment to feed their craving. Yes, it is akin to a craving—that is the power of the podcast.
Serial is by far the poster-child for the success and future of the podcasting industry, a runaway smash success that was downloaded a huge 80 million downloads across its 12-episode season (at an average of 6.6 million listeners per episode)—making it the most listened-to podcast in history. With potential to capture listening figures that sound like the wage-packet of an Academy Award-winning actor, Serial is just one example that shows the uncapped potential of podcasts. In the wake of what many calls ‘the Serial effect’, there are now more than ever before "new podcast listeners wandering around the podcast universe," or so says comedian Marc Maron, host of the eponymous podcast WTF with Marc Maron. And thus the stage is set for podcasts to truly thrive.
As Alex Blumberg (professional podcaster with ‘This American Life’) puts it: “Now that everyone is walking around with a radio in their pocket at all times…[podcasts] can flourish again”. Now is the era of podcasts.