Do podcasts exist?
The term ‘podcast’ has been in the dictionary for over ten years but the definition that once stood true has now passed its sell-by date.
In the age of the internet where audio comes in multiple formats and can be delivered through a radio, computer or phone, the old designation no longer fits.
Speaking at the recent NextRadio Conference in London, commentator James Cridland sought to make sense of this complicated new landscape. Firstly, he posed the question of whether, the ‘future of radio is on-demand or live?’ He then went on to define radio as ‘a shared audio experience with a human connection’ and suggested that ‘podcasts are a form of radio’.
In this dynamic environment it might also be true to state that radio belongs to the world of podcasts.
Whatever the definitions and the confusion, it’s clear we are in the midst of a revolution in our listening habits. Originally podcasts consisted mainly of low-quality productions (i.e. lengthy rants) by wannabe broadcasters in their bedrooms or basements to an audience that would have fit into the same bedrooms and basements.
But high-quality productions made specifically for online audiences, now draw listeners in their millions. These days, podcasts with their growing audiences and advertising revenues are attracting the attention of big-time investors. They have also grown into a distinct form of creative media, sharing a common feel, sound and ethos.
Broadly speaking, podcasts are audio programmes that do not obey the rules of terrestrial radio. They offer original, challenging, independent output that goes far beyond the boundaries of traditional network productions.
Many of these new programmes would give broadcast regulators a seizure. For example, ‘Two Dope Queens’, a hugely popular production hosted by the hilarious and seriously profane Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, is just too risqué to have been made by a regular radio broadcaster (even with the offending content beeped out!).
Over and above unleashing a vocabulary previously unheard on the airwaves, podcasts are recognizable for having given a voice to the voiceless, to those who have found themselves – quite literally – shut out of traditional media. It’s hard to believe that the established radio networks could have made a series like ‘Ear Hustle’ which was recorded, presented and produced by inmates of the notorious San Quentin Prison. Ear Hustle literally handed the microphone to the prisoners allowing them to paint a raw, gritty and sometimes tender insight into life behind bars.
Podcasts have given birth to a new type of audio documentary – subjective, hard-hitting and utterly different from anything we have heard before (Serial, S-Town). They have ushered in outstanding drama (Homecoming) featuring Hollywood talent (David Schwimmer and Catherine Keener). They have even made the serious business of US politics funny (Pod Save America), and have made comedy even funnier (Answer Me This).
Podcasts are bringing an ever-growing crop of fascinating, fresh output – and the exciting part is that we are just at the beginning of this new golden age of audio.
The number of podcast listeners in the US grew by 4% last year – equal to 10 million people. In the UK, it was estimated in 2015 that the 7% of the adult population listened to podcasts – a number that will likely have increased by at least a couple of percentage points since.
But it is not just about attracting ever greater numbers of listeners. Podcasts are also an ideal tool to serve the needs of niche audiences – in virtually any interest or subject imaginable.
The world of audio is changing, and it may soon be impossible to differentiate between what we once called radio programmes and what we now call podcasts.
In this new environment, it’s not the definition of what we are listening to, or where it comes from that matters, but rather the expanding choice and range of rich pickings for our listening pleasure.