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Podcasts are the next frontier of the digital media revolution

During the last 20 years, almost every communication business, channel and practice has been dramatically subverted by the digital deluge. We live today in a world where Telcos are content providers, an online shop produces TV series, newspapers are no longer in paper, TV is increasingly more downloaded and streamed than broadcasted and radio… well, radio is mostly still there, just as it was 20 years ago. The only unscathed survivor of the digital media apocalypse that has dethroned kings and built new behemoths. At least until now.

Ira Glass - This American Life

Ira Glass – This American Life

For some reason, podcasting has never been much of a threat to traditional radio stations, despite the hype about ten years ago. Actually, if you think about it, there are a few reasons:

  • First, the horrible name. Podcasting. Unintuitive, unimaginative, and detrimental in the way that it obscures what it actually is to people not familiar with the term.
  • Second, the device as consuming context. We tend to consume our media promiscuously: checking up email while we have several browser tabs open and music as background noise. Or watching video or TV while doing commentary on the side via Twitter or text messaging. But you can’t do that with podcasts. They are more demanding in terms of attention bandwith than text, which you can stop reading and pick up later seamlessly, or video, which has much more sensorial cues to put you back on track if you drift away into twitterdepth for a minute. This kind of audio content needs focus, of which we are usually deprived for so much of our day.
    Also, up until very recently, the vast majority of people didn’t own a smartphone. This means that most of the podcast consumption (an obscure habit in itself) had to be done via a computer, forcing me to sit with a bulky device, with a bright screen, a keyword, a browser and… there we go into twitterdepth again. Compare that experience with grabbing a radio or an mp3 player and go for a walk around the neighborhood, under the sun, listening to some tunes or a radio anchor.
  • Third, the dismal quality of much of the offerings in the medium. Podcasts are cheap. You don’t need much, a laptop and a microphone. But this low entry barrier has consequences when you have a landscape full of mediocre content without a gatekeeper engine like Google to provide hierarchy and assign relevance. Most podcasts are just conversation, roundtable discussions, debates or commentary, easy to fill formats which aren’t very demanding in their production requirements and with a very low minute/information ratio.
  • Fourth, traditional radio hasn’t been much interested in developing podcasting. Perhaps because of all the reasons mentioned above they never felt threatened by it, even though facing a decline in adspend, the same way newspapers felt threatened by new digital media actors, or the way streaming music services were threatening music stations. A recent report (2014) by the IAB in Spain on the subject of online radio doesn’t even mention podcasting, focusing on music streaming services like Spotify or digital versions of traditional radio. Another report by IAB in the UK in 2013 measured how Britons consume audio: 6% mentioned podcasts, while 48% mentioned online audio (music streaming services).

So, what has changed now?

Sarah Koenig - Serial

Sarah Koenig – Serial

Some things haven’t changed at all. For better or worse we seem to be stuck with podcasting as the name of the discipline. But that may be the only thing that remains.

The landscape has changed. We still are ferocious media consumers, and we have new weapons now. Smartphones have played a key role in developing digital audio consumption, thanks to its mobility (duh!) and its ability to free us up from physical constraints and take our audio and music anywhere while we do other stuff that doesn’t overload our attention bandwith. We now can listen to podcasts on the go easily while we walk, go grocery shoppping, go to the beach or do chores around the house. Just as we used to do in the past, with our radios, walkman, discman… at last our digital devices have finally catched up with our media consumption habits.

Still, smartphones have been around for a while, and while podcast stats have been slowly and steadily growing over the past 10 years, podcasting has been enjoying a sudden spike in media attention in just the last 8-10 months. Why? The answer is Serial. The real story of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the possibility that Adnan Syed, convicted for her murder, may be innocent, was a hit last fall that captured our attention and kept it sealed under several locks until the end of the season. Each episode was downloaded an average of 3.4 million times. To put that number into context, the Mad Men finale had an audience of 3.3 million viewers. But Serial, a spin-off from long-running radio show This American Life, wasn’t an isolated incident. It signified the breaking of a wave that has been silently building for some time now.

Benjamen Walker - Theory of Everything

Benjamen Walker – Theory of Everything

Years ago I tried to follow some podcasts. I subscribed to a few, but there were no good desktop apps to organize and follow my subscriptions, and I had to listen to them while using my computer, which meant I did very little actual listening. Serial was my gateway back into podcasts. I discovered that there is now a wealth of audio talent experimenting with the medium, developing aural textures and narrative structures, and generally taking it to the next level. It’s an exciting moment, where creative alliances are being made, startups are being founded, and radio stations have started to organize themselves as “podcast-first”. Podcasting seems to be again on the verge of becoming mainstream. This time for real.

Now that I’m a convert, I want to share some podcast recommendations, personal favorites I’ve been discovering and falling in love with during the last year. All are non-fiction, and most are narrative, story-driven audio. Some of them are also radio shows, but you’ll notice there isn’t a style or aesthetic distinction between pure podcasts and radio shows who also happen to deliver their content via podcasts. The format has superseded the channel.

Carolina Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón - Radio Ambulante

Carolina Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón – Radio Ambulante

So here they are, my favourite 10 podcasts as of now:

  • Serial. I probably wouldn’t be writing this post if not for this podcast. A captivating narrative about a murder that took place 16 years ago, with its lights, shadows, surprises and a lingering question: Who killed Hae Min Lee? Serial is a spin-off a venerable institution in american public radio and podcasting, This American Life.
  • Startup. A podcast about starting up a podcasting business. Very meta, but also quite funny. The show’s first season follows up Alex Blumberg as he tries to build a podcasting company, and I’d recommend to start there. There’s a second season already, which follows a different company on very different challenges.
  • 99% Invisible. I’m going to recommend a lot of Radiotopia’s shows, but that’s because they are all awesome. In 99% Invisible, Roman Mars shares surprising stories about design and architecture and their interactions with global culture.
  • Theory of Everything. Benjamen Walker does a wonderful job at exposing the dark side of our contemporary culture, be it social media or the so called collaborative / sharing economy.
  • The Heart. When I was studying journalism my radio professor was constantly talking about the intimacy of radio and the capacity to reach to the listener at an emotional level. I didn’t understand what he meant by this until I heard this podcast.
  • This American Life. A towering institution in american public radio and a trailblazer in podcasting. Hosted by Ira Glass, each episode features several stories around a central concept. It’s safe to say that its brand of non-fiction storytelling has heavily influenced a generation of podcasters, some of which run stories on the show. Quite a few of This American Life alumni have also started their own podcasts.
  • Love + Radio. Small stories that grow in surprising ways, with a heavily, beatifully crafted sound.
  • Here Be Monsters. There are always interesting things happening on the fringes of culture.
  • Invisibilia. This podcast was started as a radio show from NPR by two This American Life alumni. It’s a science podcast, with stories about invisible stuff that shapes our lives. Their show about the blind man who spontaneously developed echolocation was absolutely amazing.
  • Radio Ambulante. Produced by a community of journalists spread throughout the US and Latin American, the story-driven show is focused on latin countries.
Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller - Invisibilia

Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller – Invisibilia

As you can see, only one of these podcasts is in a language other than English. Despite my efforts, I haven’t been able to find many good podcasts in Spanish language. Most are still stuck in the “conversational” genre, and usually lack focus and production values. Catástrofe Ultravioleta, a science podcast in Spanish, is another expception to this rule.

So what’s next?

This time the recent surge of interest from audience and content producers in podcasting is actually in sync with the technological zeitgeist and our own consumption habits, which increasingly have “on demand” as a key trait. The slow buildup in audience and “share of ear” for podcasts will more likely accelerate in the coming years, driven by hits such as Serial. Collectives and startups like Radiotopia and Gimlet Media have had a headstart in establishing themselves in the podcasting space, but radio stations still have big audiences they can capitalize when managing their transition to include podcasting and on demand radio as part of their operations. The question remains whether broadcast radio will learn from the mistakes of print media and if the almost 100 year old medium will show enough flexibility to quickly adapt to the new landscape.

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