I am a young person with a self-confessed short attention span. Long movies often bore me. I lazily scroll through half an article on Facebook before abandoning it. I rarely sit through long documentaries and sometimes even a 40 minute Netflix episode can seem a little daunting.
But God help me I love an hour long podcast.
It defies all reason that podcasts are booming in 2016, especially with young people. The stats show that fuelled by the cult obsession of Serial, 17% of Americans have listened to a podcast in the last month, up from 8% in 2008. But these stats are understating the meteoric rise of the podcast. Because those who do listen to podcasts, really listen. The average podcast listener consumes six podcasts every week and over 10% of listeners consume more than 10 podcasts a week – that’s the equivalent of an entire TV series a week. Long story short – once you dip your toes into podcasts, you might as well jump right in.
I am a fresh but obsessive convert to podcasts. So much so that when I hear a friend hasn’t slipped into this world of audio bliss, I want to shake them vigorously until they promise under threat of death to subscribe to Radiolab.
“It’ll change your life,” I say. Am I joking? Barely.
Podcasts have been around for over ten years, but in 2014 the medium got its gateway drug – Serial. Waltzing across the airwaves with a honeyed voice and a juicy scoop, Sarah Koenig dragged podcasts into the mainstream with the ongoing injustice of Adnan Syed’s murder conviction.
But the podcast world is much bigger than Serial, and much more important than mere entertainment.
In a time when media CEOs are crying softly in their offices, wondering what the hell to do as ad revenue plummets and they bid farewell to their staff and ultimately quality journalism, the podcast could be here to brighten their day.
So what’s so great about podcasts and why do they work so well?
Oh my sweet sheltered soul, you’d better brew a pot of tea and have a seat.
1) Bringing happiness to our shitty 9-5 existence
Podcasts slip so seamlessly into our modern, chaotic life. It doesn’t matter how busy you are, you will inevitably have to endure lengthy walks to work or hours stuck in traffic or public transport. With podcasts, you can listen away the boredom and instead pack it with a some entertainment or knowledge. But the commute isn’t the only opportunity for a podcast. Running, going to the gym, putting away the washing or even brushing your teeth (two minutes of Serial is better than two minutes of silence) – any time you’re bored or lonely, a ripper podcast is your best company. Once you’re hooked on podcasts, music seems just a tad dull. I even look forward to a lengthy bus and car trips now that I have my trusty podcasts.
Don’t have time for podcasts? Lies.
2) Conversation gold
Ever struggle to know what to talk about on a date? Conversation getting stale with your mate of 10 years? Well, g’day podcasts. You can make it seem like you’re a lot more knowledgeable and interesting than you really are by dropping some facts from an episode you’ve just listened to. I spent a solid hour at a drinks the other night by popular demand recounting unbelievable pregnancy stories, horrific sex injuries and awkward threesome tales from the podcast The Hook Up. Perhaps opt for a more tame subject for a first date, but the conversation topics are limitless. It also has a ripple effect – once you start talking about podcasts, your friends will quickly latch on as well, keen to match your newfound collection of interesting stories and facts.
3) The best kind of content
So why are they so good? First up, there’s the quality of content. There’s something for everyone – there’s podcasts that will give you a good old laugh, give you a glimpse into the lives of interesting and influential people or just give you a wacky story to lose yourself in. Despite undertaking a uni degree, the most learning I do each week is through podcasts (that might be more of a commentary on my uni degree but I digress). In the climate of clickbait and copycat journalism, podcasts provide a refreshingly in-depth look at incredibly compelling and fascinating stories that you’d never even considered before. Apart from Serial, the first podcast episode that really hooked me was Radiolab’s story on the rational and environmental reasons for hunting rhinos in Africa (I know, I didn’t believe it before either). I’ve learnt about people who physically feel the pain of others they see in the street, I’ve learnt about speaking to dolphins – hell, I’ve even stumbled across the insane world of kink and BDSM (it’s a whirlwind let me tell you).
It sounds incredibly lame, but it’s the easiest and most entertaining way to learn stuff as an adult. You’re simply trading in boredom for education or a laugh.
4) Blissful production quality
Then there’s the quality of production. The sheer quality of many popular podcasts is truly astounding – one second you’re wondering if there’s anything less interesting than brush turkeys in Queensland, and 45 minutes later you’re messaging friends desperate to tell them about how female brush turkeys are feminist icons.
The combination of high quality and content cancels out our short attention spans. Don’t get me wrong, there are some shockingly poor podcasts out there. But when you stumble across a compelling podcast, you’ll be walking home instead of taking the train in no time.
5) Don’t spend a dollar
Best thing? They’re completely free. It sounds basic, but podcasts are probably the last on-demand source of entertainment that is completely free. Because of that, you don’t have to contend with the bullshit streaming wars that Spotify, Apple Music, Netflix and Stan are engaged in, where you’re blocked from accessing exclusive content from other services and the consumer suffers. With podcasts, whatever your means of streaming, you can access the lot and all for sweet nothing (as long as you download in wifi).
This type of consumption perfectly fits the modern obsession with on-demand entertainment. Netflix is so popular because we can watch whatever we want whenever we want. Similarly with podcasts, you can download and stream an episode of whichever show you’re binge listening to whenever you want.
6) A breeze for the low-tech and the data poor
Podcasts are an enduring victory for basic technology in a high-tech world. Granted, you do need a smartphone or computer, but beyond that there are few barriers. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re streaming your podcast on a shitty, cracked iPhone 3 or a brand spanking new Samsung Galaxy 7 – as long as you’ve got some decent headphones, you’re having a good time. This does mean that podcast users tend to be younger, simply because young people own more smartphones (85% of 18-25 year olds in the US have a smartphone vs just 27% of people aged 65+). Plus young people are far more content savvy – seeking out a podcast isn’t a difficult task.
It also doesn’t take much data to download podcasts, and you can quickly download and save a few in wifi before heading out (be wary of streaming on your mobile data though). Compare that with video streaming, which burns data so quickly that streaming YouTube on the bus is pretty much a display of immense wealth.
A Prized Possession for Modern Journalism
A few days ago I saw that The New York Times had produced an incredibly detailed, unprecedented journalistic account of how the Arab world has fallen apart – from the Iraq war to the rise of ISIS. It immediately grabbed my attention and I recognised the enormous effort they had put into it. But seeing as I was at work, I bookmarked it for later. I still haven’t read it. Unless I consciously make time to sit down and read it, I probably never will.
In the meantime, I’ve popped on several podcasts as I’ve headed into work and learnt about underground tree root systems (thanks Radiolab) and delved into the murder of Daniel Morgan (cheers Untold) – both podcasts stretch towards the hour mark, far more time than it would’ve taken me to read that article.
The point is, podcasting is a rare and perfect hub for long form journalism. The convenience and engaging nature of podcasts means that they can engross us in real and important issues, without sending us to sleep. Listening to podcasts is also passive, meaning we don’t have to expend energy reading and interpreting, we can hit play and be lazily exposed to a detailed story worth many thousands of words. Granted, podcasts lack the punch of video storytelling (as we saw with Four Corners and Don Dale) but they make up for it in the ease in which they tell the story. Unless you’re an avid Four Corners fan or set aside time for iView, you’re probably going to spend your TV time curled up in front of Netflix. The mix of education and entertainment podcasts offer is unique.
Take ‘Better Off Dead’ as an example. In a series of 17 episodes, Andrew Denton travels around Australia and the world to investigate the case for assisted dying (voluntary euthanasia). It sounds grim (and it is) but through incredible personal stories and sleek producing, my interest never wavered. After 11 episodes, I feel confident I could have an extremely in-depth and well informed conversation with someone about euthanasia policy. After 17 episodes and approximately 15 hours of content, I’m going to be a bloody expert.
In what other medium could you endure 15 hours? If I’d read a single article on euthanasia I would know only a tiny sliver of the knowledge I’ve gained from his podcast. Likewise 15 hours of a documentary on euthanasia would be exhausting. The only equivalent would be a hefty novel about the subject, but how many people (especially young people) are going to do that? Meanwhile 15 hours of a podcast might be a just a couple weeks of work commutes.
In this way, podcasts can reinvigorate the media industry by providing a platform for quality, complex stories that can’t be summed up in an article or two minute video.
An advertiser’s paradise
When it comes to advertising, journalism is in a bit of a pickle. No-one reads print anymore, so revenue from print ads is falling and everybody has ad-blockers online, so the money is dwindling there as well (not to mention the price of online advertising is plummeting).
But podcast advertising is nailing it. In podcasts, the ads are inserted (generally) at the beginning, middle and end of the show and are read out by the hosts or a creative alternative. You can always spot a podcaster by whether they’ve heard of Squarespace or Mailchimp (or Mail-cimp).
When I think of these brands, I don’t recoil in revulsion as I would with certain TV ads or pop-ups on the internet. Instead I have a warm, lovely feeling about these brands. The research backs this up. Because the ads are read out by the hosts of the show, it feels like they have been recommended by a mate and you have a much more positive feel towards them. This is part of a much bigger advantage of the medium – it’s incredibly intimate because it feels like the host is speaking directly to you.
The other big plus – the ads are difficult to skip. You can’t mute them, you can’t install adblockers and if you attempt to skip forward you might miss the start of the next section of the podcast.
They also invite other lucrative forms of revenue. I’m waiting for science to back me up, but the intimacy of podcasts seems to make people more likely to buy merch such as shirts or attend speaking sessions with hosts. Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales from “Chat 10 Looks 3” often said the biggest compliment they received was that listeners felt like they were chatting with mates when they listened to their podcast. It’s not surprising people flock to see them speak at events and regularly bake them treats.
How much money are podcasts actually making? It’s hard to know. Podcasters have trouble working out how many people are actually listening to their episodes, which makes it difficult for advertisers. But the top podcasts are raking in the millions.
Revenue + quality journalism. It sounds like a myth in modern media, but podcasts are solving this equation better than most other mediums. It takes time and quality, but it can be done.
Go forth and embrace the podcast
So download a podcast app, pick a few episodes and start listening. You don’t have to listen right away, save it for a boring commute or a car trip.
If you haven’t listened to Serial season one, start with that – it will get you hooked. From there? I’m but a podcast novice but these are a great start:
- Chat 10 Looks 3
- The Hook Up With Hannah Reilly
- More Perfect
- This American Life
- Revisionist History
- Better Off Dead
- Undisclosed (for those who need more Serial in their lives, just get through the first few average episodes and it’s a game changer. Spoiler alert – he’s innocent).
So please. I beg of you, embrace the podcast. It will make your shitty 9-5 job bearable, transform your dating life and it might even help save modern journalism.
It may also transform your friendship group into a kind of podcast cult, but hey – it’s worth it.
Take some action
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