The power of podcasts and audio storytelling
The monumental rise of podcasts in recent years is something to behold, but where exactly does the power of podcasts lie?
It’s been a decade of perpetual arrival for podcasts, but they’ve well and truly established themselves among the ranks of mainstream media. What began as “audio-blogging” in 2004 has gone global, with over 1.75 million podcasts and 43 million episodes available to stream across a variety of platforms as of January 2021. But let’s go back to the mid-2000s for a minute. Chances are you may remember scrolling through an early-gen iPod, seeing the “Podcasts” tab and scrolling right past on your way to shuffle your latest (probably pirated) music downloads without giving it a second thought.
Now podcasts are hailed as one of the most innovative and effective communication platforms. Companies are launching internal podcasts to engage with their employees and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rise in both the consumption and production of podcasts. One survey conducted by Edison Research found that podcast listenership more than doubled in 2020, and Podcast Insights reported that 850,000 active podcasts in January of 2020 — which have since been joined by almost a million more.
Podcast producer, host and academic Siobhan McHugh notes that as radio’s first cousin, there are certainly similarities. Podcasting offers “a whole new cultural space,” she says. Where radio thrives in spontaneity and personality, podcasts take the listening experience to another dimension. Listeners are able to search for a show or episode that fits exactly what they’re in the mood for, catch up on their favourite radio shows, listen to the latest news and engage in almost any niche their minds desire (think pens and pen accessories, the mystery of McDonald’s pizza-selling days and the banter of two comedians as they watch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls).
Podcasts open us up to a world where facts mingle with our imagination. But unlike books, the host or narrator is coming on that journey with us. In investigative and narrative-style podcasts, we’re being told a story as it unfolds and experiencing the host’s journey and emotions. We feel like “fellow investigators”, as Julie Snyder, senior producer of This American Life, noted in an interview at the Sydney Opera House.
Where radio thrives in spontaneity and personality, podcasts take the listening experience to another dimension.
It’s the perfect blend of information and storytelling, where facts meet narrative technique to bring the story to life in our minds. In one of the latest hit Australian true crime podcasts, Ghost Gate Road, journalist Matthew Condon takes us on a journey through the life of possibly Australia’s most prolific serial killer in the hope of uncovering new leads in cold cases. This podcast, like other big names in its genre (think Serial, Teacher’s Pet and The Night Driver) has a way of sucking the listener in to join a quest to uncover the truth and enforce justice.
No matter the genre or topic, all good podcasts have one thing in common: the ability to transport you into a world of your own, whether you’re listening at home, driving in peak hour traffic or on your daily run. And it is this intimacy and authenticity that is most commonly associated with podcasting. “The magic of the medium also comes down to how much it has unlocked those hours of the day that used to be boring and mundane,” says podcast enthusiast and founder of the Australian Podcast Awards Dave Gertler.
While radio still reigns supreme when it comes to listeners — with 82 per cent of Australians aged 12 and over listening to the radio in the last week (over-the-air or via catch-up podcasts) compared to the 30 per cent of people who have ever listened to a podcast — the podcasting community is more deeply engaged both with the hosts and with one another.
“There’s a sense of interconnection among listeners which you didn’t really get in radio,” explains McHugh. “We’re seeing these meta-connections that people build up through social media. So if you’re a real fan of Serial you had people getting into Reddit so they could talk to each other about particular scenes or discuss theories on what was going to happen.”
Take The New York Times Podcast Club, a private Facebook group that has over 37,000 members, for example. Its description denotes the group as “a community of podcast lovers who discuss one episode of one podcast every week — basically, a book club for podcasts.” Each week a new podcast is dissected, analysed and critiqued by this group of podcast lovers. And this isn’t an anomaly. There are countless podcast groups across different social media platforms, bringing listeners together to discuss episodes, share information, thoughts and ideas or simply just find a like-minded crew to chat with.
When it comes to politics and social justice, podcasts are proving to be quite groundbreaking. Take NPR’s podcast Serial or the ABC’s Trace, for example. Serial dug up new evidence that won a fresh trial for Adnan Syed, the main suspect in a murder, while Trace sparked a reinvestigation into the death of Maria James in Melbourne in 1980.
“The magic of the medium also comes down to how much it has unlocked those hours of the day that used to be boring and mundane.”
Like the majority of mainstream media in the west, it’s no surprise that the most well-known hosts like Ira Glass (This American Life) and Sarah Koenig (Serial and Nice White Parents) are white — and so is the majority of their audience. But as a medium that thrives on the retelling of personal stories and connecting with niche audiences, Gertler notes that podcasts are becoming more and more diverse and inclusive — but it’s been a conscious effort from the global audio industry.
In the UK, the Equality in Audio Pact is seeking complete reform of the audio industry. The pact lists five pledges, from paying interns to hiring LGBTQIA+, black people, people of colour and other minorities on projects not only related to their identity and releasing gender and race pay gap data. As of at February 2021, the pact has 328 signatures, including huge podcast giants Spotify UK, Acast and iHeartMedia.
It’s movements like this that make podcasting one of the most democratising forces, says McHugh. “It gives the opportunity for people to be heard who wouldn’t normally … they feel liberated by the fact that there are no institutional gatekeepers. So you can deal with edgy content, say sexuality issues or stuff you wouldn’t be able to talk about in a regulated public broadcaster environment.”
While researching for her upcoming book, A Passion for Podcasting, McHugh put out a survey to discern what draws listeners to podcasts and why they are so passionate about podcasting. One of the most notable responses came from a woman called Renae, who was one of the featured voices on Birds Eye View that tells the story of life in a women’s prison in Darwin and won Podcast of the Year at the 2020 Australian Podcast Awards. “Being heard,” she wrote. “I’ve never had the opportunity to be heard before.”
And that’s part of the magic of podcasts — anyone who has access to a laptop or smartphone can make one or contribute their voice to a story that’s bigger than just their own. And whether it’s listened to by five of their friends or it gets millions of streams, their story is still out there in the ether. As McHugh notes, “podcasting is a place where indies [independent podcasters] get to play and hobbyists can go and passion projects can flourish.”
But this also makes podcasting a largely unregulated playground that can provide a megaphone to those who wish to spread misinformation in the pursuit of their own agendas. Take alt-right news podcast Bannon’s War Room, hosted by Steve Bannon, whose reputation for spreading misinformation precedes him. The podcast is renowned for its edgy and misleading claims surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent vaccines, and, more recently, who is to blame for the Capitol siege. Bannon’s YouTube account has since been terminated and a few podcast episodes have been removed from Spotify, but much of the content is still available on other streaming platforms. This action becomes almost meaningless in the fight against the spread of misinformation.
So what lies ahead for podcasts? Are they just a fad of the tweens, propelled by social media and a global lockdown? Or is podcasting here to stay? What we do know, however, is that podcasts are adaptable. “Podcasts appear whenever there is a natural need,” says McHugh.
Gertler, too, has high hopes for the evolution of podcast content. “There are definitely ways to innovate and push the boundaries of tech and podcasting,” he says. “But I’m starting to think that podcasting as a form is pretty much fully developed and won’t change much more. The things that will change will be the stories told and topics covered.”
“Podcasting is a place where indies get to play and hobbyists can go and passion projects can flourish.”
The past few years have seen a boom in topical podcasts. There’s The Minimalists for conscious living, Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh for body-positive chat and the ABC’s Coronacast to answer all your questions about coronavirus. Even news has taken on a new format with shows like The Daily (which has become so popular it’s even garnered fame on TikTok) offering a deeper storytelling approach to current affairs.
Perhaps people will begin to play more with form and structure and sprinkle some creativity throughout the “podsphere”. McHugh notes that audio fiction podcasts are on the rise, from sci-fi to romance and even sitcom dramas. Gimlet Media’s psychological thriller podcast Homecoming is now in its third season and is currently being made into a television series starring Julia Roberts. And this is sure to spark a rising trend in fiction podcasting.
It seems as though podcasting has been “the next big thing” since its inception in 2004, waiting its turn behind audiobooks, the vlogging revolution and the domination of social media. We might be living through the golden age of podcasting right now or perhaps the best is yet to come.
After all, podcasts have stood steadfast in the face of ever-evolving tech and boomed amid a global pandemic. And, as Gertler puts it, “As long as people are making riveting, funny, interesting, informative, personal, intimate and polished-sounding audio, the audience for podcasts will always be growing.”
Podcasts for a better you
Looking to enhance your mind, wellbeing, knowledge and lifestyle? Bless your ears and feed your mind with these recommendations.
Radio Headspace: Feeling anxious, down, distracted or jittery? Calm your internal chatter and check in with yourself with Radio Headspace. Each episode is less than 10 minutes long, so you can take some time to reflect while drinking your morning cuppa, prepping the kids’ lunches or just before your “snooze” alarm goes off to set you up for a calm, collected day.
The Doctor’s Farmacy: Hosted by Mark Hyman, MD, this podcast deals with all your need-to-know health info, from gluten-free diets to environmental toxins to happiness hacks to the COVID vaccines. Hyman is on the pulse of both holistic and traditional medicine, so it’s the perfect pod for wellness gurus and newbies alike.
The Minimalists: You may have seen their Netflix documentary, but The Minimalists Josh and Ryan made their humble beginnings a decade ago. Tune into their pod for tips on how to live a waste-free life, embrace a slow lifestyle and redefine your idea of success.
All In The Mind: This weekly podcast, broadcast on ABC’s Radio National, takes a deep dive into the mental universe: the mind, the brain and behaviour. Host Lynne Malcolm covers the entire spectrum of the psyche, including PTSD, Indigenous trauma, alternative therapies, dating, COVID dreams and even artificial intelligence.
You’re Wrong About: Ever find yourself questioning the status quo like You’re Wrong About hosts Sarah Marshall and Mike Hobbes? In this cultural history podcast, the duo takes a look at some of history’s defining moments, people and phenomena from Marie Antoinette and the obesity epidemic to the anti-vaxxer rhetoric. They set the record straight on the issues — big and small — that have been playing on your mind.
The Twelfth House: This is a must-listen for entrepreneurs and business owners, where reality and the unseen realm collide. The Twelfth House will help unleash your intuition and offers a fresh take on wellbeing, from decolonising wellness to intuitive business, the collective unconscious and forming healthy habits.
Authentic Sex with Juliet Allen: Hosted by Australia’s leading sexologist, this podcast offers insightful expertise and thoughtful conversation on sex and relationships. Juliet talks all things sex and sexuality, including endometriosis, heartbreak, sexting, tantra and fetishes with leading experts from around the world.
I Weigh: Feminist icon, actress and activist Jameela Jamil has transformed a social media movement into a global phenomenon. Joined by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Gloria Steinem, Billy Porter and our very own Celeste Barber, Jamil and her guests engage in thoughtful conversation to challenge society’s definition of worth, value and success.