Podcasting: Is the New Radio in the Midst of its Golden Age?
If I had $100 for every time I heard or read about someone saying that we live in “the Golden Age of Podcasting” thanks to programs like “Serial,” I could pay off my student loans. And, as an avid listener of podcasts of all sorts, I can’t deny that there is some truth to the assertion that there’s been an upswing in the art of podcasting. However, I’d also like to be clear that podcasts were around a long time before “Serial” ever came onto the scene¬¬I was listening to “MuggleCast,” a widely popular “Harry Potter” podcast, when I was middle school nearly ten years ago.
But what is so different in 2016? A large variety and number of podcasts have been available for a decade, so I’m hesitant to say that the criteria for the “Golden Age of Podcasting” rests solely on numbers alone. What is different, however, is the number of podcasts breaking boundaries and crossing into the mainstream.
When I first started listening to “MuggleCast,” most people hadn’t heard of podcasting, and you didn’t really see anything about it outside of the communities that had a podcast, such as “Harry Potter.” Now, Entertainment Weekly and even mainstream news outlets are discussing podcasts such as “Serial,” and podcasting has become more visible.
I reached out to the hosts of two of my favorite podcasts to get their thoughts on the appeal of and changes in podcasting.
Susan and Beckett host “The History Chicks,” a podcast in which they research and discuss important historical women. The podcast, which has been around since 2010, was the result of Beckett’s desire to listen to a podcast about the Gilded Age Heiresses. When she couldn’t find one that suited her interests, she decided to make one of her own. She contacted Susan and asked if she’d be interested in doing the podcast together, and a month later they released their first episode on Marie Antoinette.
Beckett’s desire to create a podcast that met her interests is part of the appeal of both making and listening to podcasts. Susan and Beckett said that freedom is the most important element of podcasting for both creators and audiences.
“For creators it’s the freedom to share a message, any message, with people from all over the world and be heard,” Susan and Beckett said. “For audiences there is a one-two punch of appeal. First off, podcasts are mobile Listen while you work out, walk the dog, drive, craft, clean the house—whenever you can give a little auditory attention. Second, there is freedom to find the content that matters and to connect with the people who talk about it. We have a listener’s ear, literally, but from the listening viewpoint, it’s like being in the room with us and it’s a very personal experience.”
Aaron Mahnke, the producer and host of the wildly popular podcast “Lore” (which has been optioned for a television series adaptation produced by Gale Ann Hurd of “The Walking Dead” fame), got into podcasting in a similar way and has been podcasting for four years.
“I was mid-career as a freelance graphic designer, and working from home was a very hot topic at the time,” Mahnke said. “A friend and I started a show called Home Work that dealt with the various challenged and aspects of working from a home office, either as a telecommuter or a freelancer. That show is still running, actually, and is on the well-known 5by5 Network.”
Mahnke also agrees with Susan and Beckett that portability is one of podcasting’s greatest appeals for the audience.
“For the audience, I think the appeal is the portability of the medium,” Mahnke said. “Listeners can enjoy the content on their mobile phones with headphones while they walk, exercise, travel, etc. They can listen on their computers at home or work. They can listen in groups at parties, and they can listen in the car when they commute. It’s almost like television that you don’t have to watch with your eyes, and can digest on your own terms. It’s perfect.”
However, Mahnke said portability is also important to podcast creators.
“For a creator, podcasting offers a great chance to tap into the free time and downtime of millions of people every day. People tend to skim written articles, and barely spend a few minutes on a webpage. But podcasts can capture an audience for 30, 60, even 90 minutes. It’s amazing.”
The appeal of podcasting for both audiences and creators hasn’t changed much from 2010, when “The History Chicks” started, to 2015, when the first episode of “Lore” went live. But something clearly has, or else why would so many claim that podcasting is the new radio or call this “the Golden Age of Podcasting?”
Susan, Beckett, and Mahnke all see similarities between radio and podcasting.
“They are both audio, but podcast content doesn’t have to meet corporate standards and legal guidelines,” Susan and Beckett said. “It feels more like the freedom of expression of Pirate Radio without the illegal aspects.”
Mahnke sees podcasting as a callback to earlier forms of radio.
“It depends on the genre and format of the podcast,” Mahnke said. “There are so many different types. Shows like Lore are almost a modern version of the old radio storytelling shows. Others, like ‘The Black Tapes’ and ‘The Message,’ are call-backs to old radio theater, with multiple voice actors and a running plot. And still others are more like audio versions of high-quality magazines, like ‘99% Invisible’ or ‘RadioLab.’ For a long time, podcasting was able to support the ‘three people talking randomly about a topic’ genre, but that’s not appealing to the majority of listeners, and it would never have survived on radio. So over time, I think the content is going to mature into that old tradition.”
There are some notable differences between podcasting and radio, however, including audience response.
“Podcasting is more personal—we hear it all the time: ‘I feel like I know you guys,’” Susan and Beckett said. “The content isn’t music from different artists or talk radio shows with different subjects—it’s a listener and a host. Radio has set schedules but podcasts? You want to listen to a certain topic at a certain time…pause it…go back? Done. As a producer you don’t have to have a show that is a set length like in radio; you don’t have to fit content around ads that are played at specific times with specific frequency. Go long. Go short—you don’t have dead air to fill. You have as much air as you need.”
That being said, the podcasters I interviewed were a bit wary of the “Renaissance” and “Golden Age” labels.
“We hope that the Golden Age is still ahead and we are currently in a very long build-up stage,” Susan and Beckett said. “‘Renaissance’ implies a rebirth and we don’t think it went away or fell out of style. It’s so easy for anyone to set up a mic and computer in a closet or garage and broadcast their message; it’s easy to listen and new podcast consumers and creators are discovering podcasting every day.” Mahnke said that the increase in mobile devices and connectivity has lent itself to the appearance of a podcasting Golden Age, as more and more are tuning in.
“I think there will always be ups and downs in the market,” Mahnke said. “Right now, because of the explosion of mobile devices and ease of connectivity, podcasting is coming back around. The numbers are certainly up. And when shows as specific as mine—dealing with folklore, history, and dark stories—can grab enormous audiences and find the backing of dozens of sponsor companies, that’s a good sign that podcasting is on the up-swing.”
However, Mahnke cautions that if there is a Golden Age, it does have some limits.
“Podcasting is still sort of a technical hobby,” Mahnke said. “You have to understand how the ecosystem works, how to subscribe, how to find new shows, how to use the apps, how to plan your listening. It’s simple to younger generations who grew up around technology, but it’s a steep learning curve for the vast majority of potential listeners out there. Until podcasting gets easier, there’s going to be a ceiling to this ‘Golden Age.’”
And yet, the biggest differences between my listening to podcasts back in middle school and the upswing in podcast listening today seems to come down to more traditional media finally paying attention to it.
“The media is noticing the growing popularity of many shows,” Mahnke said. “It usually focuses on Serial, though, and needs to draw attention to other shows in the top charts. There’s a growing number of shows that are on par with television in terms of quality, story, entertainment, and following.”
Susan and Beckett agree that media attention has had an impact, but they said there is still room for smaller podcasts that don’t have the backing from larger organizations or media attention.
“With the influx of networks and corporations, getting involved the medium is going to open up on a bigger stage, but the little guy who is producing a show in his basement can still connect with an audience,” Susan and Beckett said.
And, perhaps one of the most significant results of the increased media attention is the advertising, which lends credibility to podcasting.
“More companies than ever are sponsoring individual episodes of podcasts, and in some cases—such as ‘99% Invisible’ and my own ‘Lore’—they are backing entire years of the show,” Mahnke said. “Businesses are taking podcasting seriously, and as a result, the media is noticing.”
Mahkne also sees the relationship between advertising and podcasting as one of the key differences between podcasting and radio.
“Advertisers understand that podcast ads are much more effective than radio ads,” Mahnke said. “It’s a better investment, and there’s a stronger engagement from the listeners. They’re listening by choice, not because it was the only station that could get to come in clearly in their car. They decide to listen or not, and because of that, they’re invested in the shows they subscribe to. With radio, that investment was much smaller.
However, Susan, Beckett and Mahnke all agree that community is still an important aspect of podcasting. One element of the communal experience is that podcasters can help one another grow.
“Community is a huge part of the podcast industry,” Mahnke said. “There’s community between creators, both in social media and in larger conferences. We want to learn and get better way what we do, and our peers are there to help us grow. It’s amazing and welcoming.”
And, as Susan and Beckett point out, the listeners are a huge part of that community.
“Podcast communities allow people with similar interests to connect and have conversations not only with the creators, but also with other people interested in the same subject from all over the world,” Susan and Beckett said. “Meeting listeners is one of the most fun things about being a podcaster.”
Listeners have also had a financial impact on podcasting, thanks to crowdfunding, which has seen an upswing in recent years, and it has proved to be a wildly successful element of podcasting.
“Crowdfunding sites like Patreon and Indiegogo also help listeners become part of their favorite shows,” Mahnke said. “Investing even a dollar each month into something you love helps you feel connected and makes it personal. You have skin in the game. So a lot of podcasts are turning to these places to raise regular income. Most do a mix of ad money and community funding, but there are shows at either end of that spectrum. I’ve heard of a show that has less than 7,000 listeners, but is pay-only at $10 each month. That creator brings in over $750,000 a year from an audience the size of many ‘failed’ podcasts.”
Audience size is not the most important element of podcasting, however. And for those who can’t afford to donate to a podcast, there are other ways to show support.
“It would be wise to know that downloads in the tens of thousands are not the norm and monetization in life sustaining numbers is not, either,” Susan and Beckett said. “Most podcasts are self-produced and marketed. The greatest gift a listener can do for a podcaster is to review the show and tell some friends or share links to the show. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for us, and we don’t know if listeners understand how much a positive review and a recommendation means to us.”
Mahnke agrees that audiences sharing their favorite podcasts is one of the most important things they can do.
“Spread the word,” Mahnke said. “Don’t just enjoy them alone; tell others about the shows you love. Word of mouth is the key to growing, not just individual shows, but the entire industry. And support your favorite shows. Buy their t-shirts and stickers, set your podcast apps to auto-download, and try out their sponsors. Most shows are free, so do the easy thing: lend an ear.”
For more information on “The History Chicks,” visit their website thehistorychicks.com.
For more information on “Lore,” visit lorepodcast.com.