How podcasting is coming of age and driving a resurgence in audio storytelling.
Hillary Clinton has one. Barack Obama dropped into comedian Marc Maron’s garage to record one. They cover every subject and genre from news and current affairs, comedy, education and sports through to life tips created by anyone with a digital voice recorder and an internet connection.
From dedicated fans of TV shows discussing plot twists to in-depth reporting and investigations, choose a topic, no matter how niche, and it’s a safe bet someone has recorded a podcast about it. Alien abductions? Tick. Taxidermy enthusiasts? Yep.
Some say a 2004 article in The Guardian is the first recorded use of the word ‘podcast’. The medium came of age in in 2015 when Apple celebrated 10 years of making podcasts available through its music platform, iTunes. In the relatively short space of time it has grown from a cottage industry, much like the early days of blogging, to a staple of media consumption worldwide, and at the same time reviving audio as a way for people to get their regular dose of news, entertainment, education, or enlightenment.
In 2013 Apple announced iTunes had clocked up more than 1 billion podcast subscriptions and Dr Siobhan McHugh, a senior lecturer in journalism at UOW, says there are more than 350,000 podcasts now available. It’s making people with deep pockets sit up and take notice. A US podcast network started by a former National Public Radio producer last year raised US$6million in venture capital.
Which begs the question: why are they so popular?
Technology and talent collide
Dr McHugh has been tracking the emergence of podcasting. She says 2014 was a turning point for podcasting when technology and talent created the perfect podcast storm. “Apple produced their native Podcast app, which you can get on a smartphone and that made everything so much more accessible,” Dr McHugh says.
“At the same time, by sheer serendipity, the producers of the podcast This American Life launched a new idea called Serial, the story of a young high school student who’s been killed and her ex-boyfriend is convicted of her murder. As the name suggests, it was episodic storytelling in audio format. Much like the sort of thing that was happening in television on Netflix and HBO, who have amazing stuff like House of Cards or Breaking Bad or The Wire and all of those series that created really loyal audiences.”
With a convenient method of delivery and a compelling story to tell, podcasting hit the big time and suddenly the 20-somethings who had never thought of audio as anything other than music were getting involved with the story. The seeming simplicity of the formula though doesn’t provide a complete answer to why listening to podcasts and producing them is so popular.
Was it because people were tired of commercial radio’s formula, bad jokes and its insistence on drowning itself in commercials to keep afloat? Was it the cuts to public broadcasting? The lack of diversity in programming?
According to Dr McHugh, who started her career in 1981 with the Irish national broadcaster RTE, the appeal to the listener is the format’s personal nature, achieved through authenticity and intimacy. “Audio is absolutely superb at conveying emotion because the non-verbal stuff, a chortle or sarcasm or the emotion of somebody getting cheerful or whatever, that really gets you,” she says.
At its best the format has the ability to create “driveway moments”, where the listener sits in the car to hear the end of the segment. Good podcasts have no doubt caused more than a few people to miss their train or bus stop.
Changing of the guard
James Wolcott described in Vanity Fair the less-formal style of many popular podcasts as projecting a “collegial sincerity instead of the traditional vocal-god authority of post-war radio announcers or former fashion plates of enunciation”. Gone are the seasoned hosts with the archetypal broadcast voices and gone are the gatekeepers of information who demanded your attention at the top of the hour. The world of audio is a democracy where listeners will decide to whom they will listen and, importantly, when they’ll do it.
“In the old days I used to actually wait until a quarter past seven on a Sunday to chop my vegetables because then Alistair Cooke came on with Letter from America and I used to love listening to him doing a form of storytelling,” Dr McHugh says. “Now, I can listen to my podcast, press pause, go to work and then in the afternoon hop back on the train, pick up right where I left off, if need be, it is on-demand.”
Traditional media dabbled in the format, though it was more like a recording of the show hosted on a website for those who missed it. Breakfast radio, with its promise of wit and banter, might work during a morning commute. The problem is that format is disposable: listen once and throw it out.
“I think it has been a bit of a surprise to the big media organisations that somebody could come out of left field, with no profile at all and they could build a following from scratch, bypassing a broadcaster and just going straight on to the internet with their own podcast.
Now what's happening is every second media organisation that was not audio-oriented is trying to build in added value through a podcast.Dr Siobhan McHugh
Podcast producers too have thrown out the audio rule book. Podcasts don’t need to fit a pre-determined time slot, they can be, as McHugh says, “as long as a piece of string”, leading to stories that are only as long as they need to be effective.
Dr McHugh founded and edits the online journal RadioDoc Review – “trying to do for podcasts and audio storytelling what The New Yorker does for good literary criticism” – and that has led her to identify three principal journalism-related podcast formats. The first is highly produced crafted audio storytelling, led by US shows such as RadioLab, This American Life and the Radiotopia network. The genre is gaining traction with Australian producers.
Just last week, Phoebe’s Fall, a new Australian podcast in this mould, was launched. A ground-breaking collaboration between Fairfax Media and University of Wollongong, Phoebe’s Fall tells the gripping story of how 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjuk ended up dead in a garbage chute in a luxury Melbourne apartment block in 2010. Underlying themes of the series examine power differentials, legal and police frameworks and the pursuit of justice.
The six-episode series is produced by The Age newsroom, with Dr McHugh teaming up with Julie Posetti, UOW Research Fellow and Digital Editorial Capability Lead at Fairfax Media, as consulting producer. Phoebe’s Fall went straight to number 1 on iTunes (Australian charts) on launch – beating Serial – and has already attracted international commendations from significant figures such as Sarah Van Mosel, Chief Commercial Officer of the podcast platform Acast.
“This is a great example of how UOW, through Julie Posetti and myself, is fomenting crucial academy and industry links,” Dr McHugh says. “A UOW Journalism graduate, Jake Evans, and current undergraduate, Lucy Dean, are assistant producers on the series.”
The second form of popular podcast is the tried and tested interview format where good presenters get the most out of their guest. Then there’s the ‘chum-cast’, where people riff off each other and talk and joke. “There’s a companionability about that. You’re vicariously joining in the fun,” Dr McHugh says.
A space for new voices
The democratisation of the landscape does have its rough edges. It’s unregulated, opening up the door for all kinds of hate speech and extremist rants, with groups like ISIS using the medium to radicalise young people. At the same time, it’s enabling new voices to be heard, or heard again, such as the pod-sphere form of the barber shop and church, which for decades served as the social meeting places for African Americans.
“There’s huge potential with podcasting for social inclusion,” Dr McHugh says. “We’re starting to see minorities just grabbing the space. “In the predominantly English-speaking pod-sphere, producers and consumers of podcasts used to be mainly young, white, educated, affluent males. But, in the last two years, female listenership has doubled. Female hosts are storming the studio, or bedroom, or garage, for that matter.”
UOW alumna Lucy Smith (above) was inspired by the podcasting renaissance when she was still a student. She now hosts music program Up For It! with Sydney-based FBi Radio. “It would be awesome to see a really striking, consistent podcast to come to the forefront and really tackle something that resonates with audiences in this country.
I’d love to create a project about championing female talent in the arts. I could speak to women across the board, it doesn't even have to be the arts. Just boss women killing it in every field.Lucy Smith
In the opening scenes of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 classic play, Six characters in search of an author, the audience looks at an empty stage before being surprised by the entrance of the actors from the rear of the auditorium. The play blurs the lines between actor and character with the audience along for the ride. Its contribution to literature was to break the ‘fourth wall’; the invisible barrier between the performers and the audience.
When Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards breaks the scene and directly addresses you, the viewer, that’s the fourth wall being smashed. The break from convention and the ensuing chaos in the audience turns the idea of what theatre should be on its head and creates a new version of reality.
The podcasting revolution is creating a new reality in the audio space, open to all comers with no minimum entry requirements. And with so many people around the world looking for anything to distract them on ever-lengthening commutes, there’s a willing audience ready to play along.
Perhaps this is podcasting’s greatest strength: by trashing the rules it has created a new version of media reality. By virtue of our tendency to be ever-connected, podcasting has thrown the doors open to allow anyone who’ll talk to connect with anyone who’ll listen.