A golden era for podcasts: why we’re all obsessed

Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution

  • Podcasting: The audio media revolution is published on 10 January, and is the first of its type to look at the medium
  • Authors Dr Martin Spinelli and Dr Lance Dann are academics, broadcasters and podcasters

How did podcasts become the trendiest way to consume media in 2019? Why are millennials so obsessed with them, and what makes a good one?

Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution, published on 10 January by Bloomsbury, is written by podcast and media experts Dr Martin Spinelli and Dr Lance Dann. It is the first book of its kind to look at podcasting as an authentically new form of audio media. Featuring interview material with the producers of some of the most well-known podcasts like Serial and My Dad Wrote a Porno, it is engaging and bang-up-to-date. 

Dr Martin Spinelli, Senior Lecturer in Media and Culture Studies within the Media, Film and Music School at the University of Sussex, said: “We are, right now, in the twilight of podcasting's golden era. Our book is about the current moment, beginning in 2014, in which podcasting entered the cultural mainstream and in which podcasting revealed itself as genuinely distinct from radio. Once only the medium of tech-savvy millennials, today podcasts are loved by a much broader range people. The formula for what makes a successful podcast is crystallising - with both good and bad implications. 

"Our book looks at those podcasts that shine the brightest; but it also wonders whether a new dawn is breaking: as more and more podcasts are created, and as celebrities and corporations scramble not to be left behind, we ask whether the dynamism of our moment is on the wane and what lies ahead for this new form of media.”

In the book, Spinelli and Dann use case studies of successful podcasts to look at how the podcast format is essentially different from radio, and ask whether radio is starting to emulate it. In one chapter, for example, they use Serial to explore the tension between classic investigative journalism with its standards of impartiality and detachment, and an emerging "independent" podcast journalism style, unfettered by familiar ethical conventions. Overall, the book captures a transitional moment in the history of audio making and listening.  The medium of podcasting is now maturing, yet it remains a media scene which dares to innovate and to take risks.

The book opens in this way:

In the summer of 2014 tens of thousands of fans queued outside of theatres across North America and Europe to hear live performances of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. In October of that year, This American Life producer Ira Glass promoted Serial to the roughly three million viewers of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and within four weeks the series could boast four million downloads per episode. In 2016, 3.6 million people were listening to BBC podcasts per month. By 2017 Aaron Mahnke’s home-produced Lore was being serialized by Amazon, My Dad Wrote a Porno was selling out the Sydney Opera House, S-Town was being downloaded ten million times in the first four days of its release, and podcasting had moved out of its geeky ghetto into an international cultural mainstream. But, as executive producer of Radiotopia Julie Shapiro noted, all the buzz around the phenomenon and excitement around the numbers of what some called the “Golden Age” of podcasting risked eclipsing what was really interesting and important about this moment: namely, that new modes of expression were taking shape and new ways of generating meaning and forming relationships were growing around this emergent medium.

To accompany the publication of the book,  Dr Martin Spinelli and Dr Lance Dann are releasing a podcast series called ‘For Your Ears Only’ which releases in late January. 

It opens with an episode which explores the unique intimacy of the medium which allows for candid discussion of topics like sex – often consumed by listeners in very public settings such as on the commute – and where psychological play is widespread.

And here’s Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann’s take on what makes a podcast distinctive:

  1. Consumption on earbuds encourages an interior and intimate mode of listening. This is qualitatively and conceptually different from radio speaker listening (and even listening on open headphones) and facilitates a different kind of relationship.
  2. Podcasting is primarily a mobile medium. Podcasts move with the human body and are consumed in urban spaces, while in transit, in the streets and in other public places.
  3. Podcasts offer more listener control. It is extremely easy to replay a podcast and listen to it repeatedly. Similarly, we can back-scan a podcast to listen to a section multiple times; this allows for different production practices and modes of shaping content.
  4. Podcast listening requires more selection and active engagement on the part of the consumer in choosing listening options. It is a push-pull technology: listeners pull to discover and, if they subscribe, a feed pushes them new material. Discovery happens in a different way than on radio and, arguably, opportunities for serendipity are reduced.
  5. Podcasts can thrive on niche global audiences. They are less rooted in material communities, regions, and countries (an advantage and a disadvantage).
  6. Podcasts are interwoven into social media and as such have a heightened capacity to enhance engagement with, and activate, an audience. The same mobile devices used to participate in social media are the devices used to listen to (and in some cases produce) podcasts and there is ready and easy overlap between these uses.
  7. Podcasts can be produced and distributed without the approval of a commissioning editor, program controller, or gatekeeper. This means that creators are often working with great freedom and little support.
  8. Podcasts are usually distributed as part of a freemium model: there is no charge for the core product and income is earned through a variety of secondary means.
  9. Podcasts are “evergreen,” available (theoretically) in perpetuity and face greater obstacles in achieving “liveness” than other media.
  10. There is no fixed or definitive text of a podcast episode or instalment. Mistakes can be corrected, apologies added, advertisements rotated, and sound remixed.
  11. Podcast do not have the timing and scheduling constraints of broadcast media. They can be as long as they need to be and released whenever desired.

The book is available from the publisher.

By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2019