Binge Listening

Is another golden age of audio possible?

I’m bullish on audio. And when I say audio, I mean the medium of spoken audio; recorded and delivered over the internet. It would be simpler to talk about podcasting, but to do so would be to dwell on the past instead of to speculate on the future. I’ve always looked forward to a time where audio would finally crossover and fully re-imagine itself for the internet era. To be honest, I was starting to have my doubts. But this past Xmas, something unexpected happened. I rediscovered my passion for audio as I became engrossed in several spates of binge listening… So what changed?

For five or so years, I had to be bullish on audio. Having joined the team at SoundCloud, it was my job to set our content strategy and this didn’t just include music, it also meant non-music audio. That wasn’t always the case though. I don’t remember being particularly focused on spoken audio or podcasts early on. For the most part, we had concentrated on music and the bands, musicians and artists who created it. But at a certain point, we realised that we could do something more ambitious. The platform empowered anyone to share any sound. The big picture wasn’t just music; it was field recordings, it was everyday sounds, it was news, it was stories, it was jokes, it was memories. Oh, and it was podcasts.

By having everything from Kanye West to my kid’s first words amongst the 12-hours of audio being uploaded every minute, it implied that SoundCloud was also a platform for everything in between. In the same way that whilst Airbnb’s inventory is probably dominated by 1–2 bedroom apartments in major urban areas, the fact that it offers everything from a rockstar villa in LA to a treehouse on a volcano is meaningful. It allows both hosts’ and travellers’ imaginations to fill up the space in between. So whilst non-music audio contributed a (not insignificant) minority of uploaded sounds, it was always an important part of SoundCloud’s DNA.

Early on, I was charged with expanding our content team by hiring a small but dedicated ‘audio team’, led by people more knowledgable about the space than myself. We’d just released the ‘record button’, a big red circle that dominated the UI of our app, and encouraged everyone to become an audio creator. With mass penetration of increasingly sophisticated smartphones, everyone understood that they were now walking around with a powerful camera in their pocket. But we wanted them to realise that they were walking around with a microphone too. Other platforms like Audioboo had sprang up around this time, also trying to establish a new trend for short-form audio messaging and storytelling.

Part of our initial focus was celebrities. After all, they had large audiences, familiar voices and plenty to say. But after driving around LA and Hollywood several times, we found only moderate success, realising that most agents were still just getting their heads around filtered photos and 140-character messages. Recording short-form audio was a new behaviour.

But we did see some incredible recordings from all different walks of life. I still don’t want to talk about bat sex, but I will mention some powerful moments like earthquakes, airstrikes, 911 calls, astronauts and several pieces of audio that went massively viral.

Meanwhile, we turned to public radio and traditional podcasting. It was a world dominated by the likes of Radiolab, This American Life, The Nerdist and the BBC. I realised how much quality audio programming actually existed. But it still felt like a format made for a different time. A time of fiddling around with RSS feeds, cracking open beers in front of a mic to talk to passionate, but niche audiences about sports and film, or simply re-uploading the same audio that went out on the radio. It seemed like there was so much more potential. Every year it felt like ‘podcasting’ was about to break out into something bigger than it was. Video was already adapting quickly to the web, spawning not just a new generation of creators, but also new (well-funded) networks of talent that were redefining the format. Audio, however, was going much slower.

At some point I remember feeling slightly disheartened. I was still religiously consuming new episodes of The Bugle, rejoicing in Radiolab and being constantly amazed by new audio memes hitting the SoundCloud platform. But when it came to the podcasting world, where was the variety? Where was the experimentation or the aural peers to PewDiePie, Smosh and Jenna Marbles? I couldn’t help feeling that audio should be re-inventing itself much more quickly than it appeared to be.

So what happened to get me feeling optimistic for the future again? Well, this past Xmas both my wife & I became utterly consumed by several listening binges. Who knew that binge listening could even be ‘a thing’, let alone an experience that I’d also share with someone else — and in the same way that I remember binging on The Wire.

I listened whilst running. I sat on the drive in the car to finish an episode (long after I’d switched the engine off). My wife, Kate, would jealously curse at me if I sneakily previewed an episode before she got to hear it herself. This morning I woke up and found her listening to new podcasts she’d taken the time to discover for herself. I don’t think she’d have ever done that before.

The binge began with Serial, as it did for many other people in 2014. For those not familiar, Serial is the amazing new serialised crime podcast from the team behind This American Life. Plenty has been written about Serial, so I won’t go into more detail here, but I don’t think it reached as many people here in Europe (I only heard about it a month ago at a dinner party). So all I’ll say is to just go and check it out if you haven’t already. Listen as soon as you finish reading this. You’ll be hooked, trust me.

After Serial, we got into Startup. It’s also by an ex-This American Lifer, but I only came to it after my first audio binge inspired me to put together a list of some great tech podcasts. For those who aren’t familiar yet, Startup is the narrative of how NPR’s Alex Blumberg quit his job at TAL & Planet Money and raised over $1m in venture capital. The podcast is about, well, his journey starting a podcast startup. How awesomely meta!

I listen to quite a few business and startup podcasts. When I put them on in the car my wife always groans. But this time it was different. The common thread between both Serial and Startup is the high production values and the strong story-telling. But perhaps more subtle is the way that both hosts weave a sense of their own vulnerability as they craft a narrative that is still unfolding as each episode is recorded. That’s what hooked my wife, even more than the subject matter and that’s not easy to pull off.

For me, all this definitely signals something of a potential renaissance for audio. In the same way that unicorns like Airbnb, Uber and even SoundCloud inspire others to start their own businesses; and successful companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google inject resource and talent into the ecosystem, I hope that the cross over success of Serial and Startup will act as triggers for more quality and more experiments in audio. A quick glance at my Twitter stream this week revealed at least two people I know planning to start their own podcasts in the year.

And it may just give me the kick up the ass I need to start that podcast I always had planned, but never actually made (we even had a podcasting shed at Makeshift, so I don’t have many good excuses).

The podcast, and audio generally, has been a medium that’s been pigeon-holed for too long. I just hope that 2015 really is the year that podcast breaks out, even if it doesn’t free the shackles of its name. It has threatened to before, so I’m cautious in believing it again this time. But if we are entering into a second golden age of audio, then I’ll be right there cheering from the sidelines! I’m certainly looking forward to more spates of binge listening.

If you’ve had the same binge listening experience as myself recently please tweet me @haynes_dave, I’d love to hear about it