The Future of Podcasting: Introduction

In late 2014, Serial captured the attention of millions of listeners around the world with an investigation into the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student. Though the case was 15 years old and host Sarah Koenig couldn’t crack it, listeners eagerly awaited new episodes and established a vibrant online community for fans to discuss their theories.

The Bold Italic created a Venn Diagram of the most common tweets about Serial.

For many Americans, the rampant press coverage surrounding Serial was the first time they heard of podcasts — only 48% of Americans age 12+ had heard of podcasting before 2014, according to Edison Research. Serial’s listening base quickly swelled to 40 million, thanks in part to parodies from Saturday Night Live and Funny or Die, Sarah Koenig’s appearance on The Colbert Report, and coverage from the New York Times, PBS News Hour, and the Wall Street Journal, among many others. Serial was even featured in a New Yorker cartoon.

The “Serial effect” started to spread to other podcasts that had previously languished in relative obscurity, with other podcast producers claiming that they saw a measurable uptick in downloads after Serial was released. NPR’s Head of Public Programming told USA Today that Serial “was a great gift to us” because it boosted listenership of NPR’s many podcasts.

However, three years post-Serial, podcasting hasn’t gained as much traction as many industry experts and podcast producers had hoped. Though some new podcasts have risen to prominence, notably Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town (a co-production between Serial and NPR), none have achieved the same level of success that Serial did.

As a podcast “power listener,” I’ve been curious about why podcasting hasn’t taken off. To me, podcasts are the perfect combination of music and TV — you can listen to a narrative content without needing to watch it, making podcast listening the perfect activity while driving or working out. However, I’ve found that many of my friends weren’t hooked on podcasts beyond Serial and are no longer regular listeners.

I’ve spent the past several months exploring the podcasting space and talking to entrepreneurs who are working on innovations in the way that podcasts are created, distributed, and discovered. In this five-part series, I will explore the history of podcasting, outline the main benefits and challenges of this form of content, discuss monetization options, and provide some thoughts on how the space will develop.