Reading has always been my thing. I’m a self-confessed information junkie and wildly indiscriminate in what I read. Brain-busting heavyweight publications, long-form think pieces, news articles, emails, tweets, memos, trashy gossip columns and supermarket fiction — the whole enchilada. I love that I can devour the written word at my own pace, and my own pace is fast.
I like TV, too; mainly news and current affairs as long as the pace is brisk and there’s a lot happening. Even then, I often find it too slow. If I could play it at double speed without the voices going squeaky and the movements getting jerky, that would suit me better. Likewise, YouTube videos.
But podcasts? Some friends rave about them, but I must admit that I am not in love with most. I have guested on a few and I’m seeing a drip-drip of more articles flagging impressive statistics, such as podcast revenue increasing tenfold over the past four years. Studies showing large and growing audiences — 32 percent of people in the U.S. have listened to at least one podcast in the last month; in the U.K., 61 percent of the population listens to podcasts regularly. More than half — 52 percent — of those in South Korea have listened to a news podcast in the past month. There are more than 660,000 podcasts in 100 different languages on pretty much any subject that might interest you. In my case that would be dogs, marketing, Arizona, footwear and women at work.
Still, for all that potentially alluring wealth of information, I’m not really tempted to tune in to a podcast near me, but I am interested as a marketer and lifelong student of media. To borrow Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” aphorism, I’m wondering: What’s the message of podcasts as a medium?
In many respects, they’re very much in keeping with the current culture. There’s a huge selection to choose from, with more added all the time, and they’re instantly available for free. Since the costs to produce and distribute are minimal, a startup ethos abounds — anyone from ordinary people to high-profile personalities can create a podcast, talk directly to listeners and have a go at building a media business. And for consumers, toting their own selection of podcasts on their smartphone means they can binge listen whenever they can’t watch a video or read text.
And they work well for the multitaskers among us: As I prep to speak at whatever next conference or meeting, or sit on a plane traveling to whatever next destination, I could wear ear pods to avoid the dull in-between moments that can assail me while in transit, driving, walking down the street, waiting in line or — when I’m hunkered down at home — even doing chores? Or I could keep daydreaming, something I do in blissful silence? Hmm … I guess you could say I’m coming around.
However, many are based on in-depth exploration of topics rather than quick-fire snappy sound bites, so they take patience. And with a few notable exceptions, such as Serial, they’re not sexy.
But there is a promising message from the medium: We are returning to the intimacy of words, of sounds and silences. Podcasts are restoring the creative promise of oral storytelling, and the good ones will squeeze your heart.
It’s like going back to that era when everybody with a keyboard had a blog — but this time we can tune in at 1.5x or 2x speed without the voices going squeaky. They do have their benefits. Okay, in a few words: Podcasts — noise with benefits.
Is that my final answer? I don’t believe in final answers, but that’s a whole different post…