How Podcasts Became So Popular (And Why That’s a Good Thing)

Photo Credit: www.ted.com

Most accounts suggest podcasting was invented by Dave Winer. Winer, a software developer helped create Really Simple Syndicating (popularly known as RSS), which he used to deliver his program, Morning Coffee Notes. Podcasts were popularized by MTV personality Adam Curry, known as the “Podfather” through his show Daily Source Code. iTunes began carrying podcasts in June 2005. The rest is history.

As of 2018, there are over 525,000 active podcasts, with over 18.5 million episodes produced. 73 million Americans, or 26% of the US population, listen to podcasts monthly, and 17%, or 48 million people, listen weekly. The podcast audience has consistently grown at a rate of 10 to 20% per year, a trend which seems likely to continue into at least the near future. Podcasts are amongst the most prominent cultural phenomenona in the United States, over the past decade or so.

What has led to their popularity? What is special and unique about this form of media, that has drawn in so many people, so quickly? And why is this a positive development?

Tell Me A Story

Humans think in stories. From a young age, our brains gravitate towards narratives. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Stories are important in shaping our understanding of our place in the world. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak found that character-driven stories cause our brains to release oxytocin, a neurochemical which plays an important role in feeling empathy towards others. Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University observes that we remember information more when it is conveyed as part of a narrative “up to 22 times more than facts alone.” Storytelling appears to have evolutionary roots, as it can help foster cooperation amongst people in a society, and those who tell good stories, are often preferred social partners, and likely to have more children.

Podcasts offer a special ability to share incredible stories. In 2015, I worked through the first season of Serial, the first podcast I ever really dove in to. Sarah Koenig made me feel as if the people, circumstances and evidence surrounding the death of Hae Min Lee, were sitting in my East Village apartment. This American Life has a supernatural ability to bring events to life though in-depth, empathetic reporting, week after week. Death, Sex And Money has allowed both public figures and everyday people to share their personal experiences in a powerfully authentic way, bringing a human face to topics like student loan debt and criminal justice. Startup offers a first hand look at what it’s like to start a business, by intimately sharing the stories of those who have been through it. It feels as if you are physically following the protagonists in these stories, through their journeys to build an empire.

Even podcasts which focus on more abstract topics, or applied knowledge, use storytelling to bring subjects to life. Freakonomics makes challenging concepts in applied economics a little easier to understand, by weaving together ideas, their practical implications, and the perspectives of those who pioneered innovations in the field. You don’t feel like you are reading through a textbook. The Bigger Pockets podcast helps listeners understand concepts in real estate investing, through showing how podcast guests applied various strategies, and sharing the human story behind financial achievement.

I’ll Stay For A While

One aspect of podcasts which makes them such effective vehicles for storytelling, is the length of most shows. Podcasts can be quite long — it’s hardly uncommon to find episodes running for close to or over one hour. They often have highly engaged audiences, who are deeply interested in a topic, and so are willing to listen for a long time.

As a result, there’s time to work through stories, and to really probe at a deeper level. This allows listeners to become more invested in the topic at hand. That isn’t to say that a shorter podcast can’t grab an audience and tell stories effectively — Neil Patel and Eric Siu’s Marketing School is an example of one which clearly does. But longer is sometimes better, in that it allows for better development of a story.

I Can Visualize It

A good friend of mine is a podcast skeptic. He doesn’t understand why so many of us enjoy listening to podcasts, when we could watch videos on similar topics, on even better, a documentary or movie.

To me, one of the great things about podcasts is the lack of visuals — which requires us to imagine. When I hear This American Life, I get to paint a picture of the interviewee, and of the other characters in his or her story. I am allowed to imagine the expressions on people’ faces, and the temperature and humidity of the air that day. I develop a comprehensive, moving picture of what is happening. No one is giving it to me.

Emma Rodero, a professor of communications at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, has extensively researched how people engage with audio. Rodero notes that audio requires us to process a story, as we hear it, and to really paint out own picture of what is happening. As Rodero puts it “….you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind, and you’re creating your own production…..and that, of course, is something you can never get with visual media.” The absence of photos and video, stimulate our imagination, and offer us some creative license to construct stories in our own minds.

A Way To Pass Time

I’m not a big fan of multitasking. There’s quite a bit of research suggesting that it doesn’t work. Multitasking makes us less productive, and isn’t well suited to the way our brains function. It is far better to focus on one thing, complete it effectively, and then moving on. In an era of distraction, the ability to focus and engage in deep work is more valuable than ever.

However, not every task we perform is created equal. Driving to and from work on a crowded freeway, can be done effectively, as long as we keep our eyes on the road. Commuting by bus or train is even less mentally demanding, although it can be mind-numbing.

Podcasts thus make for ideal listening while driving or riding the train. You can engage with what you are hearing, and gain deep stimulation, making your commute more palatable. If you are distracted for 30 seconds, you won’t be totally lost (and can quickly go back to what you missed).

Radio, with a few exceptions, rarely offers as much substance (and discussions on niche topics) as podcasts. Meanwhile, audio books tend to require more focus. I’ve found that when you miss a few moments, it’s harder to reorient yourself. Podcasts can therefore be the ideal commuter companion.

Fake News Not Sold Here

“Fake news” has existed throughout human history, sometimes carrying grave consequences. Today, since we conduct much of our lives online, the potential for fake news to spread quickly has grown. Whether it is false stories (often disseminated through paid advertising) being shared through Facebook, in order to impact US politics, or when messaging platform Whatsapp is used to spread political untruths in India, this phenomenon isn’t likely to end anytime soon. What’s more, thanks to developments in artificial intelligence, it is possible to create highly convincing video and audio which is in fact patently false (see this clip of Barack Obama for an interesting example). When it comes to discerning fact from fiction, our future appears rather murky.

With a podcast, over time, an audience gets to know it’s host. His or her perspective, communication style, and overall worldview becomes familiar. A sense of familiarity and credibility is built, a product of both time, and consistently honest, meaningful work. In a world where truth is often shrouded behind a maze of deception and disinformation, we need somewhere trustworthy to turn, to help us understand what is real and what isn’t. Podcasts can fullfill that role.

This isn’t to suggest that podcast hosts don’t have biases (they are human, after all). It is possible for a podcast host to lie, or share only part of the truth. However, the chances of a podcast consistently lying, while continuing to build an audience, and garnering strong listener ratings, isn’t high. Other than those targeting an audience which is interested in deliberately lying to themselves (or confirming existing false beliefs), hosts must strive to be authentic and honest, if they hope to succeed.

Why The Rise Of Podcasts Is So Positive

When it comes to podcasts, I am an optimist. I don’t believe they have the capacity to solve all of our problems — but what form of media does?

Podcasts allow us to take in powerful stories, which we can closely connect with. We can stimulate our imagination, while learning about a range of new topics. The richness of the human experience, is at our fingertips. Podcasts also offer a potentially more trustworthy alternative to the plethora of false information out there. And yes, podcasts are a great companion when commuting, whether you are driving down the 405, stuck on a 4 train in Manhattan, or are moving from Point A to Point B, anywhere else on the planet.

Never before has any of this really been possible. For this marvelous medium, we owe a debt of gratitude. So, here’s to you, Dave Winer. Thank you for what you’ve created.