“Have you been listening to Serial?” Yup. But more than anything else I’ve been listening to people talking about Serial. Don’t worry — this is not another one of those posts.
At the turn of the century, an Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, invented the first commercial radio system. A few years later, a Brazilian priest was the first to broadcast a human voice wirelessly. In 1920, decades after radio was first invented, the first commercial radio stations began to broadcast in the US. In 1922, regular wireless broadcasts for entertainment began in the UK from the Marconi Research Centre. Throughout the 20s, radio technology grew quickly. By 1933, FM hit the scene and during the depression, radio found its way into homes across America. Families were spending their time at home, huddled around the radio, listening to the nightly news and all sorts of new serial broadcasting. Books were taking a backseat to the newest entertainment technology.
By the late 1930s, radio drama was widely popular. There were dozens of programs in different genres, from mysteries and thrillers, to soap operas and comedies. Many American playwrights, screenwriters and novelists got their start in radio drama, including Rod Serling and Irwin Shaw.
The world was ripe for this type of entertainment. Families were having dinner together and, after, spending time in their sitting rooms , listening to radio, waiting to hear what Orson Welles had cooked up for them. They talked about it at work, at the bar with their friends and at family gatherings. Radio was the rage and the US public couldn’t get enough. During WWII, Americans were glued to their radios. And it united us. Really for the first time, we were able to consume the same programming, no matter where we were.
After the second World War, radio made its way into cars in a big way while TVs in homes skyrocketed. And everything changed. Families were no longer sitting around the radio — instead, they were sitting around their television sets eating TV dinners. TV had disrupted the US household in a profound way. Now that we were listening to the radio in our cars, stations started programming content that was easy to listen to no matter what time you tuned in. This was a drastic change in the way that stations began to think about content — and it was cheaper. No longer was there a need for actors and folly. A few hosts in a small studio could talk the morning away for a captive audience of drivers and workers. Music and talk radio ruled the airwaves because you could start listening at any time without the feeling of missing out. Hosts would even run the news headlines every half hour or so. Soap operas and other serialized content had moved to the television and radio had grown into something new.
And for 60 years, this was the lay of the land. Lots changed, but not radio. Music made its way from vinyl to tapes and then to CDs. We took our music with us in our walkmen, then discmen. Talk radio in the car, music in our ears. Sure, walkmen had radios but even that was phased out before long. Finally came the mp3 (and of course Napster) and then everything changed. The iPod was born and you could carry a thousand songs in your pocket. And then double that. And so on.
Around 2000 the first ‘podcasts’ made their way onto the web and into mp3 players (remember those?!). By 2004, podcasts had become formalized (and even part of the iPod menu system) and slowly grew as a way for both amateurs and professionals to distribute radio over the internet. Apple supported, marketed and distributed the format alongside a few other players. “The entire medium of podcasting is named after a music player,” wrote Mickey Capper in an essay for Hot Pod. It caught on slowly, but before long most news organizations were distributing their content in the format as yet another way to capture their listeners’ time.
Now here we are, ten years later. And I can pretty much get whatever information or content I want, when I want it. It transcends space and time in the same way that DVR has changed the way we consume television. ‘Radio’ is no longer something that exists to tune into but a format that, like music, I can take with me and listen to when it suits me. Radiolab on my morning commute, cooking dinner to Hardcore History. This may be the most important point: I decide when to listen. The same way that having radio in the car changed the way it was programmed, this will change what type of content creators will make. And Serial is just one of the first examples.
In the last few months, it’s reached a fever pitch. Every day I hear more and more people talking about their favorite podcasts and sharing recommendation with friends. Serial has definitely helped the medium explode — there’s even a podcast, nay, two podcasts, about Serial. Podcasts about podcasts? Yeah. That happened. There’s a podcast industry newsletter that just started called Hot Pod. Roman Mars, the host and creator behind 99% Invisible, started his own listener-supported network of podcasts called Radiotopia (in conjuction with PRX). They recently finished a Kickstarter campaign that was funded by an astonishing 20k+ backers and raised over $600,000. And on the other side of the fundraising coin, Alex Blumberg (This American Life) started his own for-profit production company (listen to Startup) and has raised over a million and a half dollars from investors to make his brand of radio — and distribute it mostly as podcasts.
What I find extraordinary is that while most of the popular podcasts exist also as radio programs or secondary experiences for existing news organizations or TV programs, an incredible amount of new content is being created solely for the medium, both professionally and by amateurs, from recording studios to garages and closets. There are literally podcasts about everything: muscle building, philosophy, comedy, cycling, you name it.
And this brings us back to where we started: Serial. Why is Serial so interesting? Because we can’t wait to hear what happens next. Only a handful of podcasts (e.g., Welcome to Night Vale) are playing around with the serialized format but it seems that listeners are ripe for it. This opens the door for a return to the radio of the 30s and 40s. I imagine it wont be long till we’re all talking with our friends about some fictional story that is being listened to in our podcast app, replete with actors, sound design and even product placement.
For all the nostalgia that “serialized radio” may conjure, it’s clear to me that we are at the beginning something new. Look forward to new content in the medium that will be vastly different from the talk-radio type we’ve come to expect. There’s a wide open playing field and, personally, I can’t wait to see what creators come up with.
The word that keeps coming up is “intimate.” Our experience with podcasts now is either in a car or with headphones. It’s personal, both in what we listen to and when we listen to it. It’s easier to connect personally, intimately, with niche content chosen from thousands of sources and creators than from a dozen radio stations. And that’s worth talking about.
Thanks to Matt Lehrer for editing myriad mistakes and offering great suggestions.