After thirty years as a public radio reporter and documentary maker, I joined the podcasting stampede last fall, launching Scene on Radio at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. Even more than I imagined, I’ve found myself giddy with the sense of liberation that comes with the medium.
More and more listeners are finding their way to this new frontier, too. It’s not the only phenomenon that has people scratching their heads in 2016. But still, I’ve been wondering what explains it? And perhaps more intriguing, why are so many people tuning in?
We are well into the digital age, after all. And we’re presumably a visual culture—with movies, spectator sports, and cat videos all endlessly available. Podcasts? They are, essentially, radio—that is, audio without pictures. A medium pronounced obsolete generations ago, with the arrival of TV, at least as a means of telling stories. Yet audio storytelling is still here, and flourishing.
A few months ago there were 250,000 podcasts on iTunes. As I write this, we’re past 325,000. In less than two years—going back to the pre-Serial era, of course—podcasting has gone from a niche activity to one that seemingly everyone feels compelled to be engaged in, either as a listener or creator. And the audience is growing with the supply: 21 percent of Americans over the age of twelve listen to podcasts today.
The first explanation, I think, is that podcasting, like radio, boasts humanity’s oldest and best storytelling tool: the voice. Long before film, photography, even the quill pen, people told stories to one another, the pictures conjured in the listener’s imagination. Stories told in the dark. The best radio shows and podcasts spark vivid movies for the mind’s eye. It turns out that today’s humans, even young ones, will gravitate to something akin to their grandparents’ Fibber McGee and Molly.
Add the fact that people are busy, and that audio is so companionable. It doesn’t demand that you point your eyes at it. It tags along while you do something else—commute, cook, huff away on the treadmill.
At the same time, part of podcasting’s appeal is that it’s not radio. Radio people like to talk about the intimacy of their medium, but podcasts are more intimate still. Lots of us listen to podcasts on our phones, through earbuds. They effectively deliver those voices and sounds directly into our heads. There’s no distance at all.
Additionally, podcasts are untethered from the clock: They wait patiently on your devices, there at your convenience. And they, moreso than radio broadcasts, are free to be quirky, less concerned about reaching a mass audience. (Though, when episodes go viral, they prove to be one of the cheapest and most potent platforms out there.) Are you into a particular religion, or personal finance, or bicycling? There’s probably a podcast, or many, for you.
This podcasting moment represents a burst of freedom. Freedom for the creators, certainly. The barriers to entry are strikingly low. Have a laptop, a microphone, and an Internet connection? There’s no gatekeeper to decide whether your piece gets on the radio show, no FCC to police your sailor’s mouth, and no editor (unless you want one) to hinder your creativity or your self-indulgence. (Some listeners might wish that more podcast creators did have editors.) While they don’t cost much to make, only a small fraction will make real money for their creators. Like bloggers, some will go away as others soldier on for their smaller batches of fans and, mostly, for the joy of it. As for liberating the listener, see above: 325,000 podcasts and counting.
For me, the freedom of podcasting means the privilege to create a show that reflects my values and sensibilities, and those of the center where I work. It means the freedom to present a diverse array of voices exploring the textures of our society and human experience—as tellers and producers of stories. The freedom to imbue stories with the sound of life happening, and to let those stories breathe—to present people not as sound bites but as three-dimensional humans.
Biewen directs the audio program at the Center for Documentary Studies, where he teaches and produces the Scene on Radio Podcast as well as documentary work for radio.