In Defense of Podcasting
Though the medium hasn't enjoyed the success some hoped it would, podcasting has become news radio for a new generation.
It was the ninth month of the year 2000. Something called i2Go launched something called MyAudio2Go.com. It was on that site where users could, as mp3newswire.net wrote, "...download daily news stories in MP3 format. You can select articles covering the top news stories, sports, business and finance, even recaps of a dozen or so television shows like ER. We loved this site and the best news is you don't need an i2Go to download and play these files." ("Test Drive of The i2Go eGo with IBM MicroDrive", by Richard Menta, Mp3Newswire, 1 September 2000)
This, of course, came years after the introduction of audioblogging in the '80s, when a radio software provider began distributing the technology that allowed stations to, for the first time, create digital audio and visual files for consumption. The practice didn't really catch on, however, until 2005, when Apple's iTunes launched a section in its store dedicated solely to these downloadable snippets of information. It was at that point when the populous was offered an audio library of knowledge pertaining to everything from serious world news to sports talk radio to in-studio music performances.
Once that happened, the game, as they say, was over. The art of the podcast had made its way into the mainstream, and there was no turning back.
I love podcasts. In fact, I love them so much that I have two iPods: one reserved for music, the other for podcasts. A few months ago, I pitched an idea to begin a podcast of my own at my day job and it worked. (Check out For the Record, here.) The bubble that sits next to each episode on my iTunes screen is a source of obsession for me, as I endlessly try to be caught up on all the things I've downloaded with varying degrees of success. I'll binge-listen to programs such as NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me after I allow the episodes to build for years, stupidly listening to commentary on the 2012 presidential election in the spring of 2013. Long drives have nothing to do with music anymore -- it's all talk, all the time. I have a drug addiction and the subscribe button is my needle.
"Ever since podcasting was introduced, the question has been the same: Will anyone listen?" the people at emarketer asked in 2008. "The answer is definitely 'Yes.' EMarketer estimates that the total US podcast audience reached 18.5 million in 2007. Furthermore, that audience will increase by 251 percent to 65 million in 2012. And of those listeners, 25 million will be 'active' users who tune in at least once a week." ("Heard the Latest About Podcasting?", by Staff, 4 February 2008)
Have those numbers panned out? Well, to be fair, it's hard to say -- trying to nail down a definitive total on exactly how many people either listen or subscribe to a podcast is kind of like trying to swat at a fly with a fork. That said -- and a lack of updated data notwithstanding -- there's still one thing that has become abundantly clear in recent years: the art of podcasting has opened up a wave of intellectual discussion for a new generation that has little to no interest in sitting down to watch the evening news or getting ink on its hands as a result of reading newspapers front to back.
Last week, I had the very distinct pleasure of sharing a phone conversation with NPR's Terry Gross, host of one of the most celebrated news-talk programs the history of the medium has ever seen, Fresh Air. I asked her how important the advent of the podcast has been to both her show and the National Public Radio umbrella.
"It's been thrilling," she said. "People aren't growing up with radio the way they used to. It used to be my link to the world and now radio doesn't mean the same as it once did. The popularity of the podcast has been wonderful. People aren't tuning into the middle of shows when they get into their cars anymore -- now, they can take the entire show with them and listen when it's convenient."
Ahh, yes. Convenience. In a culture now somewhat obsessed with suitability, the entire notion of a podcast is very literally tailor-made for the fast-paced, tech-obsessed world in which we now live. We champion the idea and perception of being highly educated far more than we do actually putting the work toward developing our own in-depth levels of analysis or opinion. Podcasting, in short, provides a tool for those who pride themselves on having a toolbox that is overflowing with devices.
Cynics may argue that such a reality devalues the art of news-gathering and creates an environment of overexposure that allows yesterday's discoveries to color today's findings with a slight shade of apathy. They wouldn't be entirely wrong, though they also wouldn't be entirely correct, either. On one hand, the availability of so much knowledge can cloud one's desire to focus his or her efforts on a select number of subjects. On the other, the mere fact that such a large amount of insight is so readily available to the average consumer is encouraging to those with a constant thirst for intellect.
Me? Well, for the most part, I think it's great. The popularity of podcasting has afforded me the ability to not miss an episode of Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me since 2008, and both Fresh Air and All Songs Considered are programs I check every ten days or so to see if there were things I missed during the previous two weeks. Having a penchant for sports, there was a time when I religiously downloaded episodes of both Pardon The Interruption and The Sports Reporters to have whenever my news intake reached its limit. And because I haven't had a cable television subscription in years, I constantly try to keep a steady flow of 60 Minutes episodes downloaded, as well.
At this point in my life, these are the things that make up the majority of my entertainment consumption. Growing up in a tiny, redneck-leaning town near the Pennsylvania/New York border, there is a chance I would have never even known that KEXP -- a public radio station in Seattle that offers podcasts of live performances in its studio -- even existed, let alone have it become one of my favorite sources for music performance. Sure, I've always had a deep admiration for public radio stations everywhere, but the truth is that without the help of these podcasts, I wouldn't even have the ability to grow into the bona fide nerd-fan that I currently am.
This is why it's hard not to believe that the popularity of podcasts has become as essential to a generation's IQ level as Sesame Street or Reading Rainbow was to kindergartners 25 years ago. All told, these things have the ability to educate, inform and enlighten people from all walks of life (for no cost to the listener, don't forget, which is just as important to this equation as the warm, inviting voices that beam through the speakers once the download is complete). Not only has the practice added a layer of innovation to the tried and true formula for radio, but it's also done so while making it trendy and fashionable to soak up as much intellectual rhetoric as two ears can take in one sitting. It's like losing weight after a lifestyle change that had nothing to do with going on a diet -- the unintended consequences of the rise of the podcast is profound in depth and exceptional in power.
"There is growing buzz and data that suggests a big uptick and an increased usage of podcasting for good reasons," Deborah Shane of Small Business Trends wrote. "Podcasts are instructional, fun, mobile friendly, more personal, brand builders and easy to do. People are podcasting on anything you can imagine from business, cooking, travel, sewing, sports, investing, being a working Mom or single Dad, and are finding an audience for them. One of the key benefits of audio podcasts is the power of listening, hearing someone talking to you, and that theater of the mind allows people to concentrate and learn better. Reading an article or book is very effective but listening to someone talk to you, hearing their voice talking to you about something you are interested in increases engagement. The archived podcast also allows people to go back and listen at their convenience and radio/audio is an iconic, mature media that people know and trust." ("Buzz Suggests That Podcasting Is Becoming More Popular", 29 October 2012)
Maturity. That's a word that means as much to the podcast phenomenon as any. Yeah, these things have their fair share of detractors, and sure, as Mitch Joel pointed out for The Huffington Post last year ("Is Podcasting Poised For a Comeback?" (3 September 2012), it's important to remind ourselves that there was a time when most people believed that podcasting could be as relevant and ingrained in popular culture as, say, blogging. Sadly, it obviously hasn't obtained that type of status in the current day zeitgeist.
But even with all those critics in mind, you can't deny how sophisticated the perception of podcasting is. Sitting down to give even the simplest series a listen makes us feel as though we are in on some kind of exclusive conversation, some kind of club that is reserved for only those with good taste and mature interests. Listening is an act of backdoor pretension for people who take pride in calling out others for being pretentious. A wink and a nod, yes. An act of hypocrisy, hardly.
On 10 September 2001, i2Go was forced to close down business, according to the website bizjournals.com. The company ran out of money. Still, the people behind MyAudio2Go.com were way ahead of their time when they figured out how to make it possible for consumers to download news articles as MP3s, thus paving the way for what we now know today as the traditional podcast. Without them, who knows how, when or if the popularity of the podcast would have grown. Without them, I am fully confident that I would know infinitely less about everything from foreign policy to Hollywood actors to federal government to heroic athletes to rock star musicians to academic personalities.
And I would have only one iPod.