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Podcasting just keeps on growing, gaining new fans, cultivating audio creativity and maybe even redressing legal wrongs.
Let’s start in Barcelona last year, where I was invited to speak on how audio’s qualities as an intimate, portable medium that can evoke emotion and imagination drive the podcasting boom. I was on a panel at the formidable Global Editors Network (GEN) media summit with a producer of the @Serial podcast phenomenon – the excellent Dana Chivvis – who regaled us with insider thoughts on the astonishing success of the series: 100 million downloads last time I looked. Dana said they innocently enough set out to make audio that hooked folk as much as the best HBO/Netflix series – think House of Cards – and out of that came the signature trailer to start each episode, and the cliffhanger ending. The rest was partly luck (they started out without a fixed ending, which hugely increased fan engagement, and Apple launched their native purple app for podcasts on iPhone at just the same time, greatly increasing ease of download) and partly dogged shoe leather journalism brilliantly transformed for the audio medium, as host Sarah Koenig candidly deconstructs here.
Then Marc Maron took podcasting to another level in a wonderfully revealing interview with Barack Obama, recorded in his garage for his WTF series. Yet again podcasting was shown to be the medium of authenticity and intimacy – qualities it derives largely from being audio, but also because of how podcasts are delivered – to our ears, without gatekeepers, at a time and in a place we choose. Minority and interest groups are mining this ease of access and distribution, and panel-fests and chumcasts (friends riffing on a theme) are proliferating. See my article here for The Conversation with good links to examples. Diversity loomed large too in in Radiotopia’s Podquest competition, which attracted over 1500 entries from 53 countries! Nice to see that one winner was The Hustler – stories from inside US prisons. This will be hugely empowering for those locked up, and a vital counter-balance to a US system which, disgracefully, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Podcasting as a tool of social engagement
Not that Australians can be blasé. The Northern Territory region actually outstrips the US for rates of incarceration, and most of them are Aboriginal people. Aboriginal voices are shockingly absent from Australian public conversations, so it was a pleasant surprise to see none other than a Murdoch publication, The Australian newspaper, have a very good go at doing a Serial, with its podcast The Bowraville Murders. This examined the unsolved murders of three Aboriginal children from the same small town 25 years ago, bringing the raw pain of victims’ families and the kneejerk racism of the community direct to listeners. It also, like Serial, was probably instrumental in achieving a retrial – the power of podcasting as a tool for social engagement writ large.
Because of its persuasive power, advertisers as well as activists are now taking notice of podcasting. I was back at GEN in June 2016 on a panel in Vienna, this time, with CEO of Commercial Content at ACAST, the incisive and insightful Sarah van Mosel, and with Vanessa Quirk, who authored a comprehensive Guide to Podcasting in late 2015 which is rich on metrics, trends and case studies of some of the most exciting shows. Even among the glitz of the latest corporate innovations and the lure of 360 degree TV and Virtual Reality, we three ‘podcast queens’ (fact of interest: female listeners to podcasts in the US have DOUBLED since 2013) showed yet again that audio storytelling can captivate an audience through the simple yet unassailable power of our common humanity and desire for connection.
Meanwhile, podcasters have become celebrities – Ira Glass is appearing at the Sydney Opera House to present audio accompanied, thrillingly, by dance; while the whimsical Starlee Kine of Mystery Show and the relentlessly enthusiastic PJ Vogt of Reply All had sell-out shows at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.
What fans perhaps don’t realise is that the simpler and more casual a podcast sounds, as if it’s something anyone can do, the more craft and slog lie behind it! It’s all about understanding the medium of audio and the structure of narrative.
Maybe that’s why the latest trends show collaborations between older-style print journalists with specialist audio experts: the Marshall Project partnered with This American Life for their examination of a miscarriage of justice around a rape victim who was not believed, Anatomy of Doubt; The Economist is pairing with Mic media whiz Cory Haik for a forthcoming podcast; and I am teaming up with a media outlet in Australia for a special series. Watch this space!