This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 7, Spring 2016.
Podcast’s new world of storytelling isn’t really new at all, but it is a Wild West of radical possibilities. A leading radio producer explains why.
It’s an exciting time for cliché-ridden articles about podcasting. Twelve years after the term was first coined by the Guardian journalist Ben Hammersley – alongside long-forgotten alternative suggestions like ‘Audioblogging’ and ‘Guerilla Media’ – podcasting is reportedly back, exiting its dark age and entering a golden age, a renaissance.
“I don’t mind it being called a golden age, I mind it being called a renaissance,” says Helen Zaltzman, the woman behind Answer Me This – one of the UK’s longest- running podcasts – and The Allusionist, the first British podcast to enter the American Radiotopia network.“That’s what it was being called all of last year, as soon as Serial came out,” says Zaltzman,“and I thought: it’s not a renaissance of podcasting, it’s a renaissance in journalistic interest, which is different.”
Serial is the first foray into pure podcasting from the team behind This American Life, a wildly successful radio show that averages over 2 million listeners across the US each week. On air since 1996, This American Life set the blueprint for the current generation of audio storytellers in the States and beyond.The programme leaps from form to form: hard-hitting investigative journalism, personal storytelling, comedic monologue and drama, all unified by the intermittent musings of host Ira Glass, and a sprinkling of music drawn from the soundtracks to Wes Anderson movies.
Glass’s signature storytelling style – his informal tone, his cries of “wait, wait, stop the tape!” when a recording surprises or delights him, and his willingness to dismantle the formalities of public broadcasting – have become part of the architecture of modern audio. Turn on your radio download a podcast, and you can easily stumble across these familiar flourishes echoing from the mouths of other hosts around the world.
An early proponent of podcasting, This American Life began making its on-air work available via downloads in October 2006.At the end of 2014, it released Serial, a non-broadcast,podcast-only spin-off show. Each season,a single story would be told week-by-week by one of This American Life’s most beloved reporters, Sarah Koenig. From the outset, the show aligned itself with prestige television.“Our hope is that it’ll play like a great HBO or Netflix series,” Glass wrote on Serial’s website,“like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”
This approach drew equal parts criticism and praise. Listeners were hooked by the compelling, HBO-style storytelling, but some felt this sat uncomfortably within a documentary series about the brutal murder of a young woman. Perhaps though, it was only Serial’s alignment with television that allowed it to enter the mainstream. At a time when many still found podcasts confusing, it paid to be associated with a better-understood medium. If you like True Detective, The Sopranos and The Wire – the marketing seemed to say – you’ll like this.
Serial began hitting a million downloads per episode within four weeks of its initial release, a feat that had taken This American Life four years to accomplish. Today, the show has reportedly been downloaded over 80 million times. It has sparked Reddit threads filled with enthusiastic amateur sleuths, countless opinion pieces and a number of parasitic spin-off podcasts keen to ride the show’s success up the iTunes charts.
As a result, podcasting has rocketed into the popular consciousness, a phenomenon imaginatively dubbed ‘the Serial effect’. The Swedish radio producer-turned- podcaster Martin Johnson says the wave of media interest has changed how people think about audio. “People are actually looking at radio in a different way than they were before. People are actually finding out that it’s an art form.” Still, Zaltzman is right that claims of a renaissance are overstated.A report from Edison Research found that podcast listenership grew only 3 per cent in the year after Serial’s debut.
Arguably more significant than the arrival of Serial was the impact of a recent technological innovation. In September 2014, Apple updated the iPhone’s operation system to include a native, undeletable podcast app, eliminating the need to download a podcast from the iTunes Store and sync it to your device before listening. Suddenly a huge audience could access podcasts with just a few clicks, and stream them easily on the move.This ease of access allows a podcast like Serial to grow rapidly, and allows Apple to dominate the podcast market.A 2015 study from Clammr found that 82 per cent of podcast listening took place on Apple devices, compared to 16 per cent on Android, though the latter has a larger share of the overall smartphone market.
That an idea as simple as the podcast app could take so long to materialise is a good indication of the muddled cultural landscape podcasting is currently mired in.
What do we even mean by the word ‘podcast’? A medium that could once have been reasonably dubbed ‘audioblogging’ now comprises everything from repackaged radio programmes (nearly half of the UK’s current Top 20 podcasts began life on the BBC) to documentaries produced specifically for download by professional ex-radio producers, amateur interview shows, comedy, drama, chat, sex advice, confessionals, corporate promotions, podcasts about other podcasts, exercise guides and more.Too often, podcasting is thought of as a genre, rather than a medium of transmission.
Like radio, podcasting is a way of disseminating audio content and, like the radio, its mode of distribution is dramatically affecting what gets made.When podcasting first arrived, it was a radical and democratising force. Suddenly, anyone could have a platform for their voice. Children who might have made imitation radio shows on private cassette tapes a decade earlier could now publish those shows online, reaching a potential audience the same size as that of their favourite radio broadcasters. Professional producers and presenters who couldn’t get work on air in the limited, time-restricted schedules of most radio stations could now seek out their own audiences, effectively becoming their own radio stations. Free from the strict regulation of broadcast guidelines, content and language could become more extreme. Perhaps the most radical shift of all was the demolition of the broadcast clock.
Radio has always been defined by time. When your radio clicks on, you’re caught in a simultaneous listening experience – at once intimate and communal. Listeners allow the voices emanating from their radios into their most private spaces: their cars, bathrooms and bedrooms. Swaying alone late at night to the sounds of ‘Sailing By’ played out before the Shipping Forecast, they may well be waltzing in time with thousands of others up and down the country. Radio is a medium that evaporates into the air the moment it hits your ears. It’s temporal, fleeting, a medium without a memory. As early as 1934, BBC producer Lance Sieveking referred to the “ghastly impermanence of the medium”. Podcasting has shattered this impermanence for good.
We can now access vast archives of audio online, outside of broadcast time, across national borders. Does this increased availability mean that audio might soon develop a critical canon like that of film or literature? Might we begin to learn the names and sonic styles of podcast producers, just as we learn the identities of film directors or TV showrunners, and voraciously consume their work?
The volume of material now readily available does pose a problem for the upstart industry.After all,how is a listener to identify the new wave of podcasts? Within the world of radio, a listener surrenders themselves to serendipity.Turn on the dial, trust the radio station as your curator for the day and then hurl yourself from show to show, from documentary to news broadcast, interview to comedy programme – all the while trusting that the unseen hand of the broadcaster will give you something new and to your taste.
One of podcasting’s biggest problems is the absence of these curatorial figures. Essentially, each podcast needs to establish itself as a radio station in miniature: a trusted companion whose identity the listener subscribes to and to whose ideas the listener surrenders. If you’re producing something independently, with no marketing budget, how do you get someone to take a risk on you, to give you their time?
One solution has come in the form of the podcast network: outlets like Radiotopia, Gimlet or The Heard, which collect together a series of shows under a single banner. Roman Mars, the podcaster behind 99% Invisible and the founder of Radiotopia, has described the concept as akin to a record label. “Growing up, I bought everything on Dischord Records,” he told Wired.“I didn’t love everything that Dischord Records put out, but I knew it had a point of view and represented an ideal. I want Radiotopia to be like that.”
Gathered under the Radiotopia banner is a diverse mix of established, well-known American public radio voices – The Kitchen Sisters, Joe Richman’s Radio Diaries and Roman himself – alongside newer voices who’ve made their name as podcasters – The Heart, Love + Radio, The Truth, Memory Palace and Song Exploder. Together, these shows wield greater fundraising power and a wider marketing reach.The bigger shows help to draw in listeners, and elevate new voices. Radiotopia has been particularly successful at highlighting new female voices, when gender imbalance in the medium has long been a problem. More recently it created a pilot fund to help support audio makers who might not gain funded opportunities elsewhere.
One concern is that the podcast network model merely transposes the mechanisms of a traditional radio station into a new media space.Will these networks end up functioning like the old media gatekeepers they seek to replace, elevating and funding a select number of voices to the exclusion of others? How might independent podcasts get heard outside of this environment?
“There are a lot of companies who are trying to build the Netflix for podcasts,” says Zaltzman.“I hear that phrase thrown around a lot at the moment, but people have been working on it for years and there still isn’t one.” Besides, if one of the networks does manage to replicate the success of Netflix, “Will it just throw up the things you’ve already heard anyway? If you’re aware enough of podcasts to be looking for extra podcast services, you probably already know about Radiolab, for instance.”
If we’re going to discover new work and broaden what we listen to, then perhaps what we need is a more robust critical framework. Alongside the new wave of podcasts has sprung up a new wave of critical spaces. Podcast newsletters like The Audio Signal, The Podcast Broadcast and You Should Listen to Friday send weekly or fortnightly episode recommendations to your inbox. New online critical platforms have also emerged, including The Timbre, which promises “thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis” of podcast culture.
Still, podcast criticism has yet to develop its own vernacular, instead relying on language cribbed from the critical traditions of film, theatre and literature. We talk about ‘scenes’, praise audio for its ‘cinematic’ scope, and unpick documentary ‘dramaturgy’. Without a dedicated language to describe the particulars of audio storytelling, it’s easy for critical analysis to focus on the story being told, rather than the artistry of the telling.
Nina Garthwaite is the founder of In The Dark, an organisation which celebrates radio and podcasting through public communal listening events. She attributes audio’s failure to develop a solid critical framework to its fluid nature. “Films are all taken as one-offs, and so there are specific films that people will revisit or suggest people go to,” she says, whereas podcasting “encourages formats that are repeatable and not necessarily self-contained”. How can you build an artistic canon when standalone works are overlooked in favour of larger sonic identities? When people recommend podcasts, not their episodes?
Much of the critical discussion can feel overly polite, favouring gentle recommendation over analytical deconstruction.“ That critical gap needs to be filled in,” says Martin Johnson, who worries that the drive for podcasters to challenge traditional modes of working may lead to ethical breaches, in the absence of a watchful, critical eye. “There’s no ethical barrier,” he says, “no one to say ‘that’s not right’.”
One barrier to establishing a critical body for podcasting is the popular image of the medium as a DIY art form, which makes criticising a podcast feel like a personal attack.“When you critique a film or a book, there’s a large operation that has brought it into being,” says Zaltzman, who has written book reviews herself. With podcasting, she says,“there are not many filters and you’re only a tweet away from the other person. It can feel really personal.”
Do we want sharp edges in podcasting? Is this a space for the artistic cutting edge, or a home for something more comfortable and cosy? “The podcast universe is sort of demanding this hyperreal speed”, says Julie Shapiro, executive producer of the Radiotopia network. “People just chew stuff up and spit it out and get onto the next one.” Shapiro worries that more challenging work is being overlooked in favour of material that, “isn’t necessarily going to challenge you, isn’t going to make you uncomfortable. It’s kind of easy listening.”
For shows that have migrated from radio, podcasting should offer creative liberation. During a radio broadcast, you’re trying to ensure a listener doesn’t tune out, so you have to be wary of causing offence, and careful to keep within public service guidelines. A podcast should allow its creator complete freedom to push sonic boundaries, explore niche subject matter, and challenge notions of bad taste. Sadly, this type of artistic experimentation still feels relatively rare.
“Numbers-wise, the material that has a sense of craft and production value is totally trampled,” Shapiro says, by a more freeform style of podcasting that’s cheaper and easier to produce.“We struggle with it at Radiotopia. A lot of our work is really highly crafted and people can’t just spit it out week to week.” Meanwhile, she says, “more episodes means more listeners, means higher sponsorship rates, means you get a cheque that helps you do more and hire more people and make more episodes,” which doesn’t leave much room for artistry.“ The economy is really banking on the fact that people aren’t necessarily looking for a satisfying, artful experience.” The average rate a sponsor like Squarespace pays tends to fall between twenty and forty- five dollars per thousand downloads according to a 2015 report from the TOW Centre for Digital Journalism.
Can creative experimentation ever thrive within podcasting’s financial model? In order to attract a big sponsor from the small pool of companies currently willing to advertise in the medium, you need an established brand name,or a celebrity. Otherwise, it may take years of unpaid work to build an audience large enough to monetise – what Seth Lind, the director of operations at This American Life, calls the “if they come, we will build it” business model.
It’s often said among podcasters that the industry is undergoing a ‘Wild West’ period – a lawless, uncertain time with plenty of territory up for grabs. Far from a golden age, it feels closer to a gold rush, as the market is flooded with new podcasts, all desperate to emulate the success of Serial and reap the financial rewards.“I’m very wealthy,” laughs Zaltzman, “lots, lots of money. Think of a figure and then add ten pounds to it.”
Podcasting’s next revolution may well be structural, rather than creative. As we enter a new world of curation, criticism and professional funding, here’s hoping the radical nature of podcasting can endure.
Words by Eleanor McDowall
Illustration by Guy Haddon-Grant