Podcasts have an image issue.
Beyond the fact that our culture has for the most part moved away from the form’s original namesake—the iPod—there’s just a number of curious aspects to the medium that have got me thinking. It feels as though the taxonomy has become blurry, in need of a clean-up.
It somewhat all goes back to the time when podcasts first broke wide. It was an early July night in 2005 and NPR was announcing that the following day recordings of most major programs would be available on their website in a convenient, downloadable format. It seemed like such a curious move to me. At the time NPR was the home of the driveway moment, but I questioned whether the general public would be willing to go through the steps necessary to download these programs and transfer them onto their listening devices in order to experience these moments wherever and whenever they chose? I wrote it off as an interesting move, but one altogether unlikely to succeed. Radio was this constant thing, part of the delight of it was that one didn’t have to choose what came next, it just poured perpetually on like a garden fountain; a pleasant low burbling to cut through life’s deafening silences.
Yet here we are. Podcasts have become exceedingly popular, their cultural cachet growing year-over-year, and I’ve been writing about them every week for the last 3 years. In that time I’ve seen them go from a niche outlet for narrowcasting to the bleeding edge of the mainstream. This last year was an enormously transformative one for the medium as well. In the same way that Saturday Night Live suddenly becomes popular once every four years, the election had a marked impact on podcasts as well. Politics had already given way to a steady stream of news and commentary podcasts since their inception, but in 2016 they became the destination du jour for unvarnished insider takes. They were such a popular form of messaging that Hillary Clinton even got in on the game with her official podcast, With Her.
But it was that self-same bat-shit crazy election cycle that sort of broke the usefulness of the podcast. It broke a whole host of other things, to be sure, but this site has a sort of singular focus so let’s go with that for now. A number of the major players in politics podcasting, like FiveThirtyEight Politics, The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (later re-launched as Pod Save America under the Crooked Media shingle), and Slate’s Political Gabfest found that the once-weekly recording model was all of a sudden inadequate to contain the messiness of the campaign trail. As news broke midweek, listeners began to agitate for their favorite hosts’ takes on the persistent madness yawning before them. There were often weeks where 4 of 5 days were filled with so-called “emergency episodes,” calling into question the whole release cycle of these programs. Following the popularity of these shows it became apparent that podcast listeners would turn up for daily programming, and within a matter of months there were suddenly a handful of major programs vying for their share of a willing audience. It was here where the idea of what makes a podcast started to get fuzzy.
I am reminded of how the form’s earliest days because at that time it mostly consisted of recordings of terrestrial radio broadcasts, a sort of on-demand service for listeners’ too-busy ears. As audiences warmed to the idea of the format, horizons opened up and a variety of independent and off-beat programming took the lead. Now we’re here, where it feels as though the medium is stuck in an ouroboros loop. In the beginning there wasn’t a clear delineation between what was radio versus a podcast, and then the idea of what podcasting could be blossomed. Now, with the dramatic rise in popularity of the daily news podcast that line is once again being obscured. It’s not as though there weren’t already podcasts releasing on such a schedule, but they certainly didn’t enjoy the large audiences that NPR’s Up First and The New York Times’ The Daily are experiencing. Joining them is Joshua Topolsky’s latest news venture The Outline, whose Outline World Dispatch is an interestingly artistic, somewhat left-field entrant into the space. According to Nick Quah’s HotPod newsletter, Vox is also in the development stage of launching their own as-yet unnamed daily news program.
The thing is that daily news podcasting isn’t simply a recitation of the previous day’s events, it involves a great deal of production, research, and effort. Where before it felt as though any show had the ability to rise through the ranks, one now feels that a barrier of expectation will start to form. Brand loyalty is slowly becoming more potent in the podcasting arena, with new listeners gravitating towards established properties and those from traditional media outlets. These shows’ popularity isn’t likely to wane for the foreseeable future, with The Daily and Up First neck and neck near the top of the Apple Podcasts chart. In fact, as I write this the top three shows on the chart are indeed all daily podcasts (the new-ish TED Talks Daily currently sits in first). What will it mean for exposure when many of the top spots of that rather important metric are occupied by—admittedly well made, perhaps even artful—news radio?
Just so we’re clear, I am all for an increasingly informed public, especially in these factually tumultuous times. It’s just that we’ve always lacked for a clear definition of what makes a podcast and what doesn’t, and this move doesn’t exactly help. Is any recorded audio served via RSS a podcast or does the format require an intentionality to enter into the space? I believe that the best podcasts are those whose creators have actively sought the space to make use of its various advantages, whether it is embracing its openness, experimentation, or intimacy.
I don’t have an easy answer to the issue, if indeed it could even be considered such. If there is a silver lining to it, the rise of the daily podcast will likely have the effect of bringing more new listeners to the fold, helping to publicize and legitimize this sometimes misunderstood medium. I just hope that it doesn’t signal a change in the overall direction of its growth at the same time.