Just over a year ago, Serial, a podcast that originated as a spinoff of the program This American Life, ranked number one on iTunes and remained there for weeks. Co-created and co-produced by Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig, the series explored a nonfiction story surrounding a supposed murder. It became a cultural phenomenon that led to inspiring think pieces, social media campaigns and eventually even the re-opening of the case. Serial signaled podcasts are here to stay.
The success of the show and its renewal (stay tuned for season two, focusing on an entirely different case, later this fall) begs the questions: What’s so compelling about podcasts? With thousands of monthly downloads, is the medium the way of the future? Or are we clamoring for a return to what the Internet itself seems to have destroyed: human contact?
The term “podcast,” a combination of the words iPod and broadcast, indicates a series of audio files that can be downloaded through the web. In short, podcasts are broadcasting mediums that make the exact same audio content available in all states. The first use of the term is credited to Ben Hammersley in article for The Guardian in February of 2004. Now focusing on subjects that range from political commentary to lifestyle, entertainment and everything in between, it seems like podcasts have maintained their functional core (spread information) in ways that have shaped media consumption into something dependent on the values and norms that have dominated society in the past.
Podcasts are simple and digestible. “The thing that happens when you find yourself reading and re-reading a single sentence, no longer seeing the words, tediously unable to proceed till you’ve broken through your own fog and untied the sentence’s knots?” writes Jonah Weiner in Slate, “There is no podcast equivalent.” In plain terms: listening requires less focus and attention than reading (in yet other words, also credited to Weiner: “[Podcasts have returned] our eyes to us in exchange for our ears”). Aiding that logic is the fact that a momentary loss of focus when listening to a podcast isn’t as debilitating as a loss of focus is when reading an article or a book.
In addition to the relative simplicity involved in enjoying a podcast, it helps that the medium is a human-driven one that seems to be in stark opposition (in terms of form, not necessarily function) to the listicles and “how-to” pieces that have been dominating our culture in the last few years. “[Podcasts] are driven by voices,” continues Weiner in Slate. “Recognizing this, we talk about the form’s special sense of intimacy and even its erotic: the dulcet phonemes of Had Abumrad, issuing into us from earbuds snugly nestled into our heads.”
Weiner also mentions Abumrad’s own feelings about the visually dull medium, “In a sense, I’m painting something but I’m not holding the paintbrush. You are,” said the Radiolab host. “So it’s this deep act of co-authorship, and in that is some potential for empathy.”
What’s interesting about the medium is that, although, as Weiner and Abumrad suggest, podcasts combat what has become of the Internet (in short: a melting pot of methods to make the most trivial and insignificant aspects of life the most compelling six-word headlines), the programs themselves have thrived because of the essence of the World Wide Web.
Those people whispering in your headphones while analyzing political campaigns, or observing human behavior, or reporting on a murder case, are focusing on a basic human function that we have lost with the advent of the Internet: communication through spoken words.
As contact between humans has boiled down, in its essence, to the use of emojis, a thumbs up or a thumbs down, a quick tap on a “heart” next to a statement, we have lost the ability to talk through a story. The podcast takes that phenomenon and flips it on its head without giving up on the medium that gave rise to that new way of living in the first place.
What the podcasts seem to ask is: No time to read? Only enough minutes to scan through “5 Things You Absolutely Need to Know Today?” How about if I read them to you? How about if I tell you a story about each one of those five entries? Will you listen to the world around you, then?