I LISTEN to podcasts a lot. Every time I find myself in someone’s house with a steady internet connection, I timidly ask for the wi-fi password, and download what I need to get by – some This American Life, lots of Radio National and, if I’m feeling exceptionally greedy, a healthy serving of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I listen to podcasts when I wake up in the morning. I listen to them on the tram. I listen to them on my lunchbreak at work, I listen as I cook, I listen as I wash dishes and I listen if I’m too tired to read, but not yet ready to sleep. I spend more time listening to podcasts than reading books or articles, watching TV or film and certainly more than listening to the radio.
I had assumed I was the only one who had been so transformed by the podcast revolution. But the more I enquired, the more people told me about their own podcasting habits. They were attracted to different voices and different themes, but shared similar obsessions. And the number of podcasters is increasing steadily.
In many ways, the rise of the podcast doesn’t make sense. Or, at least, doesn’t make sense according to a rudimentary but also pervasive understanding of the history of media. It is probably best told through a series of musical milestones, perhaps beginning in 1927 with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the “talkie” that signalled doom for silent films. The Buggles’ hit ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, was appropriated to launch MTV in 1981 and (supposedly) mark the end of radio. More recently, The Limousines came out with the almost inevitable sequel, ‘Internet Killed the Video Star’, to muted applause. And so on…
Yet somehow the podcast, which is in effect radio organised and on demand, is soaring in popularity.
There are a number of reasons for this. The format allows one to wash dishes and passively consume content. It makes mundane activities that fill much of our time more productive, or more interesting, or both. Podcasts are also versatile. They can be as long or short as needed. They are bite size, like the magnificent SBS True Stories, or gargantuan, like a Dan Carlin feast.
But most significantly, there is a great and unique power in audio. Radio never died or, rather, our appetite for audio media never dried up. Consider Serial, which remains the biggest event in the short history of podcasts. For many, the Sarah Koenig phenomenon provided an entry into the podcast. And it served as a reminder of the power of unadorned audio – especially for those that have grown up thinking of radio chatter as a quaint relic of bygone times.
Serial would not have worked as a TV series. It would not have stirred up the same intrigue or stimulation. Listeners had to imagine what Woodlawn High School looked and felt like.
Last December, Koenig’s Serial outfit launched their second season, exploring a whole new story. It would seem that “online radio”, as it was provisionally known, is now coming into its own, to the surprise of many – though not those who took Queen seriously.
‘Radio Ga Ga’, Queen’s hit from 1984, is almost a premonition of the rebirth of radio through the podcast, from a time when music videos ran amok. As the song builds to a crescendo, Freddie Mercury sings to his beloved radio: “You’ve yet to have your finest hour.”
» Tom Taylor writes because he can’t draw, sing or act. He spends the rest of his time opening new tabs and sitting in the shade.
This article first appeared in Ed#505. For more about the history of podcasts, why they're suddenly so popular and Alec Baldwin, grab a copy of our Podcasting Edition from your vendor today! On sale until 4 March.