Listening to the voices in your head has never been so popular. More people than ever are plugged into podcasts, tuning in to hear expert advice on everything from spelling (Grammar Girl) to sex (The Savage Lovecast); pop culture (Slate Culture Gabfest) or pop science (Radiolab). There are podcasts for shoptalk on filmmaking (The Treatment) and songwriting (Sodajerker). Comedians chat up comedians on Marc Maron’s WTF and wrestlers chat up wrestlers on Art of Wrestling.
“We’re at the dawn of a golden age of audio,” says Alex Blumberg, former producer of the podcast This American Life and presenter of StartUp, a podcast series that documents his launch of podcast network Gimlet.
“For the first time in history, we’re constantly connected to devices that can play on-demand audio. All the hours in the day are available for listening now that we have smartphones – the trip to the bank, running out for groceries, your workout, all those times that you’re doing something that’s somewhat mindless – that’s a lot of extra hours that people are looking to fill.”
Since its public radio beginnings in 1995, This American Life has become widely celebrated as the pinnacle of the form. With a chatty and personable style, its roving reporters and raconteurs have shared stories large (Hurricane Katrina, the economic crisis) and small (an audiobook narrator getting trapped in a wardrobe). The success of the podcast has led to a TV show, film rights being sold, live stage shows, and the celebrity status of host Ira Glass.
More recently, the programme has spawned its own stratospherically successful spin-off; chances are even if you haven’t heard the Serial podcast, you’ve heard about it on news and current affairs shows.
Whereas This American Life serves up a new theme from week to week and a variety of stories in each episode, Serial is a deep dive into a single compelling story over an entire season. In the first series, the true-crime mystery followed reporter Sarah Koenig as she investigated the 1999 murder of a high-school girl in Baltimore, US, a crime for which the student’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, has been serving a life sentence.
It is the podcast that launched a thousand think pieces, many of them proclaiming podcasting is finally going mainstream. Serial is inspiring the kind of dialogue, dissection and devotion usually reserved for acclaimed cable television series. There are podcasts dedicated to recaps of the podcast. Not to mention the real-world implications that may qualify as spoilers. Ears everywhere are transfixed.
“Serial is the page-turner of podcasts,” says Jeffrey Cranor, co-founder of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, which parodies community radio. “It’s started a conversation about podcasts being for everyone, not just so-called podcast audiences. It’s bringing a lot of new people into the fold.”
Episodic storytelling feels like a logical development in the age of audio-on-demand. But it also recalls a time when families used to regularly gather around the radio as their primary form of home entertainment. Cranor goes even further, suggesting that the medium taps into ancient storytelling traditions.
“I listened to a lot of radio growing up, so there’s no question that radio had an influence on me,” Cranor says. “But when we started talking about creating Night Vale, we were thinking of even older forms than radio; the classic idea of theatre in the form of an individual storyteller. You can trace it back to Homer or early humankind. There’s something about just sitting around and having a story told to you.”
Blumberg, who worked on This American Life during the making of the TV show and worked in print earlier in his career, agrees there is an inherent power in purely verbal, non-visual storytelling. Only part of it is to do with the fact that, a lot of the time, the voice of the storyteller is emanating, conscience-like, from within one’s own ears.
“The gift of audio is that it’s better at creating intimacy and emotional connection,” says Blumberg. “Radio can do what reality TV set out to do, but actually do it better. In ‘reality radio’, you can just be embedded with someone who is wrestling with something internally, and talking about it with their wife” – many such scenes, between Blumberg and his wife, are woven into StartUp – “and that can be just as dramatic.”
Any avid listener of Serial or This American Life will be familiar with the impact of well-placed silence. When Ira Glass confronted monologuist Mike Daisey about the factual inaccuracies of a story Daisey told in a previous episode, the expanding ellipsis – despite or even because of the general aversion to dead air on the radio – made for gripping listening.
Part of the appeal of the podcast, says Blumberg, is that it allows the audience to control what they listen to, in a way that is impossible with traditional radio.
“People ask me who my competitors are,” Blumberg says, “but I think everybody who’s making this kind of stuff, we’re all collaborators in a certain way right now. We’re in a rising tide, which is a fortunate place to be in.
“Podcasting is going to become as mainstream as radio. Because why wouldn’t you want to listen to exactly what you want to listen to?”
The second series of Serial – on a whole new topic – is due to air later in 2015 with the date as yet unannounced, with a third series in production. For the status of Adnan Syed’s appeal against his life sentence, go to undisclosed-podcast.com.
From the Sydney Morning Herald (December 12, 2014), © 2014 fairfax Media, www.smh.com.au
Reader’s Digest Guide To Podcasts
It’s easy to get started
For a simple introduction, watch this lovely video made by Ira Glass and his friend Mary. Mary is “on the dark side” of 85, and she’ll convince you podcasts are life changing.
A podcast is an audio file that sits on a website. If you want to search for podcasts, download a free app to your smart phone (e.g. Podcasts within the Apple store, or Stitcher on Android). Hundreds of programmes are arranged by topic, popularity or region. You can download individual programmes or subscribe to a series. Think of it as radio that you can play on demand, wherever and however you wish to listen.
Do I have to pay?
Not usually. Podcasts are available from all over the world for free. Many are produced by public broadcasting networks. Some presenters occasionally invite donations towards ongoing production, but contribution is entirely up to you.
Pick of the crop
The choice is vast. In Apple’s Podcast app, Top Charts shows what’s popular among listeners in your region. Below are some shows we listen to regularly, but you’re sure to quickly develop your own favourites.
For exceptional storytelling
This American Life
Arguably the best for extraordinary real tales. It now has an archive of more than 550 hour-long shows.
Created by supporters of Adnan Syed for an ongoing look at the case from Serial – and to raise funds for his appeal.
Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, and/or become caught somewhere in the middle.
TED Radio Hour
If you enjoy TED talks, try these expanded audio compilations.
For movie lovers
Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews
Two BBC film reviewers engage in “on-air sparring” for a couple of hours – they call it Wittertainment – and interview top movie professionals.
For something surprising
More entertaining than the title suggests; it makes the world go round.
A weekly look at something you probably never noticed or thought about before.
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner on “the hidden side of everything”.