Lend us your ears: what’s behind the rise of the podcast?

Sunday 3 November, 14:0015:30, Cinema 3Podcasts live

At the beginning of 2019, the BBC engaged in a massive rebrand of all its audio content under the banner of BBC Sounds. This move was widely seen as the BBC’s attempt to jump on the podcast bandwagon and appeal to a new generation who listen to podcasts rather than traditional radio shows. In the UK alone, nearly six million adults identified as weekly listeners in 2018, up from 3.2million in 2013. In the US, that figure was closer to 50million – around 15 per cent of the population. But what is it about podcasts that makes them so popular?

The ubiquity of smartphones is part of the answer: almost all of us now carry devices that can download our favorite radio shows automatically and play them at our convenience. As well as this, podcasts have seemed suited to certain genres that have captured audience attention, such as ‘true crime’ podcasts like Serial, S-Town and Dr Death. But is there anything deeper to the rise of the podcast?

Some argue that the appetite for podcasting seemed to represent a renewed interest in the kind of in-depth, long-form discussion that traditional media outlets have jettisoned in favour of soundbites and ‘Punch and Judy’ confrontations. Likewise, podcasts reflect the decline of traditional media as ‘gatekeepers’. As with blogging, anyone can become a podcaster, and, supported by donations through platforms like Patreon, increasing numbers of people are carving out a niche for themselves podcasting about their specialty or area of expertise.

However, the boom in podcasting is not always seen positively. For some critics, these niche, long-form discussions are replacing real-life conversations, or perhaps acting as a substitute for them. Cut off from the world by headphones, we become increasingly atomised consumers of ever more media. On the other hand, it seems that new media forms have always attracted criticism.

What can our love of podcasts tell us about society today? Should we celebrate the rise of the deep-dive podcast and does this suggest a renewed interest in nuance and depth? Has podcasting just become the latest media bandwagon and is its influence overhyped? Have we simply lost the attention spans required for books, or is listening to a podcast little different from putting the radio on as ‘background noise’? What happens when innumerable niches become part of the mainstream and does that mean there’s no longer such a thing as common culture? Should we celebrate the rise of the podcast?