It's boom time for podcasts – but will going mainstream kill the magic?

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Fifteen years ago, when the word podcast was added to the dictionary, only the tech-savvy were listening. Now, as star names pile in, they’re big business. Can the quality survive?

Hello friends! Do you fancy listening to “a new type of time-shifted amateur radio”? No? How about a brilliant podcast? Of course you do.

Fifteen years ago, Macworld, a magazine for fans of Apple products, announced, with limited fanfare, that Apple was about to add podcasts to iTunes, its music download offer. Unfortunately, few readers knew what a podcast was, hence Macworld’s “time-shifted radio” definition. In June 2005, the idea of having thousands of ready-to-hear audio shows, anything from true-crime documentaries to all-chums-together comedy, to up-to-the-minute news to gripping drama to revealing interviews, and being able to listen to these shows whenever you want, wherever you are – well, that wasn’t quite happening. So Apple’s move didn’t seem important. Nor did the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary added “podcast” to its lexicon in the same year, after tech journalist Ben Hammersley came up with the term in 2004 (which was also the year the BBC launched a downloadable version of In Our Time). Podcasts were new. It takes time for the new to become everyday.

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World news | The Guardian

Hello friends! Do you fancy listening to “a new type of time-shifted amateur radio”? No? How about a brilliant podcast? Of course you do.

Fifteen years ago, Macworld, a magazine for fans of Apple products, announced, with limited fanfare, that Apple was about to add podcasts to iTunes, its music download offer. Unfortunately, few readers knew what a podcast was, hence Macworld’s “time-shifted radio” definition. In June 2005, the idea of having thousands of ready-to-hear audio shows, anything from true-crime documentaries to all-chums-together comedy, to up-to-the-minute news to gripping drama to revealing interviews, and being able to listen to these shows whenever you want, wherever you are – well, that wasn’t quite happening. So Apple’s move didn’t seem important. Nor did the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary added “podcast” to its lexicon in the same year, after tech journalist Ben Hammersley came up with the term in 2004 (which was also the year the BBC launched a downloadable version of In Our Time). Podcasts were new. It takes time for the new to become everyday.

Podcasts were mostly unheard of, except by the tech savvy. They were either downloadable versions of existing radio shows or they were chatty riffs, made by amateurs who knew how to upload their aural blogs online. Still, they were interesting. At least to me. Soon after podcasts’ iTunes debut, I started a new job as the Observer’s radio critic. Great job – except there was a limited choice of programmes for me to review. Radio schedules rarely changed. Presenters stayed in their jobs for years. The BBC dominated speech radio, aside from phone-ins; hardly any other broadcaster had the money to make documentaries or drama.

Karl Pilkington, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais after setting the Guinness world record for the most downloaded podcast in 2006. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Podcasts rescued me from aural monotony; I wrote my first piece about them in the summer of 2006. Apparently Coke Machine Glow and The Dawn and Drew Show were the ones to look out for (me neither, now). The podcast I do recall from then is The Ricky Gervais Show; this dominated the brand new iTunes podcast chart for weeks. Initially free, in early 2006 it switched to a pay-per-listen model and proved both a forerunner and an outlier: since then, much podcast uptake has been driven by comedy, but most shows are still free to listeners, paid for by adverts that appear during episodes.

Today, the iTunes podcast chart is bustling with old hands and new kids on the block. Here are No Such Thing As a Fish, Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place, That Peter Crouch Podcast, Katherine Ryan: Telling Everybody Everything. Here are sections for new and noteworthy, cultivating calm, keeping the kids busy. There are lists of the top 10 episodes, top 10 shows; all aside from the 19 other regular categories: news, arts, true crime… So many podcasts! There are oodles of shows, too many to ever get through.

Gold rush

This is podcasting’s boom time. There are now more than 900,000 podcasts to choose from. In the US, 22% of the population listens to at least one podcast every week and 51% to at least one podcast in their life (roughly 168 million people). In the UK, 12.5% of us (about 7.1 million people) listen to podcasts weekly, up 58% in the past two years. And on average, those UK podcast fans are hoovering up approximately seven podcasts a week. Even throughout lockdown, when other art forms closed or stopped producing, podcasts have continued to grow. The big shows just got bigger.

Podcasts have taken off across the world. In South Korea, 58% of the population has listened to a podcast in the past month –more than 30 million people – while in Spain the figure is 40% (more than 18.5million). And there’s evidence that our ever-expanding love of listening is part of a wider shift to audio. Recently, a media analyst gave a talk about about current and upcoming trends. He noted that car radios are digital, speakers can be blue-toothed, in-ear headphones are more and more popular (Apple sold an estimated 60 million pairs of its wireless AirPods last year), as are home AI systems with Alexa and Google Home. We’re absorbing more content through our ears than ever before, he said, because we can do other things as we listen and in the future, as smart headphones get smarter, our ears, rather than our eyes, may well become the main way we connect to the internet.

Still, that’s the future. For now, perhaps the biggest indicator that podcasts are having their moment is the way big players are moving in, whether brands or celebrities. In 2019, Spotify made an eye-watering financial investment, buying Gimlet Media and Parcast (which make podcasts), as well as Anchor (which provides tools for podcast makers), for a combined stake of more than £320m. Universal has done a deal with Wondery, the American true-crime specialist that produced Dirty John. Sony has a similar deal with Somethin’ Else, which makes David Tennant Does a Podcast With… The BBC, now relieved by its regulator of previous restrictions around podcasts, is throwing all efforts at BBC Sounds, its audio app and podcast platform. Going where Jessie Ware, Fearne Cotton and George Ezra have successfully gone before, Sue Perkins, Bradley Wiggins, Matt Lucas and the two doctors from Scrubs have all got new podcasts. The Obamas signed up to produce exclusive podcasts for Spotify. Even Kim Kardashian is dropping hints.

“Yes, I would say we’re in the podcast gold rush years,” says Matt Deegan, who co-runs the British Podcast awards, as well as overseeing shows such as the Fun Kids’ podcasts. “But it can definitely get even bigger. Compared with the millions who use TV, or YouTube, or Instagram, podcasting’s numbers are small…”

For quite some time, podcast fans have been of a type: educated Apple users who want to be entertained, but intelligently. (Observer readers, essentially.) There is a massive mainstream audience as yet untapped, though some shows are making inroads; podcasts that discuss popular TV programmes, old and new, are a burgeoning area. So, room for expansion. The questions are: how big can podcasting get? And which shows will get left behind?

David Tennant Does a Podcast With… James Corden. Photograph: Acast/PA

Helen Zaltzman, who hosts and produces The Allusionist – and, since 2007, the immensely popular Answer Me This! with Olly Mann – thinks that big companies could bring some more trust to the medium. “Their investment demonstrates that podcasting isn’t just made by amateurs in a garage,” she says.

But the independence of podcasting, the wild and wonderfulness of its offerings, its glorious niche-ness, where someone with a great idea or mad obsession can make a small show that turns into a roaring success… Zaltzman worries that this will be “steamrollered by big, bland chat series with enormous marketing budgets”. This would be, at the very least, galling. After all, without 99% Invisible there would be no Impaulsive with Logan Paul; without Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, no Gemma Collins Podcast. Outliers light the way for the popular.

The app gap

Today, in the UK, we mostly get our aural hits via Apple, BBC Sounds, Spotify and – this may sound weird to some – YouTube. Listeners under 35 use YouTube more than any other platform to get their podcasts, often listening while doing other things, such as playing computer games (Joe Rogan, one of the world’s most successful podcasters, with 8 million subscribers, is most often accessed on YouTube). YouTubers are moving into podcasting, by the way: football YouTube sensation Miniminter has a new podcast, as does JaackMaate.

Some podcasting history. For quite a few years, like many others, I found my podcasts via websites and through iTunes. This required me to be near my laptop, though I could download shows on to my creaky iPod (iPhones didn’t come along until 2007; I got my first in 2011). Podcasting’s accessibility was a problem: there were great shows out there, but most people had no idea how to get them.

It’s unusual to have brilliant content without a convenient platform – it’s like a great chef without a restaurant – and it’s this mismatch that has long held podcasting back. Usually, the platform exists, the content grows to fill it and then both grow together. But podcasts existed for ages before they were truly easy to hear. It wasn’t until 2012, when Apple put a standalone podcast app on its iPhones, that podcasts became easily accessible (for iPhone users) and podcasting started to take off in the UK. Soon after, 4G and more widespread wifi made it possible to hear a podcast wherever you were.

Then, in 2014, Serial came out. This who-really-dunnit re-examination of a cold case murder, led by This American Life veteran Sarah Koenig, massively boosted podcasting’s profile. In every English-speaking country, there is evidence of “the Serial effect” and the show also gave podcasting an identifiable style for a few years, one where the presenter showed their workings in their commentary (what we might call the “I get that. But I still wanted to know…” style). In 2015, My Dad Wrote a Porno became another enormous UK hit and advertisers – other than early adopters Squarespace – started to take note. Brexitcast brought in a lot of new listeners in 2017, as did That Peter Crouch Podcast in 2018 and Shagged Married Annoyed last year.

Barack Obama appearing on Marc Maron’s podcast WTF in 2015. Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House

But still, if we’re honest, podcasts have been The Next Big Thing ever since I’ve been writing about them and their reaching the mainstream has been a stop-start process. Even now, there are plenty of people who don’t listen and many who have only just started. Why? Access. The problem – still – is how podcasts are delivered.

“There’s no perfect app for podcasts,” says Zaltzman. “They are all a bit clunky, because they’re free, so there’s no real reason to make them great. The people who make the apps don’t make their own podcasts, they just host other people’s work.”

We put all our time and energy into getting the right people on our shows. We just wind them up and let them go Andrew Harrison, Podmasters

This is changing. After Spotify’s splashy podcasting entrance, Gimlet is now busily making shows for the streaming service. BBC Sounds hosts BBC podcasts, but has promised to expand to hosting other shows in the future. (During the coronavirus pandemic, it has agreed to host Fun Kids’ excellent [email protected].) In the US, Luminary, which hoped to be the Netflix of podcasting (ie a subscription model), had a bumpy launch in 2019, with several established shows pulling out from being on the network. But it undoubtedly made some big signings, including Russell Brand’s Under the Skin, The Receipts Podcast and Love + Radio, and it makes its own shows with celebrities such as Trevor Noah and Karamo Brown from Queer Eye. (The subscription model might seem an obvious way for podcasts to go, but faces reluctance from listeners used to getting podcasts for free while suffering the adverts that pay for them.)

Matt Hartman, who works for Betaworks, an American startup studio and venture capitalist company that invested in Gimlet in 2014, points out that most podcast apps just do the same thing: “Let people search for and subscribe to shows and that’s it.” He says, diplomatically, that he is “looking forward” to app innovation, mentioning Breaker as an app that’s different: it’s well laid out, has social functions, lets you search for individual episodes and automatically imports all your existing podcast subscriptions. (Breaker is also easy for podcasters to use and gives more listening information, which apps have previously been reluctant to hand out.)

But at the moment, Apple’s basic Podcast app dominates in the UK. This is despite the fact that most people don’t own iPhones. Android phone users have various ways to get podcasts, though it took until 2018 for Google to put out Google Podcasts (before that, you had to go via Google Play). Now, Google Podcasts can be used on iPhones too and you can search for individual phrases within shows. There are other apps: Podcast Player, Pocket Casts (which charges a one-off fee), Stitcher, Castbox. So many, but unless Google Podcasts catches on, Spotify seems to be the most likely to threaten Apple’s dominance.

And the iTunes podcast chart, with its incomprehensible algorithms, is still where podcasters want to be, though the chart doesn’t work in quite the same way as the UK’s Top 40. Instead, says Deegan, “it’s about momentum”. Momentum means a new show can make a splash and enter the iTunes top 10. The real talent is in making that show stick and, of course, making money from it. Such mainstream hits as The High Low, Peter Crouch, The Receipts, David Tennant…, The Adam Buxton Podcast and My Dad Wrote a Porno act as starter programmes. Once people listen and love them, they are more likely to try others.

Former footballer Peter Crouch has enjoyed success with his That Peter Crouch Podcast. Photograph: BBC

Yet our podcasting industry is a couple of years behind the US. Partly, this is because of our thriving radio sector; as Zaltzman points out, given the choice between a regular paid job at BBC radio and the uncertain economics of podcasting, many producers opt for the former. Things are changing, though: the BBC is losing its audio dominance, at least among young people. Other broadcasters have been quick to launch podcasts, or their own app (Global’s is good), and Deegan knows of many podcasters, “brilliant broadcasters”, who have never worked in radio.

Andrew Harrison, who runs a small podcasting company, Podmasters, is one of those. Having worked for nearly 30 years in magazines, he started making podcasts in 2016. One of them – Remainiacs, an anti-Brexit show that pulls in several big players, including Tony Blair – became a hit, and, from that, the company has launched political show The Bunker and started producing other people’s podcasts. What Harrison likes, he says, is the direct nature of podcasting. All the investment is in the show, he explains: there are no printing or distribution costs, no investment in drama scripts and in building sets. “We put all our time and energy into getting the right people on our shows,” he says. “And then we just wind them up, let them go, record and edit and get the show out to listeners.”

A simple process: idea, execution, direct delivery to consumer. Several podcast producers and presenters I talk to contrast this with the traditional teeth-pulling procedure of making shows for the BBC. There, you “sit down in front of a Rupert and listen as your great idea is tweaked to within an inch of its life and then proposed as a vehicle for Sue Perkins or Romesh Ranganathan,” says one producer. “Why bother?”

Presenters don’t have it easy, either: one high-profile BBC host has been promised a podcast for the past two years, yet every suggestion they make for a show is rejected. No wonder BBC regulars such as Clara Amfo, Annie Mac and Clare Balding have recently brought out podcasts independently.

So, we’re getting more British podcasts. Perhaps we’ll catch up to the US soon? Deegan isn’t so sure. He says the main reason UK podcasts don’t smash the American market is that “Britain doesn’t have celebrities that Americans have heard of. David Tennant’s podcast has done well, because Americans know who he is.” No doubt if Tom Holland or Idris Elba decided to make a podcast, it would go down brilliantly. But as podcasts move into the mainstream, they need mainstream stars to move with them.

There is an argument, though, that niche is where it’s at, especially when niche goes big. The most popular podcasts in the UK are made by enthusiasts, from Kermode and Mayo to My Dad Wrote a Porno. Jamie Morton, with his other MDWAP hosts, James Cooper and Alice Levine, has now done a full world tour twice, selling out the Sydney Opera House and New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Still, he says that when he moved into a new house recently, he had to explain to his neighbour what he did, “which was embarrassing. They didn’t know what a podcast was and the title was a bit… suspect.”

Aoife Wilson, who hosts the BBC’s This Game Changed My Life podcast with fellow gaming expert Julia Hardy.

This combination of being under the radar for most people, but popular enough to sell out the Albert Hall, demonstrates the Big Niche appeal of podcasting. Morton describes MDWAP events as being “like Comic Con: fans dress up as characters, they come by themselves and make friends when they’re at the show”. Podcasting appears to be going through the same arc as YouTube, in that its oldest stars have grown themselves by getting in early and posting regularly on an untested platform. Like YouTubers, the most popular podcasters, who draw huge audiences to their live shows, are able to walk around unnoticed by the vast majority of the population. Real celebrities – film stars, singers, chatshow hosts – come in later.

So, can Big Niche go Big Big? Perhaps not. First, podcasts don’t really do music very well, due to rights issues. And second, they have always been about individual listening, on headphones. It’s emphatically not a shared experience, listening to a podcast. Which is why many people find it hard to convert. They want a voice chuntering in the background, not someone whispering in their ear. Headphones can feel oppressive and podcasts are too intimate (or sweary!) to blast out to everyone in the room.

Podcasts, in the end, are just too personal. Too niche, whether small niche or big. Which is, of course, why we fans love them. They’re ours.


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10:50 Girl, 10, dies after falling from asylum center's window
10:43 Compilatie 24H ‘Ontdek je stad’ 2019
10:32 Ontdek Amerfoort #Citytrip
10:26 UK accused of 'behaving like cowboys' over EU database copying
10:26 Men in west London have highest male life expectancy in EU - Life expectancy
10:24 Ursula Von Der Leyen and Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic talk to the press | LIVE
10:00 Car with possible explosives found in Gelderland town; link with ATM bombing investigated
09:40 Viktor Orbán threatens new Europe grouping to rival 'weaker' EPP
09:39 Stockpiling for the New Year
09:37 European ministers meet to salvage Iran nuclear deal
09:35 President von der Leyen meets with Andrej Plenkovic, Croatian Prime Minister
09:30 Dutch Listening Practice - Talking About a School Trip in the Netherlands
09:28 [Ticker] Johnson suggests Iran crash was 'unintentional' missile
09:22 In Myanmar Armys Corner, Aung San Suu Kyi Will Defend It in Rohingya Genocide Case
09:16 Trudeau: Canadians deserve answers on plane crash
09:10 Man, 68, arrested for taping jerry can to Leeuwarden train
09:09 Iran denies that it brought down Ukrainian plane with a missile
08:49 Ask Our Astronaut | What's next in space exploration?
08:18 8 teams who saw their seasons ruined by international breaks
08:17 Judiciary Council calls politicians to stop blaming judges for unpleasant rulings
07:45 Iranian missile caused crash of Ukrainian Boeing 737: Officials
07:39 House of Commons passes Brexit bill for UK departure from EU on January 31
07:37 Gay, bisexual young people over twice as likely to be harassed, stalked online
07:01 Canadian PM called PM Rutte about MH17 after Tehran plane crash
06:37 Only let specialized clubs light fireworks, coalition party says
06:27 [Ticker] Swiss afraid of EU wage dumping
06:25 [Ticker] Orban to start new EU movement if kicked out of EPP
06:24 [Ticker] EU blasts Israeli settlements on 'occupied' land
06:15 Croatian PM Optimistic About EU Talks For North Macedonia, Albania
06:10 ABN Amro names PwC's former Dutch chairman as new CEO
06:07 South Mississippi Strong- Mag Holland is an angel devoted to helping others
06:04 MEPs slam UK for violating EU police database
06:03 EU regions: don’t touch cohesion funds for Green Deal
06:02 [Opinion] Europe, Scotland and Brexit - what next?
06:02 [Ticker] Brexit back on EU presidency agenda next week
06:01 [Ticker] President of European Court of Justice lambasts Poland
06:01 [Ticker] Athens asks for US help in east Mediterranean
06:01 [Ticker] Ukraine investigators want to search Iran plane crash site
04:32 How polluted is the air where you live?
04:14 Poisonous caterpillar to strike earlier than usual this year
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