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.
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