What is currently going on in the Podcasting world?
A bit of podcast history
I’m fascinated with podcasts as a source of entertainment and education and have been listening to them pretty religiously for the past 5 or so years. Podcasts are really any audio delivered primarily through the internet that isn’t music; they range from things like daily news to investigative reporting to debates & talk shows to history lessons and good old fashion story telling. Five years isn’t a particularly long time in the history of podcasting, dating back to before I was born in the 1980’s, but it is a time long enough to see podcasting evolve rather quickly to what it is today. Humans have been telling stories orally for at least thousands of years, well before writing was invented. I think it is fair to say our species have done a bit of evolving to be adept at story telling and especially story listening. Donna Eder and Regina Holyan decribe story telling as, “The story was then told using a combination of oral narrative, music, rock art and dance, which bring understanding and meaning of human existence through remembrance and enactment of stories.” While televisions are visually rich, I think there is an innate desire in humans for orally told stories as a means of learning about the world and their place in it. Podcasts are the 21st century format as radio was the 20th.
TV may have killed the radio star, but Apple’s iPod and the Serial podcast have begun to bring the radio star back to life. Apple’s iPod in conjunction with iTunes, around 2004, made discovering and listening to podcasts convenient and available to the masses. However until the past year or so there were few dedicated podcast shows; shows whose primary medium was podcasts. This American Life consistently topped (and still does) Apple’s podcast list as #1 but this is, or at least was, primarily a radio show and not available as a podcast until 2006. Other phenomenally produced shows, such as Radiolab, Planet Money, and Fresh Air were made for radio and the podcast seemed like more of a second thought (again, second thought being up until the past few years).
Podcast talk shows do have a special place in podcast history, shows like The Joe Rogan Experience, Stalk Talk Radio, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe have been dedicated podcasts. But, podcast talk shows may have been more numerous because of their low production costs relative to in-depth journalism or sound rich story telling. Flying people around to world, fact checking, story finding, music composition, hardware; all these things are really expensive. Having some brilliant minds sit in a room and chat is relatively inexpensive. Aside from talk shows and self help gurus, there were few narrative, story driven shows dedicated to the podcasting medium. However, that seems to be changing, and fast.
The changing sounds of podcasts
Gimlet Media part 1
Alex Blumberg is George Polk Award winning journalist who worked on This American Life and helped found, with Adam Davidson, NPR’s buisness-centric, story driven show Planet Money. They produced a series of episodes that followed every single step in how a T-shirt was made, from the cotton to the store. They gave listeners an ear-opening sound-glimpse into campaign finance and patents. However Alex began thinking of podcasting differently. Alex admits to loving podcasts that have a storytelling element to them but why weren’t there many story driven podcasts out there? Why isn’t there a podcasting company that does this? Then he thought, “well I could do that.”
So what better way to make a podcasting company than to start by making a podcast about making a pocasting company? And so the StartUp podcast started up. In the first season Alex took his audience to places people just don’t get to see normally. The first episode gives us a seat at the pitch table as Alex tries to pitch this idea to an investor. And he fails miserably. We hear personal, difficult, late night talks with his supportive wife. We learn how to find a business partner and how to split the company’s equity. We experience what it feels like to have hundreds of thousands of dollars wired to your company bank account. And, what happens when a company makes a mistake?
Throughout the first season of StartUp we hear how Alex Blumberg, along with his co-founder Matt Lieber, start up Gimlet Media; a podcasting company focused on narrative story telling. Its fascinating and heart wrenching and exciting all at the same time, and often all in the same episode. But can this business work? The audience for podcasts is tiny compared to radio, is there enough advertising money to support in-depth story telling outside of Alex carrying around a microphone? Movies cost about $7 an hour but podcasts are totally free. Do people care enough to donate a few dollars to help out the show? Well this is where I need to pause with Gimlet because something massive exploded onto the podcast scene in the middle of StartUp.
The Serial Podcast
The single largest catalyst to the changing podcasts soundscape was the Serial Podcast. While it was produced by WBEZ Chicago, a public radio station, and This American Life, it was dedicated to the podcast medium (not available on radio). Not only did the show win a Peabody Award, it made podcasting “main stream“. Serial was all over the news for its captivating story telling by the amazing Sarah Koenig who drew us into a real life murder mystery. The murder case was allegedly solved. The alleged murderer of a highschool girl, Hae Min Lee, a classmate and ex-boyfriend named Adnan Syed, was behind bars. But many questions were left open and the evidence for conviction was weak. The sonority of Sarah’s search for the truth in Serial has led to a hearing for the convicted’s appeal.
Once news got out on how spectacular Serial was, the hundreds of millions of people with iPhones who had never before opened up that little purple podcast icon where now anxiously waiting for Sarah Koenig’s next episode. But, while there, I imagine, many stumbled upon a whole world of podcasts they never knew existed. And once Serial came to a close, that podcast void Serial opened up needed to be filled. The 5 million people who downloaded Serial needed something new. And while there will be a season 2 of Serial and about a half-dozen Serial related podcasts have popped up, it was not enough. Podcasting as a whole got a boost in popularity after Serial and people wanted more.
Gimlet Media part 2
Waves, including sound waves, can be combined by a process called interference. Waves can add and become bigger or subtract and cancel each other out. With podcasts, the waves generated by Gimlet combined with the popularity of Serial and podcasting grew massively. Gimlet was by many measures, content and finance wise, very successful. Gimlet created a second season of StartUp following a new online dating company that used human match makers. They also launched two entirely new shows; Reply All: a show about the internet and Mystery Show: A podcast where Starlee Kine solves mysteries. Both are phenomenal. And if you listened closely to the credits of many other “radio first, podcast second shows”. many produced by NPR, you’d hear a lot of good-byes to producers. While, at the same time, Gimlet’s number of employees swelled at a similar rate. And as we hear throughout the first season of StartUp, Alex was able to raise $1.5 million in seed funding for Gimlet. Podcasting seems to be getting a lot of ears.
Panoply, Gimlet, and Radiotopia and producing shows
Sort of in parallel with Gimlet Media, Panoply Media has been forming. Panoply is a podcasting collective run by the Slate Group, of Slate Magazine. Slate had a wonderful bunch of podcasts, such as the Gist and Hang Up and Listen, which slowly came together under the umbrella of the Panoply network of podcasts. Other small, independent podcasts began to join the Panoply network. Today Panoply has 48 shows (at the time of writing this) that cover every topic you can imagine in various different formats; talk show, sports, journalism, politics, education, the list goes on. I’m not fully aware of how Panoply works, but it seems like podcasts who join the network get advice on podcasting and advertising as well as access to advertisers while Panoply gets some cut of advertising.
Rather than just reading boring ad copy, native advertising is becoming very prevalent in podcasts. Rather than being read by an outsider, the native ads are presented by the familiar voice of the show’s host. The ads usually play with a distinct song in the background so you know its sponsored content. The host advertises or endorses a company in a way that fits in with the podcast’s theme and feel. The ad may even fit in with the specific episode’s theme. The ads are funny and are often a little story in their own, either about using the product or a mini-interview with people at the sponsor’s company. Panoply shows do this very well, as do Gimlet shows and Roman Mars on 99% invisible. Speaking of which, Radiotopia of PRX is another, albeit smaller, collective of wonderful podcasts.
At the time of writing this, Radiotopia is running a sort of Kickstarter-esque campaign to raise money for their shows, complete with tiered rewards for donation levels. Radiotopia is much closer to Gimlet in size and scope than to Panoply. Radiotopia and Gimlet podcasts have a more intimate feeling to them as well. I think these two do a superior job immersing you into the story. Shows by Gimlet and Radiotopia are like getting into a row boat with the show’s presenter and being ferried through a luscious and detailed soundscape while they read you a wonderfully crafted story. Many Panoply shows feel like a crowded New York water taxi sputtering through more conventional content. Panoply does have great content, it just has a very different feel to it. Like a news paper verse a good book. And I have not listened to all of Panoply’s podcasts so I may very well be wrong about some of them. It is also worth mentioning Earwolf, another ever growing podcast network with dozens of shows. They tend to focuses on comedy and interview style shows though so I won’t go into more detail.
Consolidation in the podcast sector
There appears to be a whole lot of consolidation going on in the world, Dell Computers joins EMC in the largest tech merger ever. Budweiser and Miller are joining up for a mega beer company. Panoply bringing together a huge number of talented producers. Radiotopia is starting a collective. Gimlet is well, building its own nation from the ground up with all the best talent on earth to build it. I think this is all a good thing. Species tend to evolve this way, referred to as punctuated equilibrium. You have a burst of diversity and then a of plateau then another burst of change. With the iPod and iTunes, podcasts went into a major renascence and change in 2004. Podcasts went from a thing only available while at your computer to something you could consume anywhere. But in the ensuing decade it was pretty stable, even declining a bit if you look back at the google trends data. Then with Serial came a renewed interest in podcasting and a rapid change began. I think we are still in that change phase now.
Radio dramas to Podramas
In the past few months I’ve noticed one other thing changing on the podcast front, full on serialized podcast dramas. These are scripted dramas meant for the podcast medium. Most are like a docu-dramas; they bring you into the story saying this is a podcast about the investigation into something, say the paranormal or an alien message. They are filled with enveloping sound effects and mesmerizing symphonic music scores. They take full advantage of the stereo sound on your headphones so that you feel like you are the main character in a scene while another runs off ahead to the right and a monster is barreling out of the dark cave on the left. Radiotopia’s The Truth does an awesome job with taking full advantage of modern sound technology and techniques but their stories are little sketches; they don’t form a large narrative story like Serial did.
Combining the rich audio you can accomplish with podcasting, perfected by the likes of Radiolab, and the long form narrative style of Serial, Podramas are emerging and taken ear time. There has been a few older and independently produced podramas, We’re Alive comes to mind, a complex and long running (started in 2009) zombie survival story. To my knowledge though it never gotten too high on the iTunes charts. There is also The Leviathan Chronicles, an epic tale produced over 5 years (2008-2013) written by Christof Laputka that boasts over 60 voice actors spanning 38 episodes. The twisting, thrilling, fantastical story is supported by captivating sound design; a true podrama. Though it too never found mainstream popularity. Welcome to Night Vale is another sort of podrama that came out in 2012 and has had a place at the top of the iTunes charts since. Night Vale sort of a meta show as it is presented as radio show for a fictionalized town, Night Vale, and all the odd things that happen there. Night Vale is much more comedy than drama though.
However in the recent month there has been a flurry of new podramas and I’m completely addicted to them.
Pacific Northwest Stories
Pacific Northwest Stories (PNWS) is a bit mysterious. Everything about them is mysterious, including their two podcasts. This is what makes them so great. Their website claims they used to be a terrestrial radio show but I nor reddit can find any trace of their past terrestrial existence. Either way, PNWS has two serialized docu-drama podcasts, or as I will keep calling them Podramas, called The Black Tapes and Tanis. The Black tapes is well along in the story but the beauty of podcasts is you can go back and binge listen to them all. Alex Regan, a host from PNWS, brings us down the rabbit hole of paranormal activity and those who study it from both sides; believers and skeptics. If you like ghost stories or mysteries then you will love The Black Tapes. It walks the razors edge as the paranormal pulls you into the unknown only to be shown the light through skepticism and logic before the monsters get you. Well, except for one case…
Pacific Northwest Stories’ other podcast, which just came out (at the time of writing this), is Tanis. Tanis is hosted by another PNWS employee as he tries to solve the mystery of Tanis. That is really it. I don’t have more to tell you, yet, on what Tanis even is. We don’t know what it is we just know that it is. It used to be a city in Egypt but it has been long gone. Did it move? Today we have no idea what Tanis is but Nic Silver is working on the mystery and documenting his findings in the podcast. Both PNWS podcasts are filled with a mystery rich story in every episode that leaves you wanting more. Facts familiar to the real world and little nuances are expertly placed throughout to make it feel like the podcasts are very real. There is also quite a bit of commentary on skepticism and evidence based reasoning; a topic I am always a fan of.
Limetown is a bit more classic scifi compared to the two Pacific Northwest Stories (though again Tanis is too new to gauge). If you’re a neuroscientist or interested in the brain you’ll love it! Limetown is, or was, a town that was set up by a neuroscientist decades before. However the town was more like area 51, some people knew about it but getting in or out was nearly impossible. No one knew what exactly was going on there but many suspected crazy brain-based experimentation. However, one day, everyone in the town just vanished after a gut wrenching call from a women in distress in Limetown. The follow up police investigation, however, led no where and no one knew where the hundreds of people went. Until now. American Public Radio host Lia Haddock tries to uncover the mystery of Limetown, what was going on there, and what happened the day everyone vanished.
The Message is a superbly produced podrama coming from Panoply and General Electric Podcast Theater. Very sci-fi, very immersive. The NSA has finally given the green light to go public with “The Message”, a highly classified transmission from space. The NSA has failed to decode it so they are opening it up. A team of scientists, The Cypher Group, includes mathematicians, cryptographers, linguists, and anthropologists all trying to crack the code of the Message. The podcast is also sneakily educational and teaches about topics such as signal processing and linguistics. It also sheds some light onto how scientists try to answer questions and the difficulty the unknown possesses. How do you get answers when you don’t even know what questions to ask? The whole story feels like it could be real, especially with recent news of a possible alien mega structure found by the Kepler telescope. While there are only 3 episodes now, I am looking very forward to more.
Update Nov 25th: It turns out The Message is actually a sponsor made podcast. Meaning, GE is paying Panoply to produce the show and has editorial rights to the show. Essentially GE commissioned the show as a form of advertising. The StartUp Podcast covers the details of this in one of their episodes. Overall the show has been alright. The science fiction tries too hard to be real science and the topics it uses in neuroscience are very twisted to fit the story and make no physiological sense at all.
Podcasting is going through a very interesting transition right now. Trail blazers like Alex Blumberg are looking to expand high quality podcasts beyond public radio. Panoply is working to facilitate and nurture the work of many small podcasters who already produce great shows on a budget. Serial brought podcasting to the masses and hopefully all those ears leads to more ad spend which brings to fruition the great potential podcasting has as a medium to share stories and ideas. I’m glad smaller players like Limetown and Pacific Northwest Stories still have spot around the campfire.
This work by Blake Porter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
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