Everybody I know is listening to podcasts. According to eMarketer, the number of monthly U.S. podcast listeners will increase by over 10% this year, to a total of 117.8 million. And this growth is ruled by younger consumers. Apparently, more than 60% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 will listen to podcasts.
That squares with my anecdotal evidence. Both my daughters are podcast fans. But the popularity of podcasts declines with age. Again, according to eMarketer, less than one-fifth of adults in the U.S. over 65 listen to podcasts.
I must admit, I’m not a regular podcast listener. Nor are most of my friends. I’m not sure why. You’d think we’d be the ideal target. Many of us listen to public radio, so the format of a podcast should be a logical extension of that. But maybe it’s because we’ve already made our choice, and we’re fine with listening to old-fashioned radio.
In theory, I should love podcasts. At the beginning of my career, I was a radio copywriter. I even wrote a few radio plays in my 20s. As a creator, I am very intrigued by the format of a podcast. I’m even considering experimenting in this medium for my own content. I just don’t listen to them that often.
What's also perplexing about the recent popularity of podcasts is that they’re nothing new. Podcasts have been around forever, at least in Internet terms.
A Brief History of Podcasting
The idea of bite-sized broadcasts goes back to the 1980s and ‘90s, but the advent of the Internet in 2000 opened up the concept of the digital delivery of an audio file to the average listener. This content found a new home in 2001 when Apple introduced the iPod. For the next 10 plus years, podcasts were generally just another delivery option for existing content.
But in 2014, “This American Life” launched season one of its true-crime “Serial” podcast. Suddenly, something gelled in the medium, and the audiences started to grow. The true crime bandwagon gathered speed. Both producers and audiences found their groove; the content became more compelling, and more people started listening.
In 2013, just over 10% of the U.S. population listened to podcasts monthly. This year, podcasting will become a $1 billion industry and over 50% of Americans listen regularly.
So why did podcasting, a medium with relatively few technical bells and whistles, suddenly become so hot?
A Story Well Told
The first clue to the popularity of podcasts is that many of them (certainly the most popular ones) focus on storytelling. And we are innately connected to the power of a good story.
The one genre of podcast that has been the most popular are the true crime series. Humans have a need to resolve mysteries. These podcasts have become very good at creating a curiosity gap that itches to be closed. They hit many of our hard-wired hot buttons.
Still, there are many, many ways to tell a murder mystery. So, beyond a compelling story, what else is it about podcasts that make them so addictive?
The Beauty of Brain Bonding
When you think of how our brain interprets messages, an audio-based one seems to thread the needle between the effort of imagination and the joy of focused relaxation. It opens the door to our theater of the mind, allowing us to fill in the sensory gaps needed to bring the story alive.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, the brain works by retrieving and synthesizing memories and experiences when prompted by a stimulus. It’s a process that makes the stories a little more personal for us, a little more intimate; these are stories self-tailored for us by our own experiences and beliefs.
But there are other audio-only formats available. This clue gets us closer to understanding the popularity of podcasts, but still leaves us a bit short. For the final answer, we have to explore one more aspect of them.
An Intimate Invitation
When you google “why are podcasts popular?” you’ll often see that their appeal lies in their convenience. You can listen to them at your own pace, in your own place and on your own timeline. They are not as restrictive as a radio broadcast.
You could take that at face value, but I think there’s more that meets the ear here. There is something about the portability and convenience of a podcast that sets them up for possibly being the most intimate of media.
When we listen to a podcast, we do so in an environment of our own choosing. Perhaps it’s in our vehicle during our daily commute. Maybe it’s just sitting in our favorite recliner by a fireplace.
Whatever the surroundings, we can make sure it’s a safe space that allows us to connect with the content at a very intimate level. We generally listen to them with our earbuds in, so the juicy details don’t leak out to the world at large.
And the best podcast producers have realized this. This is not a broadcast, it’s a one-sided conversation with your smartest friend talking about the most interesting thing they know.
Whatever lies behind their popularity, it’s a safe bet that half the people you know listen to podcasts on a regular basis.
I’ll have to give them another try.