Cast a Spell on You

Podcasts may be out of sight but they’re not out of mind – Lara Medlam considers their inconspicuous rise

Image: Nick Youngson

Podcasts have made a distinct dent in contemporary cultural consciousness – but in a very discreet way. Their rise has been pure and simple, created by people who are interested in something and want an uncomplicated way to extend that interest to others.

However, it’s this very unobtrusive, back-passage rise to success that has seen podcasts overlooked. It appears that aspects of the modern media machine work against them; it’s a real challenge to snappily advertise podcasts, they’re still predominantly made by smaller, independent companies or individuals, and people have to make an active effort to seek them out in the first place.

As such, podcasts are afflicted by a ‘discovery’ problem. You can’t produce clickbaity podcast titbits and there’s no visual element to catch the eye of relentless internet scrollers. Similarly, there’s very little concrete data on podcasts themselves. Who listens to them, when, for how long – all these specifics that media companies ordinarily use to guide consumers are absent in the podcast world. It’s refreshing, but also shrouds them in mystery.

To the uninitiated, podcasts are something your dad’s into, or your friend won’t shut up about. It seems like the podcast form bubbles under the surface. Mention your interest to a fellow listener and they’ll leap, enthusiastically swapping recommendations and glowing with the satisfaction that they’ve found a fellow member of the podcast ‘secret’ club. For a solitary activity, they’re surprisingly sociable and intimate. You’ve got a voice speaking directly to you, and know someone’s gone to great lengths to pull together research and information, but it still remains relatively cheap and simple to produce a high-quality podcast. They’re blessed with an inherent informality (especially given their cottage-industry roots, created by experimental ‘audio- bloggers’ in basements and garages). Free from the constraints of radio schedules and mass-media guidelines, podcasts straddle the line between amateur and professional. In 2014 Serial broke through the podcast barrier, garnering 40m downloads and Wired heralded it as the catalyst for ‘a new golden age of podcasting’. Serial struck at the right moment; it seized the public’s appetite for a juicy true crime narrative, delivered it with a sprinkling of effortless panache, and catapulted a podcast into ‘must-listen’ territory. The media looked up, and also saw the gleaming possibility of some real commercial opportunity.

One area where podcasts are really shaping the field is journalism. There’s a distinct ring of truth to ‘print is dead’ lamentations, but podcasts could plug a slowly encroaching gap: readership may fall but podcasts are being listened to. It’s a much more accessible way of approaching a long-form article, essay or piece of investigatory journalism. We want things instant and effortless, with information easily digestible. Take The New Yorker, long heralded as the pinnacle of the great American tradition of long- form journalism. They’re leaders in the podcast game, currently producing eight different, quality programmes, all of which have helped rein- vigorate the ‘brand’, allowing their journalistic insight to permeate further.

Indeed, while it’s undeniably tricky to get a podcast off the ground, they can make some serious money once established. Nearly all podcasts are introduced with ‘supported by so and so’ and these deals provide some valuable cash. Podcasts offer a chance to extend thoughtful content to a new audience, and establishing a fresh revenue stream is godsend for media companies. Be it The Guardian’s podcast, The Newstatesman, or The Spectator. They all offer additional scope to current affairs and culture. However, podcasts aren’t just churning out yet more instant grati ca- tion content. With so many to choose from out there, you’ve got to create something intriguing and worth a listen.

The fact that audio is a secondary medium also works in the podcast’s favour; you can multitask to your heart’s content. Grey-faced commuters can soak up some news without brandishing a broadsheet. You can walk the dog or clean the oven and by listening to a podcast use the time more efficiently. Although the need of many today to stay perpetually plugged in can cast an unpleasant, tech-reliant shadow, podcasts are thought-provoking.They offer a frisson of possibility; capturing that can-do spirit of the internet’s early days, the freedom to create and broadcast whatever you fancy.

It’s still early days and the full potential of podcasts is yet to be realised. But for now, despite the growth in popularity, they remain fundamentally overlooked. While they will always be cheap to produce, their monetary, commercial potential is slowly dawning. Podcasts are a well-spring of eclectic information and culture for which there’s still no rule book or guidelines, so it makes sense to start paying attention.

 

Here’s a selection of the Muse lot’s recommendations:

This American Life

This American Life is like the mothership of podcasts, the life-force and the how-to guide for creating an hour of thought-provoking but easy-going quality broadcasting. Frankly, it’s about lives all over the world, not just American. Each week explores a different theme, offering a variety of intriguing stories. They did a fascinating, on the ground inves- tigation of the Greek refugee crisis last sum- mer, but they can just as easily it from light- hearted, whimsical investigations to serious, hardhitting journalism. The sheer number of eminent podcasters who’ve honed their skills on this series is staggering and it’s the ideal starting point for a podcast novice. LM

 

The Ricky Gervais Show

Truly the caviar of comedy podcasts, The Ricky Gervais Show remains as one of the most downloaded of all-time, 12 years after its original run. Featuring Gervais and prolific collaborator Stephen Merchant, the real star of the show is Mancunian every-man Karl Pilkington and his incredulous and hysterically funny ramblings, a source of great amusement to his mocking co-stars. The show was so successful, it made a star of Pilkington, who went on to appear in the critically-acclaimed An Idiot Abroad, and it was turned into a popular animated TV show, but the true majesty lies in the original audio editions. JD

 

The Spectator

Podcasts are not only for the alternative media and The Spectator’s weekly half- hour chat show shows that the old dog has learned a new trick. Centred on that week’s magazine, the writers and editors sit down for debate and discussion about pressing political issues. Listening offers a sense of what televised journalism could be. The discussion illuminates important topics, with more detail than television, and debate that is seri- ous without being overly earnest. Plus their pro-Brexit stance makes it mandatory listening for us students who can always do with a taste of opinions outside the somewhat stifling consensus of university life. RK

 

The 90s Football Show

A sports show with a twist, The 90s Football Show sees comedian Josh Widdicombe host a fondly-reminiscent half-hour dedicated to the halcyon days of football in the 90s – garishly-coloured and baggy kits, players who you’d more likely spot in a nightclub than on the training pitch, and of course an England side crashing out of major tourna- ments on penalties… three times. In an age when football is supremely commercialised, this is a refreshing look back for sports fans to a pleasingly different era, delivered with Widdicombe’s relatable humour and accompanied by a string of guests from the world of 90s soccer. JD

 

You Must Remember This

Karina Longwirth’s relaxed LA tones betray the sheer amount of intensive, meticulous research that goes into each of her podcasts. Revealing the clandestine (and often chilling) corners of Hollywood’s potted history, You Must Remember This is like a well-informed, mystery-debunking gossip column. Longwirth examines the lesser-known figures and features of Hollywood days gone by, whether it’s the enigmatic beauty Frances Farmer (whose tragic tale inspired Nirvana) or the real events behind Charles Mason’s massacres. The current mini-series is titled ‘Dead Blondes’ – offering the glam and the gory. LM

 

The Allusionist

This is a cute little podcast, and it’s nice to hear an English voice amongst the saturation of Yankee twangs. Helen Zaltzman is fascinated by words and aims to share that with her listeners. She examines language and etymology, guided by experts, curious listener’s questions and cracking words of the day. While you’re de nitely learning something, this podcast is pun-filled, intelligently gleeful, and doesn’t feel at all like some dry, one-ended conversation with a word nerd of the Countdown Susie Dent mould. In particular, the episode charting the origins of the ‘C word’ is a very good introduction. LM

 

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