The Era of Audio: The rise of podcasts

17 minutes to read
Article
Savina Karneva
08/09/2021

Since the inception of podcasts, the field has grown slowly steadily, eventually becoming a major trend in social media production. Famous online figures have jumped into creating audio and video podcasts with the goal of developing deeper connections with their audiences and discussing topics that are new for them, but interesting for their followers. Podcasts have become a new form of influencing and therefore consumption.

This paper focuses on the growth of the podcast industry over the years. It examines the role of social media influencers and celebrities in that growth and the social effects of this new trend. Importantly, podcasts are not just entertaining but are often also educational. Therefore, in this paper we will look at podcasts as a form of digital literacy and new way to gain knowledge and impact human behavior. 

The history of podcasts

Podcasts date back to 2001, when Apple released the first iPod (Figure 1). The ground-breaking audio device set the stage for a new form of audio production and consumption. Three years later, in 2004, software developer Dave Winer and former MTV VJ Adam Curry found a way to download radio broadcasts and upload them directly to an iPod using RSS (Really Simple Synchronizator) software and a program called iPodder.

As journalist Ben Hammersley observed at the time, these technological innovations were the necessary ingredients for a new boom in amateur radio. The only thing missing was a name for online broadcasting. People tried descriptors such as “audio blogging”, but the name “podcasting”, a combination of “iPod” and “broadcasting'' ultimately took precedence. This was the beginning of a new audio era that slowly established its presence as a new media trend. In October 2004, the first podcast service provider, Libsyn.com, was introduced to the market. The following year, the first DIY podcast, Do-It-Yourself Guide, was published by Todd Cochrane, the founder of Podcast Connect Inc. Apple formally introduced podcasts in iTunes 4.9, establishing an unbreakable connection between podcasts and Apple.

Figure 1: The first iPod

The podcasting continued to steadily grow with more podcast creators establishing themselves in the industry. Lance Anderson was the first podcaster to do so live with his show The Lance Anderson Podcast Experiment in 2005. That same year, Queen Elizabeth's Christmas speech from Buckingham Palace was the first podcast available to download. However, the podcast industry didn't truly boom until 2019. That year, around 165 million people were listening to podcasts, pushing Spotify and Apple to compete for the audio market. Podcasts' increased popularity prompted a new chapter for the industry.

Podcasts as digital literacy

The first podcasts in the early 2000s were mostly amateur productions, crudely recorded and unedited. However, as the medium attracted more listeners and participants, podcast creators expanded by incorporating more technological and editing skills as well as inviting journalists, comedians, celebrities, and radio producers on their shows. After the podcast boom in the latter half of the 2010s, podcasts were mainly described as a form of media entertainment. However, they are also a form of digital literacy. They have become a new form of learning and teaching, particularly among young people. 

UNESCO defines literacy in the general sense as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

Digital literacy, then, is an individual's ability to understand, interpret, create and communicate their ideas in online spaces through certain technological skills. However, the concept of digital literacy is broader than knowing how to record yourself,  edit a video, or write a post on Instagram. With media's shift into the digital world, digital literacies have become far more complex and dynamic. Digital literacies require that people have the skills to evaluate context and sources online, as digital media represents rather than reflects the world (Buckingham, 2015).

Furthermore, people who possess digital literacy are those who understand the different forms of communication in different online environments (Buckingham, 2015). Since podcasts are digital mediums, podcasters must have the digital literacy skills to navigate and deliver information across various audiences. 

However, podcasts can also create digital literacies. The goal of many podcasts is to not only entertain but also teach: listeners can gain knowledge from them, whether it is about becoming more productive, learning new languages, or building a business from scratch. There are thousands of podcasts that focus on topics like academics, business, linguistics, economics, or law. As a result, podcasts have become an object of academic research, specifically regarding their potential as a new form of pedagogy. 

McGarr (2009) identifies three primary ways students use podcasts: as lectures, supportive materials, or for creative use. In the same year similar research concluded that the main benefit of podcasts for students is reviewing materials that were missed or not understood (Kay, 2012). Other theorists such as Don Tapscott found that the “net” generation wants freedom over their education, and therefore students enjoy podcasts as a method of controling what they are learning and when (Kay, 2012).  While podcasts require a digital literacy of their own, they also have the potential to create further digital literacies.

From audio to video

With the growing popularity of podcasts, creators searched for new ways to grow their audiences and production. This is how YouTube podcasts emerged. YouTube is arguably the internet's the dominant video platform, with more than 30 million visitors a day and a bigger audience than Netflix, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts. Posting video podcasts on the platform thus began as a way for podcasters to reach an audience they could not with audio podcasts. 

Furthermore, podcast creators saw YouTube's comment section as a way to interact with their audience and establish stronger connections with them. Podcasts channels like the ‘Oddvice Podcast’, ‘The Fellas’, and ‘Whitney Cummings’ (Figure 2&3) have begun to grow on the platform. These podcast channels are focused on interviews, conversations about real-life situations, and jokes. They are solidly based in the comedy and entertainment genres.

Figure 2: The podcast channel of ‘Oddvice Podcast’ focused on real-life stories.

Figure 3: ‘Whitney Cummings’ podcast on YouTube that makes interviews with other people on many different topics.

Gabbie Hanna is a famous vlogger whose channel is dedicated to beauty, lifestyle, and story content. Her music and podcast channel currently has almost one million subscribers (figure 4). However, in recent years, her name has been associated with multiple scandals involving other YouTubers, inciting drama and controversy on the platform. Despite her complex personality, Gabbie’s podcast seems to nevertheless thrive on YouTube. 

Figure 4: Gabbie Hanna podcast channel on YouTube.

Live podcasts

Looking at how far podcasts have come, it is difficult to imagine how they could evolve even more. However it seems that neither traditional audio nor video podcasts are enough for podcasters and their audiences. 

Into this environment stepped the ‘Stereo’ app, the possible future of the podcast industry. Stereo is a new social media app that allows people to stream podcasts in real-time. The company describes it as an “audio-based social networking app with the goal to connect and entertain. Social media is great but lacks the ability to have actual conversations with other people, and we want to fix that.” 

The app finds users a partner to start a conversation with, and anyone can join the conversation or ask questions in real-time. For podcasters, this a new level of audience interaction. The app promotes the value of conversations instead of creators' appearances, and thus uses avatars instead of individuals’ photos. Stereo was well received by creators and consumers, with many of them expressing their thoughts and excitement about it on Twitter (Figure 5&6). 

Figure 5: A tweet from a user about Stereo app.

Figure 6: Another tweet from a user about Stereo app.

Are podcasts changing people’s lives?

As mentioned above, podcasts are not only a form of entertainment, but also a way of teaching and learning. Further they also serve as a tool for giving and receiving inspiration and motivation. This is how podcasts’ platforms provide a good environment for influencers who want to be ‘heard’, as they can be considered the “audio version of YouTube and Instagram.” 

However, what differentiates YouTube and Instagram from podcasts is the projection of authenticity. Authenticity and transparency are essential when forming trust and meaningful connection between influencers and audiences. Within the highly commercialized environment of major platforms like Instagram or YouTube, authenticity and transparency become difficult to find online, but nonethless are seen as “unique and exciting” (Fadhila, 2018). 

In order for a podcast to become successful, it must come across as transparent and authentic. This is especially true of inspirational and motivational podcasts. Podcasts can influence their audiences: they change lives, motivate, inspire and teach. Podcasts can vary widely and cover many different topics, so it is necessary here to provide several examples of how different podcasts have impacted people.

Figure 7: A picture of Pat Flynn's podcast poster.

“Pat showed me how to think differently about my business and soon new ideas were pouring out of my brain. I felt like the neurons in my brain were being rewired. I was learning so much so fast and I loved it. It was revolutionary for me”

As online coaching courses on financial well-being and income growth have become popular, many successful businessmen and entrepreneurs joined podcasting platforms to teach and help others to achieve the same. Pat Flynn is one of these people, and shares his experience and philosophies on how to develop a strong and successful business (Figure 7).

One of his listeners is Amy Climer, who claims that his podcast “Smart Passive Income'' changed the way she operates in the business field and even inspired her to start her own podcasting channel. She says: “Pat showed me how to think differently about my business, and soon new ideas were pouring out of my brain. I felt like the neurons in my brain were being rewired. I was learning so much so fast, and I loved it. It was revolutionary for me.”

Figure 8: The poster of Tim Ferriss' show

Another important aspect of any humans’ life is physical well-being. Podcasters are sometimes seen not just as successful people but rather as mentors and teachers for their audience. This is how Zach Chen thinks of Tim Ferris (figure 8). Tim Ferris' podcasts usually consist of interviews with world-class performers that shed light on their own habits and routines for audience benefit, for instance their diets, training, and investments. In the case of Zach Chen, Tim Ferriss’ podcast helped improve not only his physique but also his daily meditation routine, thereby improving his productivity and emotional stability. 

“One of the points that stuck with me is keeping positive people in your life. My life became so much better when I did this and excluded negative people […]”

It would be difficult to fully discuss podcasts without mentioning Joe Rogan (figure 9). Rogan is among the highest-paid podcasters and is well-known for his controversial views, humor, and celebrity guests. One listener says about his show: “There is not one podcast where I don't learn something important about existence or the human condition.” Most people mentioned that after listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast, they changed the way they feel and perceive the world, saying that they became “happier” or “more open-minded.” .

On Reddit, in comments under the question “How has the JRE podcast changed your life?”, a user Mike07P writes: “One of the points that stuck with me is keeping positive people in your life. My life became so much better when I did this and excluded negative people (ex-girlfriends, ex-girlfriends’ friends, and unmotivated people). Joe and many of his guests have affected me in a positive way. This podcast has become part of my lifestyle, and it is also entertaining.”

Figure 9: A picture of Joe Rogan's podcast.

These are just a few cases that demonstrate the positive influence on people's lives, relationships, habits, physical and mental health that podcasts can have. Podcasts can cover many topics or can be very specific and precise. All above-mentioned podcasters and their styles of storytelling are heavily oriented towards authenticity and transparency. Talking about their own successes and failures creates a meaningful and truthful experience alongside being informative. 

Podcast advertising

Podcasts have influenced not just regular people but also corporations. With their rise in popularity, and often a need to monetize, some podcasts now employ ads and promote products or businesses. Indeed, they often do so better or more effectively than other media platforms. There are several reasons for this.

First, podcast advertising chooses quality over quantity: "Ads on podcasts are well-received because they prioritize user experience." User experience means listeners' trust in hosts or invisibly shifting from editorial work to commercials and back. Second, podcast audiences are already engaged in the topic and "for a marketer, the best thing you can do is get in the ear of somebody that is already engaged." One of many things that creates such engagement is the intimate environment of a host-audience podcast.

A third reason is the ability to target specific audiences. Because podcasts vary so widely, businesses can choose a show that is very related to the product they want to sell. In return they get an audience that is already interested in the topic, facilitating greater product engagement and therefore profit.

A globalized phenomenon

The podcast scene has evolved drastically since its inception in 2004. Public interest has grown steadily each year, bringing more and more people into audiences. As a result, new podcast formats and platforms have emerged, offering podcasters and listeners unique techniques for interaction. 

Despite their primary goal of entertainment, podcasts have been used as a new form of education and accepted as a form of digital literacy. Students, among other, are listening to podcasts to gain control over their own education and acquire new knowledge and skills that will boost their professional development. 

The emergence of the podcast industry and its impact on individuals and professional fields could only be possible in a globalized world where technological innovations and people's desires to create are combined. The podcast industry has positioned itself on the positive end of the online content spectrum. Feedback from listeners illustrates how podcasts have helped them to create better habits, form new perspectives, and change mindsets.

However, despite the many advantages of podcasts, the industry is another example of how globalization is transforming globalized societies from writing to orality. Nowadays, when we want to express our thought or share the knowledge we have, we do not write it down. Instead, we take pictures, film videos, record our voices, and upload them to the enormous online world.  

References:

Buckingham, D. (2006). Defining digital literacy: What do young people need to know about digital media? Digital Kompetanse-Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 1 (4), 263–276. 

Fadhila, D. (2018). Authenticity and Transparency in Influencer Instagram Content in Indonesia. (unpublished thesis, Arcada).

Kay, R. (2012). Exploring the use of video podcasts in education: A comprehensive review of the literature. Computers In Human Behavior, 28(3), 820-831.