When my 83-year-old mother started asking me for podcast recommendations not long ago, I took it as a sign that podcasting had peaked. That happened just as comedian and late night talk show host Conan O’Brien was launching “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” a podcast in which he interviews past television guests to figure out whether they’re merely Hollywood acquaintances or if they really like him.
O’Brien has been a familiar face on commercial TV for more than a quarter century, and not long ago a podcast may have seemed beneath him. After all, podcasts — audio series with episodes that users download or stream — have long been the province of earnest do-it-yourselfers who brought public-radio values to a niche medium.
But today, as podcasts find their way to mass audiences, including my mom, how could O’Brien resist? The rush is on, as well-known celebrities follow journalists, professors, subject experts, venture capitalists, and countless others who’ve all launched shows in search of a hit. According to a recent Edison report, 44 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast by March of last year — up from 40 percent the prior year. As of last summer, Apple had more than 550,000 shows on its Podcast app. You can find one-on-one interviews, online courses, self-help, and food and wine recommendations. And then there are stories: bedtime stories, horror stories, political stories, and stories about history. There are stories about every aspect of crime, from the rumblings inside of a Cleveland courthouse (documented in the latest season of “Serial”) to the tragic downfall of New England football star (chronicled in the Globe Spotlight Team’s “Gladiator”) and everything imaginable in between.
Podcasting is just a slice of the overall booming market for digital audio. Long ago there was a cottage industry for books on tape or learning a language while you drove to work. But we’re now spending huge chunks of time listening to our devices at home, at work, during our ever-lengthening commutes, or just while walking around. Sales of audiobooks alone rose to more than $2.5 billion in 2017, according to the Audio Publishers Association, showing double-digit growth for the past few years. Publishers are eager to gin up their audio divisions.
Thanks to the smartphone coupled with newfangled devices like home speakers (think Alexa), improved headphone technology (think AirPods), and cars that instantly link to your phone (think Apple CarPlay) audio follows us everywhere, pressing us back to humanity’s oldest aural traditions. “There’s no question that the improved listening devices, especially with long commutes on public transportation, have created a culture of listening,” says Jake Shapiro, a podcasting pioneer who is the CEO of RadioPublic, a new podcasting platform whose investors include Boston-based Project 11, Bose, and WGBH.
So often, technology and capitalism push us toward ever fancier stuff — toward pricier phones with better cameras and bigger memories and more elaborate apps with more powerful capabilities. Yet as we ponder how technology changes society, it’s easy to overlook how human beings affect technology. A new entertainment format takes off only when it fits easily into our lives. For the moment, audio — with its modest production values and small files that transfer efficiently even over 2013-era phone networks — is doing just that.
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Streaming audio files have been a fixture of the Internet since the dial-up era in the 1990s. But those clips were often pirated music. Meanwhile, bloggers here and there would add audio interviews to showcase their multimedia side. A format for syndicating an MP3 audio file was created by David Winer, then a software developer and fellow at what is now the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Winer created something called an enclosure to syndicate audio files over the Web. Voila — a medium was born.
Among the earliest to breathe life into the technology was Boston-area public radio personality Christopher Lydon. Also a fellow at Berkman, he had been blogging about political issues that he felt were under-reported in mass media. Using Winer’s technology, Lydon created “Open Source” in 2003 for his syndicated audio interviews.
During the hot summer that year, Lydon would post things like crowd interviews from a rally supporting Howard Dean’s campaign for president. By 2004, journalist Ben Hammersley, then of The Guardian, had coined the term “podcasting,” a reference to the iPods that had become the dominant MP3 player.
But it wasn’t until the launch of “Serial” in 2014 when podcasting became legit among influential mainstream media types. “Serial” was an offshoot of the public radio show “This American Life,” and the late New York Times media critic David Carr dismissively described the true-crime story as the “tallest leprechaun” among podcast shows, but conceded that “the numbers are impressive for any media platform.” No longer lurking in the shadows, the podcast had arrived.
Whether a form of entertainment succeeds, though, isn’t just a function of whether people like it. Part of the formula for success is that a podcast is cheap to produce when compared to television or film. “A well-produced podcast costs a fraction of what television production costs,” explains Deron Triff, a former TED executive who recently co-founded WaitWhat, a media startup. “And there’s lots of room to innovate in podcasting because for so long so much of it was done with just two people in a room with a microphone.” (Full disclosure: Harvard Business Publishing, where I work, is currently developing projects with WaitWhat.)
The bang for the podcast production buck can be huge when shows are gripping enough to attract premium advertisers. Shows like “Masters of Scale,” which is produced by WaitWhat, report nearly a 90 percent “listen-through” rate for a 40-minute episode. Each episode of that show, hosted by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, examines an entrepreneurial story of how someone well known like Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, or Stewart Butterfield, founder of Flickr, expanded their entrepreneurial ventures. “There’s no question that the original format for the show made it compelling for advertisers,” says Triff. Podcasting advertising is set to grow by more than 110 percent by 2020 to around $700 million, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
The rabid fan-base for many of these podcast shows has snagged Hollywood’s attention, too. TV shows such as “Homecoming” and “Dirty John” have been born from podcasts with passionate followers. FX has obtained the television rights for the Globe’s “Gladiator,” which covers the Aaron Hernandez story and was produced in partnership with Wondery.
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Since well before Homer, humans have been listening to long stories drawn out over time. The listener of something like “Serial” is taken on a journey where we hear the characters speak, but we must imagine what they look like and fill in many of the blanks about their surroundings in our minds. An experience as lo-fi as a narrative podcast requires greater activity on the part of the listener to be fully engaged.
It also communicates subtleties of tone and other nuances more readily than standard news reports. Podcasting allows for a much richer and more honest conversation among experts than we find on CNN, or even NPR. Politicians, poets, and writers expound on their ideas and can be much more revealing in podcast interviews. If you want to feel as though you have a better sense of who Representative Seth Moulton really is, listen to David Axelrod, former President Obama’s chief strategist, interview him as part of his podcast “The Axefile.” There’s something far more intimate when you hear Moulton describe what it was like as Marine to watch his friends die on the battlefield than when you read it on paper.
“There’s a density of information in a podcast that you just don’t get from other media,” says Jacob Weisberg, a former editor-in-chief of Slate and now the co-founder of Pushkin Enterprises, a podcasting network he is building with best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. “When I listen to the New York Times ‘Daily’ podcast, I feel much more informed than if I watched the same length video or even read the paper.”
Indeed, “The Daily” produced a brilliant episode lately about what the West got wrong about China told by Philip Pan, one of the paper’s China experts. When Pan describes how the United States believed that the Web would ultimately open up China to media from around the world, he plays a clip of President Bill Clinton saying that China’s efforts to hem in the Web were “sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.” Actually, China has been quite successful in controlling what its citizens see and read. The laughter that follows the Jello line offers the listener a clear nonverbal judgment of how misguided Clinton’s assumption proved to be.
As telling as Weisberg’s opinion of podcasting as a format is his decision to bet his career on it — and other traditional media figures’ willingness to invest as well. Weisberg’s new venture is backed by Michael Lynton, former Sony Pictures CEO. “This is a moment in the life of a new medium where the rules haven’t been defined, like the earliest days of the Web,” says Weisberg. “We are shaping what this format will ultimately become.”
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The arrival of heavy hitters such as Conan O’Brien may not signal the end of podcasting — or even the peak — but it will usher in a new phase for the medium. Just as digital media startups and online initiatives by traditional media outlets rose up alongside, and then largely eclipsed, the political blogosphere of the late 1990s, the editorial and economic choices that well-funded podcasting companies make today will affect users’ expectation of the medium.
While podcasts can be engaging and even drive advertising, the business model remains far from solid. Weisberg says that he wants to be careful not to reproduce the sins of the past by giving away content and allowing Facebook and Google to reap the financial rewards. His company, Pushkin, is considering ways to create paid-for podcasting experiences. “We’re seeing deeply engaging programs that we feel people will be willing to pay for and subscribe to,” says Weisberg.
Last year, Luminary Media LLC made a splash when it raised $40 million from investors who are looking to cash in on the premium podcasting angle as well. Luminary president Matt Sacks told The Wall Street Journal at the time that he wanted to create a better “Podcommunity for all.” The idea behind Luminary is a subscription-based platform for podcasts available nowhere else. It’s been called the Netflix of podcasting.
Shapiro, too, sees an opportunity to create a much more enriching podcast experience by launching a podcasting platform that will tie together brands. “Apple’s benign neglect of podcasting is one reason the industry has been slow to mature, but it’s also invited a wave of competition and innovation from startups like RadioPublic to big platforms like Spotify,” says Shapiro, who launched RadioPublic in 2016 to be, as he calls it, “a marketplace for fans, brands, and storytellers.” It’s part of a pack of podcasting apps, including better known players like Stitcher as well as upstarts such as Overcast and Castro. All are trying to build critical mass, perhaps in the hopes that one day Apple might acquire them.
To be sure, the audio moment may not endure, and some of the trends that have helped propel it may also be the source of its downfall. The growth of listening in the car, coupled with long commutes, has certainly boosted podcasting. But what happens when self-driving cars come along and commuters nap or work instead of listening? Or when younger audiences reared on a constant feed of YouTube videos come of driving age? Will they be content to merely listen? Other media such as virtual and augmented reality are only beginning their ascent. Will they change the way we tell stories, or will old-fashioned storytelling shape them?
The spirit of experimentation animating podcast producers today also comes through to the listener, who’s in on the quest to define this medium. As I sift through countless shows on my phone, I sometimes feel like I’m rummaging through a junk pile looking for that one gem — which I often find.
Whatever it foretells for podcasting, O’Brien’s show is pretty funny, and allows the affable host to be even more awkwardly honest than he is on television.
At one point, in an interview with comedian Wanda Sykes, O’Brien says, “If you didn’t want to come here today, you could have just said, ‘I have my own podcast,’ and what? I’m going to know you don’t have one? No! Everybody’s got one . . . literally, everybody’s got one.”
Joshua Macht is the chief product and innovation officer for Harvard Business Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @machthbr.