Features

What Makes Podcasts Work?

Audio documentaries lead the way in the podcast revolution


Podcasts have been around for more than a decade, but over the past several years, the art form has exploded in popularity. Now, what was once considered an underground thing for public radio nerds and early iPod adopters is a full-fledged phenomenon that is equally accessible and inaccessible.

On the one hand, making a podcast can be easy. You don’t need a whole lot of fancy equipment to produce a high-quality show that can potentially reach millions. So, for groups that have been traditionally locked out of media, podcasts are a way for such people not only to be heard, but to shape the way they are heard. Shows like The Read, Ear Hustle and Still Processing have amassed huge audiences by telling their own stories on their own terms. It proves that there is an untapped audience just waiting to hear themselves and people like them. And that audience is quite diverse in the kind of shows they want to hear.

The Read is a weekly pop culture podcast from the Loud Speakers Network. Hosts Kid Fury and Crissle West are unabashedly offering hot takes and advice to listeners from all over the world. By contrast, Ear Hustle is a non-fiction podcast from Radiotopia about life in San Quentin State Prison. The show is a partnership between Bay Area artist Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, formerly incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. Each episode explores a different aspect of life on the inside from how to survive during a lockdown to being an immigrant in the American prison system. Far different is Still Processing, The New York Times’ pop culture podcast. Although the show covers all aspects of our current cultural climate, hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris critically analyze the top events through the lens of race, gender, class and the intersections that they create.

On the other hand, it would be irresponsible to disseminate the message that the podcast landscape is a level playing field. Just like with any medium, as it gains popularity, larger and more powerful institutions start buying in and pushing smaller, often independent projects to the fringes. All the podcasts listed above are affiliated with networks that have the money and momentum to reach more people and maintain the grind of production. So yes, it’s true making a podcast is easy, but consistently growing a podcast is really hard. However, the joy of podcasts is much more than power and audience growth. It’s about creating human connection through oral storytelling.

Sound is a visual medium: it forces us to construct images in our minds that can be more evocative than anything our eyes could show us. Take, for instance, S-Town, an investigative journalism podcast that starts as a murder mystery and transforms into a portrait of a man, John B. McLemore, and the town he calls home. When you hear the frustration in McLemore’s voice, or a deep laugh, it can have multiple layered meanings. Even the silence is meaningful. A pregnant pause can change everything. So, listening is a full sensory experience that can entangle the audience. Most people who started S-Town finished the seven-part series in just a couple sittings.

For some, the rise of the podcast can be perceived as surprising; after all, radio has been around for almost a century. In theory, the two have many of the same elements, but in practice, radio and podcasts are quite different.

To listen to a podcast is to make a choice to commit. It is an active listening process that requires more from the listener. Podcasts are a choice, while radio has become something a little more passive. Podcasts live outside of broadcasting constraints, while radio often has to abide to a time table. Podcasts allow the listener to re-listen, while with radio it’s usually one and done. These differences may seem minor, but they totally change how a story is constructed, opening up a whole new world of narrative possibilities. Great podcasts take these elements and run with them. The stories are often sleek, well-written dives into human life. They allow the listener to stare deeply into communities at times of tragedy or uncertainty. They allow the listener into someone else’s humanity and often unveil something universal.

Take for instance the New York Times audio series Caliphate. The show follows journalist Rukmini Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul. The show uses classic storytelling elements to take their listeners into worlds that may be unfamiliar. There is tension, there are stakes, but there’s also heart. The listener is expertly guided through a new world, all via their headphones. Although there are still more people who don’t listen to podcasts than who do, the medium is gaining new listeners every year. And the audience is ever expanding. There’s a podcast for everyone and podcast audiences span age, race and gender. Listeners are defined by their interest and curiosity levels. They want to be informed or entertained or both. So, anyone can listen to anything, provided they have access to the wealth of content available. And that’s the magic of the medium.

The podcast Love + Radio from Radiotopia features in-depth, well-produced interviews that cover a wealth of subjects that range from “the seedy to the sublime.” New
installments are released monthly and explore themes that touch on love, loneliness and what it’s like to live on the “cultural fringes” through intimate first-person accounts. The episode “Living Room,” which follows writer Diane Weipert as she begins a one-sided relationship with her new neighbors who never shut their curtains, struck a huge chord with audiences when it was first released. It expertly captures the false sense of connection fostered through voyeurism and how quickly wrong assumptions can lead to distorted conclusions about the people around you.

Love + Radio often plays off of extreme examples of desires to highlight universal human feelings, reflecting elements of the listener right back at themselves. Gimlet Media’s Heavyweight is another podcast that fosters empathy through the quest of righting regretful life moments. Host and humourist Jonathan Goldstein helps the people in his circle to resolve issues from their past—lingering guilt, friendship fallout, an unsolved mystery—by taking the matter in his own hands.

Each episode is named after the person Goldstein is trying to help. Through Goldstein’s meddling, the listener is taken on a journey into the protagonist’s world. Quickly the quest unfolds into something bigger than a single mission. The second episode in the series, simply entitled “Gregor,” follows Goldstein as he tries to get a set of CDs back on behalf of his friend. The CDs were lent out to musician Moby and were the basis of his seminal album Play. What starts out as a straightforward, albeit outlandish mission turns into a story about recognition and the role we play in the lives of our acquaintances.

Marcyliena Morgan as featured in The Keepers
Courtesy of The Kitchen Sisters

Lastly, The Keepers by the Kitchen Sisters looks at the reasons why we archive, file and collect through people that have dedicated their lives to the preservation of culture. Each episode tells the story of a cultural archive and the people who decided to start it. The episode “Archiving the Underground” explores Harvard’s hip-hop archive. Through telling the story of the archive’s beginnings, the listener gets an in-depth look into how gatekeeping can change how culture is remembered and the importance of community involvement to capture the present-day accurately.

Podcasting is a relatively new medium that pulls from a longstanding radio tradition. Only time will tell how podcasts will change the media landscape as the quality of storytelling continues to be elevated. But for now, there is a wealth of stories from a variety of perspectives ready to be taken in. It may just take a little exploration to find the series that strikes a chord.