In praise of the podcast

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Microphone and headphones

The internet has had many unexpected consequences. I wonder how many futurologists in the 1990s foresaw meme-culture or the enduring popularity of videos of cats playing the piano. For me, one of the most surprising developments of the internet-era has been the rise of the podcast.

The term “podcast” is not self-explanatory, so I’ll start with some explaining. The term was coined by the internet researcher and journalist Ben Hammersley all the way back in 2004. It is a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast”. So far, so unhelpful. In essence, a podcast is an audio file containing original content produced by the podcaster that can then be downloaded and then listened to at the user’s discretion.

A bit of a mouthful but it captures the important “homemade” aspect of podcasts. If I were to upload a bunch of my favourite songs on to a website so that others could download it, it wouldn’t be a podcast (In fact, it would be illegal). To be a podcast, the creator must be doing something original – “creating content” in today’s parlance. The specifically audio aspect of the podcast definition has been stretched a little by those podcasters who like to include video of them creating whatever it is they’re creating. Strictly speaking, these are better described as video logs (or vlogs), but, seeing as the same audio content often appears on broadcaster’s vlogs and podcasts they are often bundled together.

Creating audio-content for others to consume is not particularly revolutionary. In fact, when you think about it, this is essentially what radio broadcasters have been doing ever since Marconi erected his first mast. Like so much to do with the internet, what is revolutionary about the podcast is the choice it gives listeners. With a few clicks you can find your favourite show and then listen to it whenever and however you wish.

No more having to tune in at just the right time; no more having to wait a week for the next episode. The convenience and sheer diversity of content that podcasts provide has made the radio format appealing to a younger generation.

According to Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s Director of Market Intelligence, “Podcasts are booming in the UK, and broadening people’s listening habits. Every age group is getting involved, but the most explosive growth is among younger adults.” In the five years between 2013 and 2018 the number of regular podcast listeners in the UK nearly doubled from 3.2 million to 5.9 million.

There is a certain irony that one of the oldest forms of mass communication should be given a new lease of life by the internet revolution. In the 1980s there was a general sense that as video content became more accessible, radio would simply fall by the wayside like other outdated technologies; a sense given wonderful voice in the Buggles’ classic hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”. The idea that video and audio together must be better than pure audio is a classic case of the “more must be better” mistake. “But why?!”, I hear you ask.

I was not an early adopter of the podcast craze, but over the past year podcasts have become a bigger and bigger part of my life. What I have come to realise is that there is something enormously liberating about the audio-only experience. I listen to podcasts almost exclusively when I am doing something else – normally washing up or cleaning. In fact, since the discovery of podcasts my house has never been tidier.

Our brains have the amazing capacity to tune into audio whilst getting on with other stuff. Crucially, the same cannot be said for video. I have occasionally tried to watch a football match or Netflix show whilst cooking but it always feels awkward, having to turn away and then turn back. I’ve found that turning off the screen and listening to just the audio actually improves my sense of what’s going on!

Of course, as with any media, the quality is variable and you may not find the podcast for you straight away. Some podcasts finance themselves with ads (a bit annoying but it makes them free!), some are subscription only,  and some are “pay what you can”. My preference is for podcasts in which the podcaster interviews someone interesting, whether it be a scientist, a philosopher or even just plain old Ricky Gervais.

This might not be your thing, but such is the sheer volume of content that, with a little research, you will almost certainly find the perfect companion to all of your household chores. So, turn on, tune in and wash up.

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