Podcasting: Where It’s Been, Why It’s Back, and Where It’s Going.

If you went five years into the past and told America that in late 2014 they would all be spending hours talking about a podcast, most people would scoff. Yet here we are all attached to our phones downloading episode after episode. And not just the older generation wanting to listen to NPR’s This American Life, but millennials and college students all frequently visiting their podcasting app of choice and downloading hundreds of episodes of their favorite podcasts.

As you read this, a particular podcast is probably coming to mind: Serial. The podcast that has swept the nation. Listening to Serial has the same sense of urgency associated with watching a gripping TV show. “Have you seen last week’s Scandal?” is synonymous with “Did you listen to this week’s Serial?” Podcasts have become water-cooler conversation. Serial is unique in that it tells one story week by week which keeps listeners coming back to stay in the social zeitgeist. It tells a human story with characters everyone can relate to, and an unpredictable outcome as we listen to the case unfold in real time.

Is Serial the only podcast capturing the attention of millennials? Not quite. A sci-fi dramedy called Welcome to Nightvale has caught the attention of many high school and college students. With a cult-like following, the podcast has capitalized on their “fandom” by performing live shows around the globe which sell out in seconds. I know what you’re thinking: live performances? What’s appealing about sitting and listening to someone read a podcast? Well, I’ve been to a Welcome to Nightvale show and it was honestly one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever seen. The actors who portray the roles on the podcast were animated, entertaining, and engaging even as they read from scripts. Welcome to Nightvale has proven that the market for podcasts is expanding and has applications beyond just listening on our phones.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why podcasts are suddenly so popular, but there is a somewhat simple explanation: podcasts are cool. And I don’t mean the popular girl in school started listening to them so now everyone is, I mean they have truly cool content and are dealing with topics that people want to hear about. Commuter culture is also a factor in the rising power of podcasts. People are taking trains, cars, and boats to work at longer distances every day and they crave new entertainment for those commuting times. Story podcasts like Serial keep people’s attention throughout their commute, and gives them something to talk to their coworkers about when they get to the office.

To look at the future of podcasting, look no further than Alex Blumberg and his company Gimlet Media. Blumberg was a producer at NPR’s This American Life and decided to leave to start a podcasting company. He documented his entire startup process in a podcast, aptly named Startup. He gave his listeners an inside look into what it takes to start a company and the mistakes he made along the way. One of the important things to note about this podcast is that Blumberg was able to raise over $1million in venture capital funding. What does that mean? It means big name silicon valley investors are interested in podcasting as new media. They gave a $10 million dollar valuation to a company whose sole mission is to make podcasts. Thats a huge win for this genre. Gimlet Media already has one podcast up and running and they are working on more every day. They are also working with the Google Ventures team to build a podcasting app to rival Itunes.

Podcasting is growing every day. More and more companies are introducing podcasts as a part of their media offerings, and providing Podcast buttons alongside the now-standard social media connectors Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  This fast-growing form of content is worth a listen.  

By: Molly Barson