The word “podcast”—a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast”—emerged in the early 2000s. Although Apple didn’t support podcasting until 2005, “Podfather” Adam Curry introduced Daily Source Code, one of the earliest podcasts, in the summer of 2004. Since then, the number of podcasts (and the number of listeners) has mushroomed.
According to a study by Edison Research, an estimated 98 million people in the United States regularly listen to podcasts. But why do they—er, we—tune in? Is it because technology has only made it easier for storytellers to connect with us? Or is it because podcasts have revived radio drama and the emotions that come from listening to a story?
My guess is that it’s both.
Chris Giliberti, chief of staff at podcast network Gimlet media, believes quality content, connectedness, and distribution are three of the reasons why podcasting is the future of storytelling—a continuation of the oral storytelling that has served “as the sole means of abstracting experiences and emotions in narrative form” for ages.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, for example, serialized radio dramas populated the airwaves. One of my favorite depictions of that era? The movie A Christmas Story, when Ralph the narrator says the radio show Little Orphan Annie was the only thing in the world that could’ve dragged him away from “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.” Later in the film—and much to our entertainment—Ralph deciphers a “secret message” that turns out to be a commercial.
These days, podcasts with large audiences drive high ad rates, often two to four times greater than most digital advertising. Last year, podcast advertising expanded at a 48 percent rate, and it is forecast to grow about 25 percent a year through 2020. So while you may not hear, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” it’s likely you’ll be privy to a mail-order mattress ad. (Or two.) (Or three.)
An estimated 71 percent of individuals listen to podcasts through their smartphones, tablets, or other portable devices, up from 42 percent in 2013. And the portability of podcasts means folks are listening to them wherever and whenever they can—during commutes, at work, while out on a run, when cooking.
Since the car is one of the most popular places to listen to podcasts, it’s no surprise NPR talks about “driveway moments”—the times we pull into our driveways and garages, but leave the radio on, spellbound. Stopped in our tracks by a compelling story.
It’s kind of intimate, really, being able to pop in our earbuds and listen to The Moth or Love + Radio, hear voices close to our own sentiments. Other nonfiction podcasts such as This American Life, Serial, and StartUp tell stories through interviews and other journalistic techniques. They’re captivating, intriguing, curious. And The Run-Up, a podcast that “makes sense of the most delirious stretch of the 2016 campaign” tackles political issues through storytelling.
As for fiction podcasts? They’re a thing, too. The elements of surprise that come with listening to programs like Welcome to Night Vale and The Leviathan Chronicles are well-suited to audio formats. And, like books, they force audiences to build the world and get lost in their own imagination of what it might look like.
I think that’s what we listeners are searching for—a story we can bond with. A tale that captivates and compels us. And one we can take with us on our morning commute or daily run. Because with tens of thousands of podcasts and billions of downloads, there’s bound to be a story that gives us the feels. All the feels.