A look into the rise of podcasts and how our generation consumes media.
Let’s say you’re walking to the bus from class and you want to listen to something other than the album you’ve had on repeat. You look up your favorite source on your phone, whether it be Podcasts, Spotify, or another platform and put on an episode of your favorite podcast. The familiar bit of music plays at the beginning of the episode, and you perk up a bit, excited for what’s to come. It’s like being a kid and hearing the theme song of your favorite cartoon play in your living room. A familiar voice (or set of voices) speak, almost like they’re talking directly in your ears. You’re part of the conversation and learning something new, like this morning’s latest news stories or the chilling account of a serial killer from the 1970s.
Even though it seems as if you are in your own world, you’re really listening along with millions of people. This is a common experience in the world of podcasts. Podcasts, as we know them, have only been around since 2004 when former MTV disc jockey Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer created an app called iPodder. The app downloaded news broadcasts from the Internet and converted them into digital audio files. Since then podcasts have been created by nearly every major news organization (such as NPR, CNN, and Fox News) and have branched into political commentary, true crime, pop culture, and mental health. As for the title, iPod + Broadcasts = podcasts.
The interesting thing about podcasts is how they are attracting the younger age groups. According to Edison Research, 51 percent of monthly podcast listeners in 2017 were people ages 17-34. They’re mostly male and white, and either have or are pursuing a college degree. Looking at the demographics, it seems like these people are the children and grandchildren of loyal listeners to talk radio shows. There are definitely some similarities in both of these media formats. A host, or group of hosts, relays their opinion on a certain situation (like the release of a new video game, or a presidential election) and the consumer listens. By hearing a conversation, they are made to feel like they are part of it–even if the person talking is thousands of miles away and has never met their listeners.
The differences are there, though. Talk radio typically broadcasts during a certain time of day on weekdays or a particular day of the week on the station that sponsors it. It is bound by a corporation, time, and the Federal Communications Commission. Podcasts can be uploaded by anyone, are available for download and on-demand listening, don’t have to be part of a major media company (although many popular ones are, like Pod Save America being part of Crooked Media) and don’t have to be regulated by the FCC. It seems like podcasts are the natural evolution of talk radio as technology has progressed, and with the ability to listen to episodes anywhere, anytime, it’s easier than ever for new listeners to jump in. While podcast creators don’t have to worry about conforming to FCC regulations and can say essentially whatever they want, it begs the question if podcasts are enabling hateful rhetoric or radicalization. Take for example podcasts created by and for supporters of the alt-right, like The Daily Shoah, which uses vehement racism and anti-Semitism.
Podcast fans and supporters of free speech may say that the lack of FCC regulation lets content creators be unrestrained in their podcasts, which is why podcasts are so widely received and enjoyed by the public as an alternative to news or talk radio. On the other hand, it begs the question of where the line should be drawn for content that is seen as hateful or dangerous. In our current age of mass shootings motivated by the online radicalization of disenfranchised young people, could podcasts be held responsible for its content? In my opinion, there’s no argument against the fact that podcasts will be a major player in how we consume information, and that the days of regular radio shows are numbered. I’d like to see more podcasts that appeal to diverse audiences and for the medium to flourish. However, as time goes on and the amount and types of podcasts that exist expand, regulation will become necessary.