podcasts: a sinking ship or a successful maiden voyage?

There’s no question that 2017 was the year of the podcast. But this news nerd was slow to catch onto the craze. I don’t know if it’s my blind loyalty to visual media or my experience as a terrible auditory learner, but it was only this past Thanksgiving weekend that I gave this podcast trend a try, and I have to say, I think this trend, unlike the onset of shiplap, is here to stay.

I’ll admit that your mindset for podcasts has to be just right. Whether it’s comedy, self-help, political or science podcasts you’re after, you have to be prepared to listen intently for what could be up to an hour. My initial avoidance of podcasts was because I really do not possess that superwoman quality of multitasking. I pause my Netflix to respond to texts. I stop cooking to listen and respond to a conversation. I find myself standing in the shower because the song on my playlist has my full attention. Okay the cooking one was a lie, I don’t cook. Anyway, the idea that I would a) be able to sit in a room and use one of my senses without being distracted by the others, or b) should operate a vehicle while becoming enthralled in a murder-mystery, presented reasonable doubt. And I cannot listen to podcasts in my home. Between the dog, my stomach growling, or the endless amount of laundry piling up, it's simply is a losing battle. But I have found that listening and driving, while previously seen as dangerous, is the right amount of diversion to make a road trip fly by.

So after diving into this new medium, I couldn’t help but wonder (I’m ironically using this phrase after this hilarious article about how bad of a writer Carrie Bradshaw is), who is consuming this media and why now?

In journalism school, we’re trained to write for TV at a fourth-grade reading level. Not because people are stupid, but because studies show that people understand and digest less information that is delivered via listening rather than reading. Print journalism is often laced with beautiful metaphors, SAT prep words and concepts that often require a college degree; and while yes, some of this is audience-driven, there is something to be said about the ability to read to words, reread them if need be and understand concepts in their context.

When a news anchor reads the latest news, it’s in one ear and out the other. You snooze, you lose. (Why do I keep using so many cliches?) As a morning producer, I knew that most of my viewers were getting dressed, feeding their children or making lunch as they “watched the news” to start their day. I had to write in a way that was simple and efficient. Which contributes to another lesson we j-school grads, especially broadcasters, learned and lived by: visuals are key. My job was not only to write the scripts (short sentences, easy language) that anchors would read, but to create the graphics that appeared on the screen accompanying the script. I also chose the video that would play as the anchor read. All of these choices were intentional, aiding to the overall message and facts the viewers needed.

Lastly, we were taught the eight-second rule. When deciding how to tell a story, it was crucial to understand that most people’s attention span lasts eight seconds. If you’re not showing them new information after that window, you’ve lost a viewer.

All of these lessons primed me to believe podcasts were a fad, a desperate attempt to reach consumers, a sinking ship. But the statistics show quite the contrary. According to Nielsen’s June 2017 ‘State Of The Media: Audio Today 2017’ report, 40 percent of the population has listened to a podcast. That’s 112 million people. And what’s even more interesting is that those that listen are not passing ships (to keep with the ship metaphor)—they are hooked by this new medium. Podcast listeners subscribe to an average of 6 shows, listen to an average of 5 different shows per week and 86 percent listen to all or most of each episode.

This is incredible. While traditional TV, newspapers, magazines and even websites are in decline, Americans are addicted to this fresh medium, which in essence returns us to the nostalgic days of radio. It’s been more than 60 years since radio was king, so again, why now?

Nielsen’s research continues to show a new kind of news consumers: more educated, wealthier, more diverse, more engaged. These listeners are active on social media, not just from a personal, let-me-see-what-the-hot-guy-from-high-school-is-up-to-these-days way, but in an active and articulate way. They’re reviewing products online. They’re interacting with companies and brands as entities rather than providers. They believe they have a voice that needs to be heard.

Fifty percent of podcasts are consumed at home, a startling statistic to rectify when you see the average income and educational levels of those most likely to listen. But maybe this is a true reflect of the kind of societal changes we’re seeing across a growing number of American homes: more self-employed breadwinners. There are more people working from home or working on their own time. I think that the success of podcast can be potential proof that this innovative style of employment breeds a consumer who craves educational opportunities, desires to be connected to their greater community or world and sees self-improvement as a top priority. And that my friends, is a step in the right direction.

And maybe the novelty of podcasts is responsible for part of their success, but I have to believe that whether it’s a shift in trust of authority, a fear of the unknown (I did it again) or really a true evolution of consumers, it’s a change that is necessary, and I’m jumping for joy (that one was on purpose) over its future implications.

_______________

I couldn’t cover all of the possible reasons for podcast success, such as niche topic, accessibility, and celebrity endorsement, but I think it’s safe to say podcasts are the future. Whether it’s in your headphones while you work out, through your Bluetooth while you drive or blaring over Alexa while you clean, give them a try— climb aboard this new movement.

-M