Podcasts have come into their own and the audio-blogging of the past has turned into a revolutionary digital culture movement few of us can ignore. Qiraat Attar explores the trend that is essentially a conversation amongst millions
Can you take a gander at how many podcasts exist today? More than 1 million unique podcasts and around 66 million podcast episodes online. Just for comparison, there are 500,000 movies in all of existence. This unassuming, audio-centric, conversational art form has transformed into a prime medium of expression of today’s times, a space for discussion, dissent, and dissemination of ideas. So, what gives? What has caused the meteoric rise of the podcast?
(Sound)Waves From History
While they may feel millennial and in-season, podcasting originated in the 1980s, when it was called audio blogging (which is still catchy!). However, it took the release of the first iPod, making it easier to upload recorded files to portable audio devices, which popularized the art form. We can all thank journalist Ben Hammersley who artfully combined ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’ to coin ‘podcast’, which has since endured.
The ‘Cool’ Kid On The Block
It is challenging to stand toe-to-toe with our more accepted visual-heavy entertainment, so how are podcasts thriving? Podcasts are unusual. You’ve got the famous and the virtually unknown, the orators and the comics, the politicians and the miscreants, all vying for your attention with nothing but a good, interesting conversation. Topics can vary from a discussion about bugs and beetles, to country politics, from true crime to feminism. From the evangelists to the atheists, everyone’s got a podcast. They are not unlike the intellectual gatherings in the olden days where people flocked around to listen to philosophers, thinkers, poets. As humans, we thrive on conversation, on connection. Podcasts are a modern-day rendition of the fireside chats of yore, which fulfills this instinct.
2020 has been a defining year for entertainment. OTT content exploded, social media ‘influencers’ became commonplace, independent journalism proliferated, and science and medicine became tenets to live by. Stuck at home, battling anxiety about the world and the uncertainty of our lives, our need for information catapulted into high gear. News channels were all riding the Covid news cycle, but people realized that having information is critical to stay on top of things. And no one said the mode of information had to be boring or monotonous. Enter – the new-fangled podcast.
The renewed popularity of podcasts can be explained by its 21st century-compatible concept. It is basically an on-demand radio show, combining the erstwhile audio format with the on-demand availability of streaming services.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Vulture article, ‘Yes, Podcast Listenership is still on the rise’, reveals that podcast listeners grew in number in the USA, now clocking in at 115 million Americans. The overall familiarity with the medium also grew from 75% the year before the pandemic to 78% during the period.
UAE sees 1.3 million regular podcast listeners, a 2019 report by Markettiers MENA revealed, and 9 out of 10 listeners report trusting them more than traditional media. In India, podcasts saw a 42 percent increase on popular audio streaming platforms after an initial decline during the pandemic in 2020. While global audience overall leans sharply in favour of the West, sample surveys have revealed a penchant for podcasts amongst South Koreans.
Our Favorite Auditory Companions
Enough chit-chat already! We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the most popular podcasts that dominate our streaming platforms.
The ‘Joe Rogan Experience’ has been called the most influential show on the internet. Started in 2009 by comedian Joe Rogan, it’s the world’s most popular rule-breakers being unabashedly themselves. Over the years, he’s had Elon Musk, Edward Snowden (on video), Robert Downey Jr, Mike Tyson, and even some polarising public figures on his show. He often reaps the rewards of the ‘shock factor’ that the episodes cause. Episodes sometimes run into three hours, and guests are loath to stick to a single topic, but no matter how many rules the show breaks, or maybe because of it, it remains enduring in today’s digital culture.
‘How I built this’ is like a catnip for budding entrepreneurs. Hosted by astute journalist Guy Raz, he talks with the creators and founders of our most renowned brands and companies – from ‘Instagram’ to ‘Kate Spade’ to avant-garde makeup ‘Bobbi Brown’. The comfort and non-intrusiveness offered by his tone gets them to reveal their origin story, their motivations, and how those with unbridled passion are not interested in living that retirement life, constantly churning on a new idea.
Truth be told, there are so many podcasts that exploring them all is probably worth a podcast of its own! Love Data science? There’s Data Skeptic with Kyle Polich, talking analytics without hurry or extravagance, a true learner’s delight. Looking for feminist discourse around body neutrality and fatphobia? iWeigh with actress Jameela Jamil is wonderfully inclusive, hilarious, and eye-opening. Obsessed by how brands compete? ‘Business Wars’ hosted by David Brown takes you into battles fought in boardrooms and stock markets. Looking to undergo a complete health transformation? ‘Hurdle’ by Emily Abbate has taken the journey, knows the pitfalls and provides heaps of motivation. And finally, for all those stumbling when building your business, ‘Build a Badass Business’ by Diane Sanfilippo talks how to navigate the obstacle course of entrepreneurship.
Podcasts aren’t just good or bad; some are worth checking out for novelty alone. Try these on for size – a songwriter duo from Liverpool chat with musicians about how tunes go from the brain to the stage in ‘Sodajerker on songwriting’, or a show on real-world science about issues we should really know more about in ‘Science v/s’. There are words to captivate you, no matter your obsession – be it bugs (‘Arthro-pod’ by Jonathan Larson), love (Anna Faris’ ‘Unqualified’) or just falling asleep (‘Sleepy’ by Otis Gray).
All these must make podcasts seem overwhelmingly western and you can’t be faulted for it. Often touted as verbose and opinionated, Americans especially have a long history of talk shows, news channels debates, sports analysis, celebrity interviews, and the like, so obviously, podcasts were going to find fertile ground in the western airspace. Well, some hosts are making sure the UAE is not one to be left behind.
Anas Bukhash’s show #ABTalks promises the ‘raw’ side of celebrities, athletes, entrepreneurs, and influencers as human beings. There are some lesser-known gems too. Starting a business even on the home ground can be a tangle of exhaustion and red-tape, so how did two expats find their footing in UAE for business? Barry and Oskar talk about their journey and uncover stories of other hustlers on ‘Swenglanese’.
Confused about legal norms in UAE and not sure whom to ask? Lawyer Ahmed Odeh has got your back on ‘Legal-ish’, where he answers questions posed to them via email, under total anonymity. And if you’re looking for a super-chill walk-through food and fine living culture in the UAE, ‘Afternoons with Helen Farmer’ is your siren song.
Statistics show that 35 percent of people who don’t listen to podcasts (despite being aware of them) say it’s because they don’t know how to locate one. Let us help you out! Google Podcasts, Apple Music, and Spotify have most of the best ones, and check listicles online to keep discovering cool and niche content.
A ‘Get Smart’ Scheme
It is tough to beat the entertainment quotient of film and TV, and now OTT platforms – but that’s what’s great about podcasts – they’re not trying to. Podcasts, for the most part offer non-fiction, conversation-based entertainment, very different from the visual, story, and drama-driven forms of film and TV. They occupy a different niche, one growing bigger with each day. It is for this reason that podcasts are not for those bingeing entertainment as a lifestyle, but for those who want their entertainment to supplement an already highly-packed, productive lifestyle, and offer more than just a distraction. Over time, a layered development of the space has established it as a medium that focuses on learning and bright ideas, not mere frivolity. In fact, nearly three out of every four podcast consumers in the US say they enjoy tuning in to podcasts to learn new things (Statista, 2019).
Everyone has opinions, but some opinions are more sought-after than others. And it is the opinions and ideas that matter that make for the most successful podcasts of our time. Of course, podcasts are so democratic that you needn’t bother with the gatekeeping of a broadcasting network or a production house; anyone with a mic and a computer can start a podcast. But know that either being absolutely obsessed with a topic or a unique, radical point of view can actually make for riveting content, whether you’re looking to listen to a new podcast or kickstart one.
We’re in a vacuum of noise with mainstream media – blatant fear-mongering, tantalizing gossip, and a push for propaganda like never before. Podcasts may just be our way out if they can maintain the sanctity they’ve managed to achieve. Their niche topics and laudable speakers try to infuse clarity in place of confusion, discussions in place of arguments. Topics often discarded in mainstream media such as activism, hardcore science, or philosophy find a home here, stretching out and comfortably explored to their fullest. The length and nature allow these ideas to flourish, unencumbered by airtime and the pressure of advertisements. With clear routes for monetization and sponsorship, podcasting is becoming increasingly profitable, not just a mere hobby. As humans, telling each other stories is our evolutionary trump card, and we stay true to it. When all else has turned to dust, that will still endure.