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Can podcasting save the world?

As writers resort to attention-getting headlines to maintain readership it’s clear that the educated, mobile, and bored reader is now turning into a listener. While written news continues to flood us from every conceivable angle there is one small, quiet voice still speaking to us from our earbuds: the podcaster speaking truth to power, bullshitting about movies, or spinning long narrative threads about dead men and their gold.

First, let’s all agree that podcasting is getting big. Once the domain of amateur mumblers who spoke at length about laptop specs or chemtrails, podcasting has become big business and listeners are paying attention. I posit that podcasting has become the default method for consuming longform journalism and commentary and that should give writers and journalists pause.

Some numbers: In the past six years podcast listenership has risen 13% from 23% to 36% of Americans aged 12 and up. The number of podcasts hosted on Libsyn rose from 12,000 in 2012 to 28,000 in 2016. WNYC raised $15 million to create a new “podcast division.” A new podcast, one that details the life and times of an eccentric Southern clockmaker, achieved blockbuster status, grabbing 1.8 million subscribers since launch.

Again, these numbers pale in comparison to the budgets of cable TV and Internet. This website alone has 8 million followers on Twitter and does 1.8 million pageviews in a few hours. The written word, however, becomes far less interesting in places where education is valued but the time and concentration necessary to consume longform writing is lacking. A sysadmin I know listens to hundreds of podcasts on his daily walks to and from work. Countless long-distance commuters plug in a podcast for the trip from Circleville to Columbus or Bucks County to Manhattan. Podcasting is the new talk radio and it skews, at least in the categories we can measure, toward the public radio listener.

Spoken word has long been in a doldrum but that is changing. While talk radio appeals to sports fans and baby boomers it never appealed to the long form reader. Podcasts, however, have begun the slow process of replacing the written word. Some of the best non-fiction out there is appearing on shows like This American Life and Serial and it’s clear that on-demand audio, like on-demand video before it, is the “next big thing.”

Now back to my hyperbolic title – can podcasting truly save the world? First, we have to assume that the world wants long form writing on the Internet. I think this is true. We love stories and consuming those stories in audio format is a true treat. It lets us consume long form content without the associated costs of reading, costs that, while minimal, still require time and attention.

Second, we have to assume that podcasts are getting better. The numbers bear this out. While most of Libsyn’s podcasts, I’m assuming, aren’t on par with in-depth analyses like Radiolab or Serial we can assume that at least a few of those podcasts – Hardcore History and A History of the World in 100 Objects spring to mind – have multiple thousands of downloads and are designed for the careful, curious listener.

Therefore we are getting amazing content for free via podcasting and any time that happens someone gets hurt. When blogs started producing acceptably readable facsimiles of newspaper reports they supplanted newspapers. Once websites and forums could review products better than computer magazines the magazines died. Podcasting will change the world by bringing us back to literary non-fiction and encourage contemplative, not consumptive, models of media.

If I were in the betting game I’d say that podcasts will rise in popularity as television and radio wane. News, commentary, and histories work quite well in the podcasting medium. You can easily grab a daily news rundown and listen to it at your leisure just as you can easily download the best of the podcasting world for slow, careful consideration. Whereas television and radio are considered finite resources by the folks who maintain them there can be a podcast for every mind. Why listen to Howard Stern for hours when you can listen to three podcasts that are equally raunchy and, presumably, get more out of the process?

We have no time to read. We do have time to listen to podcasts. Again, if I were in the betting game I would wager that podcasts are only going to get more popular and if I were getting into media I’d learn how to make and sell them. It’s rare that something blossoms so wildly right under our noses. It would help us to pay attention.

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