The Recent Podcast Renaissance

I think the golden age of technology-focused podcasting existed around 2007 followed by a slump in interest around 2009 or 2010 as Kevin Roose has suggested in his recent piece in New York Magazine. And, since then there’s been a huge uptick in podcasts that cater to more mainstream listeners. As Roose points out, 39 million people listened to a podcast in the last month, the highest number on record according to Edison Research.

The podcasting world is better in a lot of ways — the medium is legitimized by the major players, the technology is easier to acquire, and mainstream listeners actually know what podcasting is now. But, I think there’s some downsides for people like me who have been listening to podcasts since the beginning. Many of the shows that I’ve loved over the years have grown stale or ended and I’ve found very few that manage to fill their shoes.

And, there’s something to be said about the energy that exists on a show that’s still trying to figure it all out. All of the shows I listen to now “know” what they’re doing and end up feeling formulaic and, unfortunately, a little boring. I miss the days when podcasts felt more free-form, in which the hosts would let the show go wherever the conversation took them without having to worry about when they’re going to slip in the next advertising read.

I think Kevin Roose was very close to the mark in his aforelinked piece, about why podcasts have recently become so popular, but he just barely missed it.

It’s actually about cars[…] Now, though, cars are going online. Both Google and Apple have rolled out connected-car platforms (Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, respectively), and most new cars sold in the U.S. these days come with the ability to play smartphone audio over the car’s speakers, either through Bluetooth connectivity or through a USB or auxiliary plug.

Yes the car is incredibly important, as most audio listening takes place there. But, I think the key point is the proliferation of smartphones.

It used to take subscribing in iTunes and syncing your iPod to your computer to get a podcast into your car (unless you were crazy enough to burn CDs of podcast episodes). No one I knew synced their iPod regularly enough to keep up with the release schedule of a podcast. And for many, taking away this barrier to entry was all that was necessary for them to get on board with podcasting. Now, with a smartphone all you have to do is open up your favorite podcast player and it automatically starts checking podcast feeds and displays their latest episodes to you.

Playing audio from a separate device in your car has been easy for about twenty years. Even if all you have is a cassette player, you’re only a cheap cassette player adapter away from playing audio from a separate device in your car. That’s why the car isn’t the key piece to the puzzle, the smartphone is.

Every person I know between the ages of 13 and 55 has a device that they carry around in their pocket, every single day, that’s capable of downloading or streaming podcast episodes. That’s what’s changed over the past ten years. Most of those same people had a car that could play music from their iPod (or other device) for a decade or more. The smartphone is what has changed. And, the smartphone is the reason podcasting has become so popular.