About a year ago, I was stuck with the task of cutting out fourteen dragon costumes for my daughter’s elementary school play, Shrek. Knowing this would take several hours of maneuvering purple spandex, I thought I’d at least do something with my un-occupied ears. Social media had been blowing up about a young man who had been convicted of murder, and I realized his case was featured in a podcast. So, while pinning and cutting and re-pinning, I got hooked on my first podcast—Serial. Not only did I listen to four episodes that afternoon, I couldn’t stop. By the end of the week I had finished all twelve, and already wanted more.
I am not alone. Serial blew the podcasting world. With 5 million downloads and counting, it is considered the most successful podcast of all time.
In a broader scope, as of early 2015, more than 300,000 different podcasts exist in the world with 33% percent of Americans reported to be listening (up from 29% in 2012). These trends bring about two important questions. First, is our culture experiencing the zenith of a new art form, perhaps the first match of a firestorm of creativity and ingenuity? And, if this is true, why are we suddenly listening?
What is a Podcast?
Currently, my iPhone podcast app lists sixteen subscriptions. Like facets of my own personality, these channels range from high-brow (literary book clubs and history lessons) to daily-living (grammar guides and wine pairings) to low-brow “brain breaks” (TV show gossip and horrible movies rifts). More than just discussion and interviews, I find that podcasts all have one main aspect in common—they create a conversation. When Sarah Koenig in Serial muses over whether or not Adnan Syed might have killed his ex-girlfriend, it feels like she’s sharing her notes over coffee. Likewise, when writers Hanna Rosin and Katy Waldman also find A Little Life a bit absurd in the Slate Audio Book Club, it’s just like a real book club, albeit without the host’s annoying cat or stale potato chips.
A Historical Perspective
Some elements of podcasting are not really new. Humans have been trading stories back and forth using visual and oral storytelling from the very beginning. The power of narrative can be seen in the rock-art of cave men and the Egyptian carvings. Later, oral traditions were the basis of communication as seen in the myths and folklore of The Odyssey and Beowulf. Eventually, written communication gained and maintained dominance with the alphabet and printing presses. Then, with the telephone and then radio, we once again listened.
During the Golden Age of Radio (1920-1950’s), the entire nation was captivated by an audio platform that provided everything from news, sports, dramas, quiz shows, and even detective serials. According to a 1947 survey by the C.E. Hooper Company, 82 out of 100 Americans were found to be radio listeners. Life then revolved around getting home, where families and friends listened around a cathedral style upright or perhaps a portable battery-powered transistor radio.
With the vast variety of options all on our mobile devices, could we be in at the start of a “Golden Age of Podcasting?”
Podcasts and the Brain.
Many forecasters are betting that podcasting is the future of media consumption. In the past 18 months, several new podcast networks have launched, including Panoply and Radiotopia, and advertisers are rushing to an avenue where they can pinpoint their exact customer per podcast. In part, they may be betting on our desire to become completely absorbed in a narrative, a function that has dwindled as our lives have become more consumed with multi-tasking screens and less about reading or even chatting.
In a study published in The Annals of the New York Academy of Science in 2009, researchers had participants watch short video clips featuring an emotional or unemotional scene. Those who reported feeling empathy for the characters in the clip were found to have 47 percent more of the neurochemical oxytocin in their body than those who didn’t feel empathetic toward the characters. Oxytocin—also called the love drug—has been shown to make us feel more trusting and produce loving feelings in groups.
I myself rarely have time to read a book for pleasure these days. Sadly, the last time I actually called and chatted with a friend (not via text) was weeks ago. So could my excitement for the next episode of Serial somehow be connected with the levels of oxytocin that will start pumping as soon as the opening music plays and the narrative starts? And does that mean our culture was turning towards an oxytocin-love void as we started typing-texting-emojiing-GIFing instead of simply listening? Perhaps the podcast is modern culture’s love drug.
Right now, I have four un-played episodes. I will listen to those by tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be looking for more.
Nancy’s Top 10 Podcasts:
- Serial. From the creators of This American Life and hosted by Sarah Koenig, Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of a season. Each season, we follow a plot and characters wherever they take us.
- You Must Remember This. A podcast on the secret or forgotten history of 20th Century Hollywood.
- Slate Audio Book Club. A panel of Slate writers discuss a new book each month.
- Dinner Party Download. A fast and funny hour of culture, food and conversation—the arts and leisure section of public radio—with hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam.
- NPR Happy Hour. Pop culture new and analysis from NPR.
- The Lit Show. A weekly literary radio show based at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and broadcast on KRUI Radio in Iowa City.
- Wine for Normal People. A podcast for people who want to learn about wine without all the snobbery.
- Bitch Sesh: A Real Houswives Breakdown. Female comedian rift on the Bravos series. So great that I don’t even need to watch the actual shows.
- How Did This Get Made? Comedians dish about movies so bad they are legendary.
- Doug Loves Movies. Comedians and actors compete in trivia all based on movies.
Nancy Kidder is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.