Before the popularisation of television, radio was the king of accessible entertainment. But since then radio has been very much pushed aside – if you’re looking for news or drama you’re better suited to finding it on TV, where you’ve got a wider choice and can see what’s going on. The one area where the radio still excels is for music, but even then, you can listen to that on the TV or you can just open YouTube or Spotify and listen to whatever you want. Radio has been relegated to listening on the morning commute for those who own cars and half the time in that situation I can’t stand the music and turn it off anyway.
Despite this, however, the medium of audio isn’t entirely dead – it’s just online. Although podcasts can technically include a visual component, as many do, the focus for most is on something to listen to. Although they started as a fairly niche form of entertainment for those who could be bothered to subscribe to an RSS feed or some obscure mobile app, podcasts have been steadily becoming more and more accessible and popular. The iPhone, for example, now comes with a podcasts app by default.
So, what is it that’s resulted in this success for podcasts? Why don’t people just watch TV or use YouTube? Why have podcasts managed to succeed where radio has failed? One factor is convenience. Unlike radio, podcasts are meant to be delivered regularly on-demand to be listened to at your own discretion. Instead of having to tune in at 6:30pm every Friday for my favourite show and potentially missing it, new episodes for podcasts that I subscribe to are automatically added to the app on my phone. All I have to do is listen to it when I have the time. Another aspect of this convenience is that I only need a phone or a computer to listen to a podcast, rather than having to buy a whole separate device. This also means that I can listen to it easily on public transport, not just in a car, and if my journey is faster than I expected I can just pause the podcast to listen to the rest later.
This convenience factor doesn’t, however, explain the whole appeal of podcasts. The ease of creating podcasts means that more people do it, which in turn means that there’s more variety. There are comedy podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang, documentary or news podcasts like Serial and This American Life and even dramas like Welcome to Night Vale (or, to my shame, hundreds of hours of Doctor Who on audio). Whereas TV, radio and even YouTube can require significant effort and a substantial budget (for sets, cameras, performers, effects, getting it on a popular network at a good time, etc.) podcasts just require some microphones, a good idea and maybe a nice logo. As a result, I regularly listen to high-budget podcasts such as those produced by Rooster Teeth (which are also recorded on camera) as well as much cheaper productions released by people who just enjoy it as a hobby without devoting a great deal of time or money to it.
Yet another advantage of podcasts, I find, is that I can listen to them while doing something else. If I have an hour or two of spare time set aside I must no longer choose between playing the new Battlefield game and listening to some comedy – because I only need to listen to one and look at the other it’s perfectly easy to do both. (I would, however, not recommend attempting this while studying as you’ll just end up with a blank Word document and less enjoyment of the podcast.)
But greatest of all, and what makes podcasts stand out so much especially from TV, is that it’s generally entirely free! Most podcasts are self-funded or funded by advertising, which might mean that you’ll have to listen to the same pitch for shaving products at least once every week, but at least it’s short and not as irritating as another fucking advert about PPI or life insurance or payday loans. Some podcasts do have a paid element, such as an online subscription service which lets you watch the recordings live and get other content earlier. My beloved Doctor Who audio dramas (which aren’t technically podcasts but who cares) can cost a bit too much, which I personally don’t mind though. Getting to listen to Tom Baker or David Tennant pretending to be a heroic space man again is worth paying any price, but it could deter some people.
If you’re interested in podcasts and want to find somewhere good to start, most of the ones I’ve mentioned above are good – Welcome to Night Vale is particularly popular although I don’t get the appeal. I’d strongly recommend Rooster Teeth’s podcasts, especially their main podcast called, fittingly, the Rooster Teeth Podcast. If you don’t trust me, though, just check out the podcasts app on whatever phone you have. You’ll be able to browse by category to explore the wonderful world of podcasting in a convenient way.
[David McGinley – @mcgingly]