Podcast listening is rising sharply though many people still find podcasts hard to fathom. On the one hand podcasts’ ‘long form’ story structure doesn’t fit into some people’s social media consumption habit filled with memes and GIFs. Or, they tend to be dismissed as too mundane, given how many ‘vlogs’ (video blogs) bubble over with rants and risqué material guaranteed to harvest clicks. There is, however, a wide chasm between these two. Plenty of gaps being filled by experimental podcasts. Atlantic magazine has ‘The Experiment’ to do a deep dive into the culture and politics. Slate, in 2016 began what it called a ‘rolling podcast’ style of delivering fresh content around the elections, as did the New York Times’ podcast ‘The Daily.’ While these niches await proper nomenclature many podcasts have mined the gaps that the media were once reluctant to invest in.
DESPITE THIS, DID YOU KNOW that 55% of Americans have listened to a podcast? The listener profile of the growing podcast audience is near-evenly split between men and women: 51%: 49%. Here’s another surprising little stat: Listeners over 12 years of age listened to podcasts for six and a half hours a week! That’s from a study of 1,500 people in January and February 2020, by Edison Research and Triton Digital. Worth reading the full report here.
My hypothesis is that podcasts are lighting a fire under the media, giving rise to a new journalism. The climate couldn’t more right for it, with people cloistered in make-shift home offices, or tired of the formulaic story arc on the evening news. There’s also the smart speaker set, who can listen to something different while making coffee, or doing laundry. The term ‘New Journalism’ isn’t new. In fact, it was used in the Nineteen sixties and seventies when journalism was invigorated by fiction writing techniques. The Britannica describes it as a genre that emerged when writers “immersed themselves in their subjects, at times spending months in the field gathering facts through research, interviews, and observation.” Sounds a lot like some of the podcasts mentioned above, and the one that follows.
A RECENT, EXCELLENT EXAMPLE of a podcast becoming and shaping the new journalism of our times could be seen in the story, Odessa. The podcast, The Daily, (by the New York Times) devoted its entire show to analyzing how one school district, Odessa Texas, experimented with reopening school. In fact it is a podcast in four parts — an audio documentary. The story immerses us into the lives of the Odessa High School teacher and a student, both struggling to make a virus-mangled school year work for them.
The student works in a fast food outlet, with an earphone in one ear attempting to listen to a teacher during online school, while making smoothies for customers. She misses the social aspect of school but desperately needs the money — the oil bust in her town, Odessa, forced her to make that hard choice. The teacher likewise is wrestling with the blended school model, anguishing about her students, and also her ability to cope with the work load. Don’t I know that!
What differentiates this kind of journalism is that in a podcast, the journalist-as-host brings in a sense of immediacy not possible in print media. We are privy to the lives of the characters in the developing story, a fly on the wall in a classroom and in the restaurant. (Oddly enough, we too might be multitasking through this episode, with an earbud in one ear, and listening out for a child on a swing.) The journalist tiptoes in and out of the story to connect the dots. The long pauses are left in, so we feel the tension of the thoughts voiced in the conversation.
In acknowledgement of this development, in December 2019, the Pulitzer Board announced a new category for audio reporting. Note: that was just before COVID rolled in. It called this an experimental move in recognition of a “renaissance of audio journalism” that opened up “non-fiction storytelling.” It was looking a format that showed “a commitment to honesty with both audiences and subjects.” The best podcasts do just that, and that’s why they resonate with us.
I’ve been listening to The Daily for about a year now, alongside This American Life, On the Media and This Week in Tech. So I was delighted when This American Life, hosted by reporter/raconteur Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer. The long-running show may have sparked of many other podcasts today. The show declares: “We view the show as an experiment. We try things.” (One show was turned into a live musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda!) Even as the pandemic closed many, many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling.
Here’s to audio journalism!