The return of podcasts amidst a visual-driven entertainment frenzy

Photo by Alex Trkulja

Differences between story-telling formats highlight pros and cons. While television, arguably the most popular method of modern entertainment, is an incredible invention that connects people by an intensely specific craft of art, it is a method that requires little engagement from its audience.

By offering less, the radio format was able to influence people in incredible ways; nothing could be more significant than the 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, a radio drama adaptation that, while heavily exaggerated by history, did have an enormous impact on its listeners; some people genuinely feared that the world was under attack by extraterrestrial life.

The podcast is a little bit different, although it still adheres to the same traditions. Welcome to Night Vale, one of the most popular dramatic podcasts, is all about fear-mongering; realizing a town where every conspiracy theory is actually true.

Knowledge is a heavy factor when considering the podcast, but it’s important to recognize that the format is even more varied and unfixed than television. Some use the format to discuss politics and science, others use it for scripted dramas. Some use it to engage with religion.

The Nexus Church in Kitchener uses podcasts as a supplement to their ministry.

“We have a much younger congregation,” said Brad Watson, pastor. “Younger people listen to podcasts a lot … they don’t go to church as regularly as they used to. They wanted a way to keep up with what we were doing.”

By recording and online-publishing weekly lessons, Watson is not only able to reach a younger crowd — he’s also able to communicate with a more distant, varied audience, ranging from those who live outside the province to locals who simply don’t want to get out of bed on Sunday morning.

It’s the influence of this on-demand world that empowers the podcast. It sources radio to that same end, with a focus on less disposable, engaging content.

Data has recorded that people strive for that content, with the number of podcast listeners increasing every year. In 2016, 21 per cent of Americans listened to at least one podcast monthly; that’s about the same percentage who use Twitter.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith used podcasts to create a new brand for himself. NPR used the format for immersive, investigative journalism with Serial. Podcasts have been used to audit university lectures from all over the world. They give a platform for enormously long, nuanced discussions of popular television, like Seincast and Worst Episode Ever.

The bottom line is that podcasts extend the appeal of radio with a no-holds-barred, consumptive approach; they discuss the things people want to hear about in as much or as little detail as the listener wants. They can be big enough to have worldwide appeal, or they can be small enough to be personal and intimate.

Whether for education, recreation, or something else altogether, it’s difficult to narrow down the specific appeal of podcasts because, by their nature, they are incredibly varied.

That is the most unique feature of a podcast: it can be anything. While television has to receive a budget and be confined to a certain length, a podcast can spend 30 seconds or 500 hours discussing the tiniest nuances of the most insignificant things. It doesn’t need to be approved, it doesn’t need a budget and it doesn’t have to take time. The distance between idea and execution is minuscule.

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