Ah, podcasts. These days, it’s easy to feel like everyone’s got one. Seemingly every week a new politician or former footballer is launching their show and at the same time, your mates are spamming your social media urging you to listen. The big question is why? What’s behind the sudden boom in a format that’s existed for nearly 20 years and what is it that makes the medium so attractive to Ed Balls, Gary Lineker, Joe Rogan, and your best friend alike?
As I say, although podcasts might seem like a recent invention, they actually started out life way back in 2004. That was when Adam Curry and David Winer first harnessed RSS feeds to bring their favourite radio shows to the IPod that was released a few years earlier, hence the amalgamation of ‘IPod’ and ‘broadcast’ to give you the name, ‘podcast’. Apple added native support a year later in 2005 and the industry plodded along for the next seven or eight years in a fairly low-profile way. Initially dominated by existing radio shows and hobbyists, it was until the early 2010s that some of today’s most famous shows were born. 2009 saw Joe Rogan launch ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’, in 2011, ‘The Vergecast’ was born, and a seminal moment came in 2014 when NPR first recorded ‘This American Life’. Still dominated by the United States, Apple announced that it had 1 billion listens on its platform in 2013 and in 2019 Spotify entered the game with the acquisition of Anchor before making Joe Rogan exclusive to its platform two years later. All of this is to say that, especially stateside, podcasts are nothing new.
The last five years or so have seen an explosion in growth, most notably in the United Kingdom. Ten years ago, just 12% of people had listened to a podcast and that is now up to 50% in the UK. As of last month, a staggering 4,256,179 podcasts had been registered globally and the past two years have seen celebrities from Harry and Megan to Steven Bartlett enter the game in a big way. The looming question though is why, especially when only around 5% of shows make any kind of money.
The answer lies in a few key areas but, more than anywhere, in the freedom that hosts are afforded. Much like YouTube offered a platform to millions in the 2010s, podcasting gives people a place to speak about what they want, when they want, how they want. Even better than YouTube, there is no need to invest in expensive camera equipment or spend hours in an edit suite.
This is probably a good time to declare my personal bias towards podcasting. As well as an avid listener to dozens of shows, I am also the host of a food show and launched last term’s Cherwell Weekly podcast. For me, the low barrier of entry was absolutely vital. I never set out to make any kind of money from my episodes, where I interview chefs and people in the food industry about their restaurants and their journeys. To this day, I sometimes record conversations with the microphone in my laptop and spend less than an hour editing together my conversations. Of course, there are far more high-production affairs than mine but that flexibility has, with no advertising whatsoever, seen me travel the world to record episodes and an average of 100,000 listens on every one.
That intimacy and freedom is something that countless hosts much larger than myself talk about. A great example is The News Agents, which has seen three former BBC journalists launch their own space to investigate topics that they choose for as long or as little as they want, exactly how they want.
Clearly, the personal element of listening is a two-way streak and certainly nothing new. In some ways, the medium is filling the gap left by the radio industry. Somewhat uniquely in the UK and perhaps due to the popularity of the BBC, the decline in radio listening has been far less substantial. Today, 89.6% of adults still say that they listen to the radio at least once a week, down just one percent from 2010 and at least 10% higher than in the US. 87% of consumers say that having someone else’s voice was one of the key reasons that they tuned in.
However, whereas space on the radio waves is limited and pricey, podcasting’s breadth gives space to niches that consumers delight in. You’d be very unlikely to discover a live radio broadcast about professional cycling, technology news, or female health, and yet some of the biggest podcasts in the country tackle those very topics. Radio dramas have become the reserve of Radio 4 listeners and yet narrative and true crime podcasts have developed an industry of their own.
That personal connection manifests itself physically too, sometimes to extraordinary levels. Live tours from the likes of ‘The Rest is Politics’, ‘High Performance’, and, ‘The Football Ramble’, have sold out venues across the country and beyond. ‘The Peter Crouch Podcast’ (undoubtedly a personal favourite) takes things to a whole different level with ‘Crouchfest’. This now annual event recently completed its third edition and saw the trio of Peter Crouch, Chris Stark, and Steve Sidwell, sell out Wembley Arena (capacity 12 500) without announcing a single element of the show beforehand. Hosts from that show are regularly greeted on the street with inside jokes from the podcast and their international reach has led to calls for them to take ‘Crouchfest’ abroad.
On the back of all of this rapid development Oxford has developed an entire podcasting world of their own. The University led the way on this back in 2008 when they launched their first podcast channel, originally on the iTunes U platform. Since then, more than 5,360 hours of content have been released as part of the University’s desire to expand its reach and accessibility to all communities. The official website says that downloads have come from 185 countries since the first release and that new episodes are put out almost every day by different departments. Much like The Open University looked to democratise education and Khan Academy brings free educational resources to all, Oxford clearly sees podcasts as a platform to help future applicants and those in far-flung corners of the world alike. It is perhaps no surprise that those two other institutions have followed suit with podcasts of their own.
On the student side, several shows have come and gone over the years with the re-establishment of Oxide Radio two years ago providing a useful outlet for numerous. The Loaf Podcast, hosted by two students, has attracted guests as wide-ranging as Alistair Campbell and Wim Hof to its chat show format since originally launching out of the student radio station. Speaking about the format, the pair said that, “Podcasts can be filmed but – importantly – they don’t have to be. This means people can record shows with nothing more than a microphone. It also means that someone can listen to them on the go, which seems to be why they’ve become so popular.” Speaking to the personal connection mentioned earlier they said that, “The reward for us comes in the form of listener engagement and the joy of learning.” The explosive growth means that, “it also presents itself as a potential career.”
From personal experience, I can only echo those sentiments. The inherent paradox of podcasting is that you are speaking to the entire world in the most personal of mediums. The combination of both of those things is what makes it such a powerful and attractive platform. As I always say to my guests, at the end of the day you’re just letting someone else in on your chat.
Going forward, experts are split on what the future might hold for podcasting. Despite the fact that advertising revenues are set to hit $4 billion early next year, key players such as Spotify are signalling a retreat. Their CFO Paul Vogel said last week that podcasting was proving to be a ‘drag’ on profits and CEO Daniel Eck said that the company was, ‘constantly finding new ways to bring more efficiencies out of the business’ whilst notably omitting podcasts from the vast majority of a recent shareholders meeting. In the past, Spotify had made huge investments in the area and catalysed the huge growth in the industry. Despite this, I’d be surprised if the area as a whole really took a hit. Remember that 38.4% of all podcasts are started as a hobby and that only 5% make sustainable income – any change in the viability of shows as a business is unlikely to affect the vast majority. As radio continues a slow decline, the gap is bound to be filled by different audio content – there is a reason that hearing other peoples’ voices in your ears has been so popular for so long.