What is a podcast?

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WTF with Marc Maron consistently ranks at the top of Apple Podcast’s Comedy and All Categories charts. Since launching in 2011, Maron’s show has evolved from a comedians-only dissection of his neuroses to a smart and witty long-form interview show that attracts a wide range of public figures, including a 2015 visit by President Barak Obama.

The other day, I was listening to Maron’s interview with David Letterman, who was promoting the second season of his own long-form interview show on Netflix. I was struck by Letterman’s admission that he’d never listened to a podcast or knew how to get them. Maron called him on what he thought was a joke, but Letterman insisted he was serious. Later, as the interview wound down, Letterman praised Maron for his pioneering work in podcasting, then did it again when he said, “I tell you in all honesty—having been here with you, I still don’t know what a podcast is.”

If David Letterman, a media icon with a hot show on a platform that is disrupting movies and TV much the same way that podcasting is disrupting radio, doesn’t understand what a podcast is, there’s got to be a lot of other folks just as confused about this medium that is still very much in its infancy. To that end, I thought it would be helpful to explain just what a podcast is.

 

Podcasting Defined

Simply put, a podcast is downloadable spoken-word audio (or really, any media) that can be listened to at your convenience.

Think of a podcast as on-demand internet radio, where someone records some content, makes it sound good, and then uploads it to a hosting service where it is scheduled for publication at some future date. Once the episode is published, the hosting service pushes it out to various podcatching platforms like Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and a whole host of others. These platforms are easily accessed via smartphones, desktop computers, tablets, and smart speakers. Because smartphones have revolutionized nearly every facet of our lives, they have catalyzed the growth of the podcast industry by making it easy to listen to podcasts anytime and anywhere.

 

Podcasts Are Killing Radio

At Narrativo, we like to say that podcasts are killing radio the same way Netflix is killing TV and cinema with on-demand streaming of episodic short-form comedy, drama, and documentary (TV) and long-form comedy, drama, and documentary (films). Study after study underscores this trend, and anecdotally, you don’t have to look any farther than the automobile. I’m a frequent traveler, which means I also rent a lot of cars. Over the past decade, it has gotten progressively easier for me to sync-up my iPhone with whatever car I rent by connecting via Bluetooth or aux cable. This allows me to use my phone’s gps and bypass local radio and pick-up where I left off with my latest episode of The Tony Kornheiser Show or This American Life.

Where a given local market may have ten-to-twenty AM and FM radio stations, there are thousands of podcasts out there that cater to everything from big, broad audience groups (Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend or The Dave Ramsey Show) to tiny niche audiences organized around some obscure hobby or special interest (Beekeeping Today Podcast or the Badminton Europe podcast). With so many choices that can be listened to on-demand, podcasting is bound to outpace Netflix in popularity because of its mobility advantage. The bottom line is clear—each month, thousands of Americans are finding their way to podcasts, pushing this exciting new medium closer to the brink of the mainstream.

 

Letterman Gets It

David Letterman might not understand the nuts-and-bolts of podcast production, but he’s been in the broadcasting business long enough to understand that podcasting is the new radio. He demonstrated this when he complimented Marc Maron for being one of the first to see the potential in podcasting, then having the guts, way back in 2011, to stake his claim. What Maron did out of career desperation ended up being a prescient career move. And isn’t that what innovation sometimes looks like?