Don’t Underestimate The Power Of The Podcast

The changing role of media is a topic which has been widely discussed in recent years.

The vast majority of people have moved from the prehistoric physical newspapers of days gone by and now consume their media on a myriad of applications and social networks – Some might even cringe at the thought of breaking a five euro note in their local Centra just to buy the daily Irish Independent.

Of course, this radical change in such a short time frame has meant that media outlets are now, more than ever, adapting and evolving to keep up with these new technologies. Gone are the days when a news editor decided what you should or shouldn’t read.

Now, you only have to click into a headline that grabs your attention and people have the freedom to pick and choose what articles to read. On the internet, there are no double page spreads or flashy headlines that suggest what is the most important material – that is decided by the reader alone.

Although the print industry has suffered a major blow due to the onset of new technologies and the emergence of online journalism, how has radio fared in the midst of all this madness?

In 1922, Thomas Edison stated, “The radio craze… will soon fade”. It seems that even geniuses can get it completely wrong.

Almost a century later, radio is as captivating and as popular as it ever was. You can’t walk into a shop on Grafton St without some high energy, young Dublin City station pumping in the background. And I have yet to find a mammy who doesn’t tune in to Joe Duffy every afternoon.

The latest JNLR figures from July of last year state that a whopping 76 per cent of young people aged between 15 and 34 listen to radio stations on a daily basis. There is no doubt that unlike its print counterpart, radio has not witnessed a major decline in popularity.
However, the way we consume radio is changing, and both broadcasters and reporters alike should be in tune with such changes.

According to The Pew Research Centre’s Report on American Journalism in 2012, 40 per cent of the American radio audience listened to radio on digital devices, with that figure expected to double by this year. The findings also revealed that the number of Americans who owned an AM/FM radio witnessed a steady decline.

The steady decrease in AM/FM radio ownership signals the move from traditional media to outlets such as apps or podcasts.

Podcasting has been around much longer than people think. In fact, it dates as far back as the 1980s.

With the advent of broadband internet and portable digital audio playback devices such as the iPod, podcasts began to really take hold in the mid noughties.
Podcasts in Ireland are still widely popular, with sports podcast Second Captains proving that there is a strong market for them in this country, boasting more than 160,000 followers on Soundcloud to date.

Across the pond, This American Life is undoubtedly the boss of podcasts with over one million people downloading every single episode. Ira Glass and his team produce a podcast that consists of short stories that are told in a compelling and approachable way.

Most recently, the team followed two high-school girls throughout a day in which they cared for a robotic baby – feeding it, changing it and comforting it.

The podcast provided a fascinating insight into the lives of these teenagers (Rachel and Paige), documenting how they coped with the robot-babies as they went about their day – going to drama school, to class and doing their homework.

Another podcast, which is garnering interest worldwide, is the production ‘Serial’. It comes from the makers of This American Life (TAL) and is hosted by Sarah Koenig, who has been looking at a past murder case.

In 1999, in Baltimore, a young woman called Hae Min Lee went missing. After a few weeks, her body was found in Leakin Park. She had been strangled. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged with her murder, convicted and sent to prison for life plus 30 years.

What makes the examination of this case so interesting however is that Syed has always protested his innocence.

Koenig looks into the case by talking to Syed over the prison phone, recording their conversations in the process. The complicated friendship that they develop throughout the course of the documentary is one of the main draws of the series.

Koenig’s meticulous examination of the evidence, interviewing people 15 years after the murder for example, is fascinating. Her sometimes tentative presentation of the evidence to Syed, and his reactions first-hand makes makes great radio.

I suppose traditional stations and other media outlets don’t have the time to create such original radio. But maybe the real reason is that they just lack the drive and passion to create such interesting, compelling, fascinating content and hunger that is evident in each of Koenig’s episodes.

Original, interesting content such as This American Life and Serial shows the freedom podcasting teams have.

The US is paving the way for great podcasts with captivating storylines and real human-interest topics, while the rest of the world has yet to catch up.

Whether we’ll get there before we discover what really happened to Hae Min Lee in 1999 though, has yet to be decided.

Sharron Lynskey