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Article

Hannah McGregor

Podcasts are a new kind of digital text that demands new analytical approaches rooted in an understanding of the medium’s history, affordances, and politics. Emerging at the intersection of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and digital audio technology, podcasts were originally framed as an accessible medium for amateur creators, an audio version of the blog. Although the early technological challenges of both making and downloading podcasts biased the medium toward the same demographic as tech culture (white men), the constant expansion of affordable recording technology and the lack of industry restrictions have led to podcasting’s rapid growth, with Apple announcing that it had reached 2 million podcasts in 2021. While only a small percentage of those podcasts are capable of drawing large-scale audiences, producers have found success catering to microcommunities through highly niche content. The ability to engage communities is enhanced by some of the defining characteristics of podcast aesthetics, namely their parasocial intimacy—that is, the tendency for listeners to think of their favorite podcast hosts as “friends in their ears.” Compared with radio, podcasts are less likely to adhere to professional production standards, and podcasters tend to be less formal and more “chatty” than radio hosts are. While podcasting has amateur and DIY roots, however, the success of true crime podcast Serial has contributed to the formalization of the industry around podcasting networks and a shared set of entrepreneurial practices, largely focused on attracting advertisers or otherwise monetizing shows. Although the most financially successful shows are still disproportionately produced in the United States and hosted by white men, the medium has also continued to diversify. The creation of podcasts that speak directly with and from the perspective of communities drives listenership within those communities, which in turn drives further podcast creation; this pattern can be observed in the expansion of African American podcast production between 2010 and 2020, and similar patterns are evident in Indigenous podcasting, queer and trans podcasting, and both international and non-English-language podcasting. The tendency for podcast listeners to become podcast producers can also be seen in the emergence of new podcasting genres. Serial, for example, has inspired a new genre of audio crime fiction, while WTF with Marc Maron has led to a slew of comedian-hosted interview podcasts characterized by an intimate, confessional tone. The huge range of podcast genres, alongside the broad spectrum of production quality, means that podcasts remain a multifaceted medium—and the scholarship about them is similarly multifaceted. Media studies scholars are interested in questions of what defines podcasting and whether a move away from RSS technology to platform-exclusive shows is signaling the end of the medium’s golden age, whereas those looking at podcast genres are more interested in exploring how podcasting has generated a space for new forms of sound-based storytelling. While the most robust field of podcast scholarship focuses on the use of podcasts for pedagogy, scholars have also begun to theorize podcasting through the act of producing podcasts themselves. The incorporation of podcasting into the landscape of scholarly communication points to how the study of podcasting has the potential to transform not just what scholars study but also how scholars do their work.