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date: 29 June 2022

Podcast Studiesfree

Podcast Studiesfree

  • Hannah McGregorHannah McGregorPublishing, Simon Fraser University

Summary

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.

Subjects

  • Film, TV, and Media
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Cultural Studies
  • Print Culture and Digital Humanities

What is a Podcast?

The expansion of podcasting into a true cultural phenomenon in the final years of the 2010s has multiple explanations, from the breakout success of the true crime series Serial in 2014 to the ever-increasing market dominance of smartphones that have streamlined the process of subscribing and listening to shows. As trendy as podcasts are in the 2020s, though, they originally emerged as a convergence of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology (the technological underpinning of blogs) and new methods of compressing digital audio files that made them more easily shareable. With their low barrier to access (for both listeners and creators) and their community ethos, podcasts, like blogs, invite multiple levels of engagement. As is characteristic of digital “convergence culture”—a new media phenomenon in which multiple forms of media, interaction, and identities converge to blur the conventional lines between creators and consumers of media—podcast listeners are often simultaneously positioned as potential or actual producers, an identity known as “prosumers.”1 Signs of podcasting as a convergence culture include both advertising patterns (podcast platforms often advertise on other podcasts) and the trend of popular podcast creators publishing their own podcasting guidebooks.2

Podcasts are sites of new artistic creation—including documentaries, fiction, and scripted or improvisational comedy—as well as sites of critical conversation organized around fandoms, media properties, reading communities, and more. The range of production values is just as wide as the range of genres and styles, from amateur producers recording unedited conversations on a smartphone to radio producers with decades of industry experience creating finely crafted audio documentaries and everything in between. As the world of podcasting continues to expand through film and television adaptations, celebrity-fronted shows, and high-profile industry sales, scholars have grappled with how exactly we can study this complex and diverse medium. 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. To understand the internal diversity of podcast studies as a field, however, it is first necessary to look to the origins of podcasting itself in order to understand what defines this increasingly popular medium.

The term “podcasting” was coined in 2004 by journalist Ben Hammerseley as a portmanteau of “iPod”—the still new Apple device that allowed users to download MP3 audio files and listen to them on the go—and “broadcasting,” a reference to the radio shows from which most early podcasts took their forms. Neither half of this portmanteau is appropriate to the contemporary form of the medium, which is neither listened to on iPods (for the most part) nor constrained by the norms of radio, but despite dissatisfaction with the term (see, for example, the special episode of Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist about how many people hate the word “podcast”), it persists.3 As podcasting continues to expand, however, debate is emerging over how exactly we can define the term. What makes something a podcast? Is podcasting simply a delivery system for audio files, a unique medium with its own conventions and affordances, or a cultural industry defined by its distinctive approaches to production, circulation, and reception?

RSS Feeds

The early media definition of podcasts was based on neither radio nor iPods but rather the file format and mode of circulation. Podcasts were originally an outcropping of RSS, a web feed that users could subscribe to for regular updates on a post-based site such as a blog. Users could curate multiple feeds on a single feed aggregator like the now defunct Google Reader, as distinct from the algorithmically driven feeds that characterize most contemporary social media platforms. RSS feeds were originally text-only, but in 2000 developers began to experiment with attaching audio and video files to feeds, and the concept of the “audioblog” was born.4

Audioblogs didn’t really become podcasts, however, until the technology was developed to push the audio files to a device where they could be downloaded and listened to on the go. While audio compression and RSS feeds made audio files easier to circulate than ever before, producing, discovering, and downloading these files still required a relatively high level of technical literacy, meaning that the medium was taken up primarily in tech circles (four of the top 10 podcasts in the early 2000s were about technology).5 The early days of podcasting were thus dominated by the tech industry’s demographic, namely white men. As soon as the technology to both circulate and download podcasts existed, however, the medium began to grow rapidly until in 2005 Apple added podcasts to its iTunes directory. Rather than attempt to exert ownership over the podcasting world, Apple took a hands-off approach, neither curating nor attempting to monetize the shows.6 iTunes became a database of RSS feeds through which listeners could subscribe to their favorite shows, significantly lowering the barrier to listenership for people not well versed in RSS technology. Indeed, as Dave Winer, an early RSS developer, has explained, podcasting “was intended as ‘a space for amateurs’ and not professionals.”7

As listenership grew, so too did podcast production, and Apple’s free hosting of RSS feeds meant that growth was unrestricted. The born-digital medium embraced the long-tail distribution logics of digital publishing.8 Because storing podcasts requires very little memory, there is essentially no cap on how many podcasts can be created or circulated, as compared with the inherently limited physical space of a bookstore or record shop. A few shows gained early notoriety and eventually would see enough success to prompt attempts to monetize the medium. (The Ricky Gervais Show was a prominent early example.) At the same time, the long tail grew longer as more and more amateur podcasters created shows, a trend that has only escalated as recording technology and digital audio workspaces (DAWs) have become cheaper and easier to use. In 2021, Apple announced that its database had reached 2 million podcasts, leading some commentators to announce (not for the first time) the arrival of peak podcasting. In reality, just over a third of those RSS feeds represent active shows.9 Because the barrier to entry is so low, many RSS feeds are created with a single episode and then never updated again. The challenge—and this is another trend that mirrors digital publishing in general—is not creating content but finding an audience.

While, as of the early 2020s, most podcasts are still distributed via RSS feeds that listeners subscribe to through a “podcatcher” (as the applications designed to let listeners download and listen to shows are often called), some streaming platforms are seeking to monetize popular podcasts by paywalling them, distributing them on proprietary platforms, or otherwise restricting the role of the open RSS feed. Networks like Stitchr Premium use the “freemium” model, in which listeners can pay extra to access an ad-free feed, while Spotify has made popular shows like The Joe Rogan Experience exclusive to their platform.10 It is unlikely that independent podcasts will move away from the RSS feed model altogether since it has proven so successful for the circulation of independently produced shows, but it is perhaps no longer synonymous with podcasting as a medium.

Intimacy and Parasocial Relationships

Because they were often being supported or produced by radio networks like NPR, PRX, WNYC, and BBC, which redistributed their broadcasts as listen-on-demand digital content (see, for example, This American Life, Radiolab, and 99% Invisible), early podcasts were aesthetically indistinguishable from radio shows. As the medium has matured, however, it has also begun to take on its own distinct characteristics, still echoing some of the traits of radio while creating its own norms. As podcast studies scholar Richard Berry argues:

Podcasting is a medium that is sonically influenced by radio, and whilst in places it is institutionally the same, it should not be seen as actually the same. This all suggests that it inhabits a liminal space between broadcast media and online media practices, and [as] such draws traits from each. Within this space podcasting is developing an increasingly distinct identity as it [...] moves slowly away from these antecedents into a new arena that is increasingly self-defined [and] economically established, moves driven in part by developing this sense of identity.11

Berry asserts that podcasts need to be understood in multiple ways—as a medium, a delivery technology, and a business model, for example. Alongside the mainstreaming of podcasts (about which more below) has come an increasing consensus around what characterizes the medium.

Perhaps the most widely discussed aesthetic characteristics of podcasting as a medium are its intimacy and affective charge, which in turn are linked to the intense parasocial relationships that develop between podcast listeners and their favorite hosts. There are a few explanations for this perceived intimacy of podcast listening. At the production level, podcast audio is often less dynamically compressed and processed than radio, an audio difference that can create an impression of unmediated sound, as though the host is speaking directly to the listener. Podcasts are also frequently created outside of professional recording studios, further adding to that sense of intimacy—plus, the low barrier to access in podcast production means that hosts are less likely to be professionally trained broadcasters, so their vocal affect is often less formal and more “chatty.” Added to this, podcasting is an opt-in medium that listeners can subscribe to and listen to at their leisure, often on headphones while going about their day-to-day lives. The result is a sense of podcasters as “friends in your ears,” speaking directly to you. As podcast studies scholars Dario Llinares, Neil Fox, and Berry explain in the introduction to Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media: “To be a private, silent participant in other people’s interests, conversations, lives and experiences, relating to a subject you are passionate about, generates a deep sense of connection.”12 That sense of connection enables new kinds of audio storytelling, whether the “claustrophobic intimacy” of a series like S-Town or the boundary-crossing intimacy of shows that “giv[e] listeners the impression of directness and closeness.”13 Podcast studies scholar Stacey Copeland argues that producers are now actively taking advantage of the affordances of podcasting “as an intimate aural medium” to challenge the gendered and heteronormative expectations surrounding vocal performance.14 Like Copeland, scholar Alyn Euritt describes intimacy not as an inherent or static characteristic of podcasting as a medium but as a process generated between producers and listeners: “In order for a podcast to be intimate, a show and its listeners must work to create intimacy by forming connections with others and describing those connections in terms of their close proximity.”15

Euritt’s case study of a podcast that is actively doing intimacy focuses on Within the Wires, an audio fiction series created by the production studio behind the massively popular ongoing series Welcome to Night Vale. Within the Wires is an anthology series consisting of five distinct but overlapping seasons, with the tagline “found audio from an alternate universe.” Each season is presented as an epistolary narrative framed through different kinds of “found” audio, including relaxation tapes, museum audio tours, and voicemails. Euritt points to how the show generates a sense of intimacy by using a variety of techniques, including soft feminine-voiced narrators and frequent repetition of important words and phrases that will “prick” the listener’s recognition—but they also emphasize that this intimacy is co-produced by fan responses to it. The importance of relationality and fan response points to the other key characteristic of podcasting as a medium: its ability to generate a powerful sense of parasocial intimacy.

The concept of parasocial intimacy is often traced back to the 1956 article “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance,” in which Horton and Wohl argue that mass media can create the sense of intimacy between audience and performers through “the simulacrum of conversational give and take.”16 The sense of parasocial intimacy can be generated deliberately by media creators; much as Euritt argues about intimacy in general, parasocial intimacy is not an innate quality of a medium but rather something that is created. As scholars Daniela Schlütz and Imke Hedder explain,

media performers can trigger [parasocial relationships] with interactive tactics like using an informal conversational style (affable, chatty, introspective, laid-back), anticipating audience reactions (like pausing after a pun), treating the supporting cast as a group of close intimates (i.e., by using first-names), or mingling with the audience by installing call-in-sessions.17

Even if parasocial intimacy needs to be actively curated, however, various characteristics of podcasting as a medium make it particularly well suited to the generation of parasocial relationships. The amateur and grassroots history of the medium (based on the open-access ethos of RSS technology), the seriality and thus familiarity of shows, on-demand listening through subscription, and generation of microcommunities through highly niche content work together to make podcasts feel more authentic, approachable, and personal than many other forms of mass media.18

In terms of both the technology of podcasting (the RSS feed) and its characteristics as a medium (intimacy and parasocial relationships), the DIY and grassroots history of podcasting is vital to understanding its distinct characteristics. As podcasting has become increasingly mainstream, however, those DIY roots have been challenged.

The Podcast Industry

For most podcast studies scholars, 2014 marks the beginning of the golden age of podcasting. Although shows like WTF with Marc Maron and This American Life saw significant success through the early 2010s, it was the release of true crime podcast Serial in 2014 that arguably marked podcasting’s breakout moment. Serial was a spin-off of This American Life, and podcasting was still nascent enough at that point that This American Life producer Ira Glass appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to demonstrate how interested listeners could download and subscribe to a podcast on their phones. As tempting as it is to point to a single show as marking the golden age, or second age, of podcasting as a mass medium, however, Glass himself has suggested that the breakout success of Serial was more a sign of podcasting’s maturity than the cause of it.19

Another sure sign that podcasting has become a mature medium is the development of significant infrastructure for producing and monetizing podcasts. While many early podcasts were either fully independent, amateur productions or redistributed content produced by radio networks, the emergence of podcast networks and the movement of audio streaming services into the podcast space have further complicated and striated the media landscape. John L. Sullivan describes this process as the “formalisation” of podcasting into a cultural industry:

In the case of podcasting, amateur podcasters with sizeable audiences are being recruited to join podcast networks, lured by the potential for a larger percentage of advertising sales revenue and the ability to expand their audience via cross-promotion with other shows on the same network. Additionally, existing media producers—many of them from legacy media such as commercial or public radio—are entering the podcasting space and directly competing with those amateurs. As a consequence, the commercial-style production values, audio quality, content genres, distribution methods and monetisation structures are beginning to inform the production practices of independent podcasters.20

Networks and independent podcasters alike have found success via donor drives or crowdfunding platforms like Patreon; the deeply niche nature of podcasting, alongside its aforementioned parasocial intimacy, can lead to small but deep audiences willing to financially support beloved properties. Advertising has also proven relatively successful for shows with significant enough download numbers; indeed, the more companies show their willingness to invest in advertising on podcasts, the more platforms emerge that promise granular metrics (not just download numbers but listener demographics, for example), which are essential for attracting advertisers. Few podcasts not supported by large audio production companies reach this level of scale, however, a reality that has led to the ever-increasing striation of the industry.

If podcasters and media companies were working tentatively to consolidate and monetize podcasting prior to Serial, afterwards those efforts increased exponentially. As Sullivan explains, the formalization of podcasting as a cultural industry has included the emergence of new orthodoxies around best entrepreneurial practices for aspiring podcasters. These practices are framed as not only teachable but also sufficient to ensure a podcast’s success; the implication is that podcasting is a meritocratic medium and that anyone can achieve success if they follow these practices diligently. The practices in question include social media branding and cross-promotion via other podcasts and presume the investment of significant amounts of what Brooke Erin Duffy calls “aspirational labour,” creative work performed in the hopes of gaining “social and economic capital.”21 Perhaps the most notable success story of entrepreneurial practices being applied to podcasting is that of podcast network Gimlet Media, founded in 2014 by former This American Life producer Alex Blumberg. Blumberg documented the process of creating his own podcast network via the flagship show StartUp (which was later developed into the short-lived television series Alex, Inc., starring Zach Braff). Gimlet Media was the force behind several hugely successful shows, including The Nod, Reply All, and Heavyweight, and built their business through a combination of capital investment, advertising, special member perks, and eventually a separate production branch that created branded podcasts. In 2019, audio streaming platform Spotify purchased Gimlet Media for $230 million, marking another breakout moment in the medium’s history as it was once again demonstrated that podcasting could make a small number of people very rich (and a massive number of people no money at all).22 Despite the medium’s expansion, this small number of people continue to be disproportionately white and male, a fact that suggests that the idea of podcasting as DIY, grassroots, and meritocratic may have been somewhat overstated.

Expanding the World of Podcasts

Fortunately for listeners, the consolidation of podcasting around corporate platforms like Spotify has not curtailed the diversity of the medium—there are still thousands of independent creators producing their own shows. It has, however, highlighted the internal inequities that structure the audio industry, where a small number of powerful actors continue to hold much of the consolidated power.23 Nevertheless, the independent end of the podcast spectrum continues to expand with innovative new shows as well as experimental approaches to supporting and funding that work. Networks like Indian & Cowboy, which focuses on producing Indigenous podcasts, and Media Girlfriends, a network and scholarship program that supports “women & non-binary journalists” with a focus on the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, model the innovative reimagining of podcast business models beyond the entrepreneurial framework discussed above.24 They also demonstrate that, while podcasting should not be romanticized as a truly equitable space, it has been the site of significant and ever-expanding media creation by diverse communities.

As is the case with podcasting in general, the creation of podcasts that speak directly with and from the perspective of communities drives listenership within those communities, which drives more podcast production and so forth. Kim Fox, David O. Dowling, and Kyle Miller note that this was the case for African American podcast production between 2010 and 2020: “Skyrocketing listenership, following The Read’s 2013 launch, was instrumental in expanding Black podcasts from six programs in 2010 to hundreds by 2015, including ‘must-listen’ lists indicative of the genre’s depth of content and reach.”25 In turn, the popularity of podcasts like The Read, The Nod, and Still Processing have further expanded and diversified listenerships through the creation of what they call “a metaphorical curriculum for blackness”:

With progressive and inclusive content featuring forthright and illuminating commentary, Black podcasts recreate through digital audio space a nuanced sense of African-American trends, cultures, and lifestyles, which are now accessible to non-Black audiences. The effect has opened Black discourse on the meaning of blackness in US culture to an audience of unprecedented scope and diversity. This is crucial because the Black audience increasingly demands not only entertainment news, but rich cultural and social metacritique featuring rigorous research and reporting. The blurring of lines between entertainment, activism, and criticism characterize this uniquely liberating medium at the forefront of progressive discourse leveraging intellectual cultural analysis.26

Similar patterns can be observed in the expanding world of Indigenous podcasting, queer and trans podcasting, and non-English-language podcasting. Shows build listenership and model the potential for the medium to respond to community needs by building a space for nuanced community conversations; engagement with these podcasts diversifies listenership to the medium in general, inviting this increasingly diverse listenership into the “prosumer” identity and in turn implicitly or explicitly encouraging them to create their own podcasts. Listener diversity thus continues to increase alongside the expansion and diversification of podcast production in general. Although the typical podcast listener is still white and male, one study from 2021 shows this norm shifting; Black and Latinx listeners are increasing, and women are coming ever closer to making up 50 percent of listeners.27

Another place where both producer and listener diversity has expanded is in the growth in the international podcasting landscape. While podcasting as a medium emerged from a white, masculine, American, and English-speaking context, the constantly lowering barriers to access and the international reach of digital media have led to podcasting becoming a truly global medium. The United States remains the largest market in the world by a significant margin, but of course English-language podcasts are produced in other predominantly English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well as multilingual countries where English functions as a lingua franca. In a study of podcasts in the African mediascape, for example, Reginold A. Royston notes that they remain predominantly English-language since it is easier to build an audience across multiple countries and diasporas. Nevertheless, non-English-language podcasts are on the rise: Swahili-language shows were started in Tanzania in 2018, and some Xhosa-language podcasts emerged from South Africa in 2019.28

Challenges for international podcasting markets include not only linguistic but also technological barriers; the concept of low barriers to access must be understood contextually. As Royston points out, “the majority of Africa’s mobile networks rely on 3G and lower Internet, and public or free Wi-Fi is often difficult to procure”; add to that the high cost of data as compared with average incomes in many African nations, and downloading a 60- or 90-minute podcast episode quickly becomes financially inaccessible.29 Despite these barriers, podcasting is on the rise globally. Spanish- and Portuguese-language podcasting saw explosive growth in 2020, according to a study by audio technology company Voxnest, and Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Spain make up four of the 10 fastest growing podcast markets.30 As podcasting picks up globally, its forms and genres continue to diversify, drawing on the histories of radio in different regions as well as local oral traditions and new media genres. New podcasts continue to function as possibility models for their listeners, increasing the chances that those listeners will in turn start their own podcasts, and the medium will continue to transform.

New Media Genres

Amongst the many ways of accounting for the underrepresentation of women, people of color, and non-native English speakers in podcasting—including the gatekeeping role of white men who run networks and the overrepresentation of white men as the hosts of and guests on the most popular shows—another important consideration is the politics of voice. As Copeland notes, “The sound of one’s voice carries with it traces of age, sex, gender, sexuality, culture and many more facets of collective and individual identity.”31 Listeners read traces of podcasters’ identities through their voices, often leading to biases against detectably feminized, queer, racialized, or accented voices, and vocal authority is linked to low, conventionally masculine voices speaking so-called unaccented English.32 Despite these biases, the shifts in “vocal performance and audio production practices” that have characterized podcasting’s maturation as a medium, and the related transformation in how listeners relate to podcast hosts, have created new audience desires.33 Rather than seeking authority, audiences seek authenticity—a quality that reinforces the intimacy and parasociality of podcasts more effectively than authority could. The role of authenticity, however, shifts depending on the podcast’s genre.

The rise in women listeners has been directly linked to the expanding popularity of true crime as a genre, starting with the breakout success of Serial. Feminist commentators have explored the appeal that shows like My Favorite Murder have for women listeners, and Scaachi Koul argues that true crime gives women a sense of control over narratives of violence against women, “allow[ing] female victims to be more than just bodies” and “helping female listeners gain a sense of protection, control, or at least reassurance, as they attempt to reframe the narrative of female trauma.”34 Within the larger genre of true crime, there are multiple aesthetic and formal differences, often driven by the identity and expertise of the producers as well as the affiliation of the show. True crime podcasts range from professional long-form journalism with real political and legal stakes—see, for example, investigative journalist Madeleine Baran’s In the Dark, which contributed to the release of Curtis Flowers from prison—to amateur and independently produced shows that summarize crime stories from Wikipedia articles.

While many genres of podcast remediate familiar genres of radio (Andrew Bottomely, for example, reads Welcome to Night Vale as a remediation of radio dramas), others are unique to the medium, emerging from its distinctive style and affordances.35 Danielle Hancock and Leslie McMurtry point to a surge in fiction podcasts that draw on the narrative conventions and audio style of the nonfiction Serial; as podcaster Alasdair Stuart summarizes, “bad things happen, crusading journalist investigates, interviews and discussion ensue.”36 However, Hancock and McMurtry read this subgenre not as signaling the rote imitation of a successful show but as being “the first explicitly podcast-oriented audio-fiction form.”37 Fiction written for podcasts picks up on what made Serial successful and exploits those features in pursuit of a form of storytelling uniquely suited to podcasting:

Through acts of repetition and appropriation of Serial’s structure and acoustic style, we contend post-Serial fictions have developed a recognisable, unique, podcast form. Through assertion of podcast media’s independent, immediate, and on-demand properties, new understandings of podcasting’s unique properties of narrative pace, tension and immersion emerge. Furthermore, detailed and prolonged audio-narrative forms which traditional radio-drama seldom allowed also surface.38

The success of true crime podcasting and the related development of new genres of audio fiction are certainly not the extent of podcasting’s genre experimentation. Another genre that has characterized the expansion of the podcasting ecosystem is what Kathleen Collins calls “Comedian Hosted Interview Podcasts,” or CHIPs, a genre that they link to the dominance of Marc Maron’s WTF. The intimacy and parasociality of podcasting, along with the medium’s tendency toward informal, spontaneous, and confessional modes, have become genre expectations in their own right; what began as a medium affordance has evolved into a genre characteristic, and Collins notes that “small, superficial talk is not tolerated for long by habitual listeners” of interview shows like WTF.39

On the other end of the audio spectrum, podcasts have also been a space for the development of experimental sound works that, owing to the lack of restrictions on length, style, format, and distribution, can take significant stylistic risks. Whether it’s the award-winning Have You Heard George’s Podcast, in which spoken-word artist George Mpanga blurs the lines between poetry, memoir, and documentary, or Kaitlin Prests’s fictionalized documentaries that use haunting soundscapes to represent the experience of falling in love, podcasting’s unique characteristics have given rise to new storytelling forms. As Siobhan McHugh notes, however, the medium’s popularity has also led “makers [to] conform to popular formulas” that echo field-defining shows like This American Life and Radiolab.40 Other popular genres include politics, sports, culture, self-help, comedy, science, history, and interviews; while networks are more likely to focus on production-heavy genres like culture roundtables, long-form interviews, and documentaries, independent creators will often create “chatcasts,” freeform conversational podcasts driven more by host dynamics than topic coverage. Across the gamut of genres and production quality, however, the through line that characterizes podcasting—as opposed to radio—consists of its informality and parasocial intimacy, qualities that invite comparisons between podcasting and other trends in digital life-writing observed across social media platforms and beyond.

Review of the Literature

Much of the early scholarship on podcasts—not unlike podcasts themselves—emerged out of the context of radio studies, a subset of media studies interested in the cultural impact of broadcast programming. Scholars like Richard Berry and Jonathan Sterne had already written several significant pieces on the emergence and increasing cultural relevance of the medium prior to the explosion of interest prompted by Serial. In the years following 2014, however, the field expanded significantly in multiple directions and began to cohere as a research field proper, as marked by several key books—particularly Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media, edited by Llinares, Fox, and Berry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution by Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann (Bloomsbury, 2019)—as well as Bloomsbury’s creation of a podcast studies book series.

Unsurprisingly, podcast studies as a field is as multifaceted as podcasts themselves. From a media studies perspective, podcast scholars are interested in the point at which podcasting becomes a unique medium rather than a redistribution of radio content.41 From an industry perspective, podcasts present an intriguing new topic for those interested in forms of digital writing and publishing and shifting forms of communication, extending from the demographic makeup of podcast networks to innovations in monetization. With audio streaming platforms like Spotify buying up blockbuster podcasts and making them platform-exclusive, scholars have also debated whether audio shows posted to a single platform, rather than circulated via an RSS feed, are in fact podcasts. For those looking at podcast genres, however, these media-centric questions are less interesting than an examination of the different genres that make up podcasting, what characterizes those genres, and with whom they’ve proven to be popular.

Perhaps the most robust field of scholarship on podcasting is work that explores the use of podcasts for pedagogy. With its roots in amateur audio production and an emphasis on low barriers to access, podcasting has a long history of being used in education. As early as 2004, Duke University was experimenting with distributing iPods preloaded with educational material, paving the way for other universities to use recorded portable audio as an educational technology.42 Oliver McGarr helpfully classifies podcasts in education as substitutional (recorded lectures), supplementary (additional materials like guides, summaries, and notes), or creative (student-generated).43 Overall, podcasts are generally substitutional or supplementary, and student-generated podcasts are seen as more effective for learning purposes compared with substitutional or supplementary podcasts.44 For example, the findings of Lee, McLoughlin, and Chan suggest that setting students the group project of creating a podcast enables “student conceptualizations of disciplinary content to be shared with peers” and they argue that “it is a powerful way of stimulating both individual and collective learning, as well as supporting social processes of perspective-taking and negotiation of meaning that underpin knowledge creation.”45

As scholars have increasingly become producers of podcasts, questions of podcast theory and podcast practice have begun to overlap, extending to the development of podcasts that themselves theorize podcasts (most notably the Podcast Studies Podcast, a rebranding of the New Aural Cultures podcast originally created to accompany the release of the book Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media). McHugh describes podcasts as “non-traditional research outcomes” with the potential to increase scholarly engagement with “the broader community” and “deliver innovative research opportunities,” whether through audio documentaries created in collaboration with scholars, conversational podcasts on scholarly topics, or even experimental soundscape work.46 The incorporation of podcasting into the landscape of scholarly communication points to how the study of podcasting doesn’t stop at considerations of how it’s creating new forms of audio storytelling. Rather, podcasting has the potential to transform not just what we study but the way academics do our work.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

Notes