Podcasting on the rise

The popularity of podcasts has exploded.

While there are no widely accepted estimates of the total number of podcasts available, Apple — the largest distributor — reports that more than a billion people have downloaded the 250,000 titles (in eight languages) it offers.

Just as blogs have given almost everyone the opportunity to reach readers in the way only big-distribution newspapers once could, podcasts bypass traditional media and let their creators speak to as large an audience as they can attract.

The earliest podcasts came in 2003. They were audio files enclosed in an RSS feed. The journalist Christopher Lydon, who voiced those first podcasts, saw their potential and recently told The Guardian that the original creators’ goal was to make, “every man, woman and child a broadcaster.”

Who listens?

A recent study reports that 40 percent of Americans have at some time listened to a podcast, and 24 percent have listened in the past month. That is a jump from 2008, when only 18 percent said they had ever listened to a podcast and only 9 percent had done so recently.

Podcasts are as varied as The Ben Shapiro Show, a popular, hour-long news analysis; Not Your African Cliché, in which four young women in Nigeria confront stereotypes; and Singaporean tech executive Bernard Leong’s Analyse Asia. But they have one thing in common: they’re all talk.

“There’s something about the voice that just cuts deep and quick,” said Nikki Silva. “I think it has an amazing power.” Under the name The Kitchen Sisters, Silva and Davia Nelson have produced radio since the early 1980s. Recently, they have been making podcasts for National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as well as their own popular podcast, The Kitchen Sisters Present. “People are generally listening through earbuds in a very solitary way, whereas with radio you’re often listening in an open room, or in the car. There’s an intimacy to podcasting,” Silva said.

Illustration of people with headsets and microphones, beaming messages (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

How long do listeners hang around?

A study by Edison Research finds that the average podcast listener subscribes to six shows. The study also shows that 85 percent of listeners stay with most or all of their podcasts — a testament to podcasters’ ability to connect with their audiences.

Starting a podcast of your own requires a recording device — which can be anything from a smartphone or computer to an expensive recording studio — and a place to host it. (Many companies offer free hosting plans.) It also requires that you have something to say, of course.

“There’s no gatekeeper,” said Silva. “It’s not like you have to have so many listeners in order to be qualified to be on air. It’s not like you have to make money. Anybody — I mean anybody — can do it.”

Silva suggests that people without access to professional recording equipment  should consider equipment available for use through libraries or universities. Even a cell phone, she said, can be used to record a podcast. “There are so many options and opportunities for people and very few rules.”