Man at His Best

The Esquire Guide To Podcasts

Welcome to the second coming of podcasting.

BY Andrew Harrison | Jul 11, 2017 | Technology

So what are you listening to? You did the real-life murder saga Serial in the car, all nine hours of it, and kept taking detours so you could carry on listening. While you were jonesing for a second series you dipped into Gimlet Media’s Crimetown—a whole lurid season on the crooks and stick-up kids of mob stronghold Providence, Rhode Island—and got hooked on that, too. You download Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s 5Live movie reviews automatically in time for Saturday breakfast. Yes, it’s the best film show going but who’s got time to listen to the radio on a Friday afternoon? You feel yourself somehow more interesting, more knowledgeable, more rounded, more fulfilled. You haven’t turned on the radio except for news, weather and football in months.

Welcome to the second coming of podcasting. The on-demand, in-your-pocket audio format—it’s radio, and yet somehow it isn’t—is experiencing a renaissance in 2017, one that could see it finally fulfil its promise as the perfect entertainment and journalism medium for the digital age.

Listeners are up. According to Edison Research, podcast audiences rose 23 percent from 2015 to 2016 with some 21 percent of Americans now listening to at least one a month, the same percentage user base as Twitter. Big media entities such as The New York Times and the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post are investing in ad-backed podcasts. Meanwhile, the electronics giant GE uses podcast drama—an exceptional adult sci-fi series called LifeAfter—as a soft-power enhancement to its brand.

They’re also providing a surprise second act for many broadcasters and comedians whose style no longer fits that of established media. American stand-up Marc Maron was at a low ebb when he started his WTF podcast in 2009. Fired from a liberal talk radio station and undergoing a punishing divorce, he began podcasting from his garage. “I got into the podcast because I didn’t know what to do with myself and I was going broke,” he later told The Guardian. His mixture of acerbic interviews, bracing honesty and quality guests (Jack White, Lena Dunham, Robin Williams) made the podcast a regular iTunes number one and so popular that Barack Obama appeared as a guest in 2015. The president recorded in Maron’s garage like everyone else.

Adam Buxton fell into podcasting when he and partner Joe Cornish were broadcasting at XFM circa 2006. “We couldn’t really get our heads round it at first,” he says, “but then I realised you could fillet bits from the live show and add extras you couldn’t broadcast. We could essentially go maximum Derek and Clive on the situation.” Over the ensuing 10 years, he’s built podcasting into a revolving world of Adam stuff that includes live shows, YouTubing and a music video night called “Bug”.

“It’s a different way of talking to people,” he continues. “Once you trust your host then you’re up for going down obscure avenues, and maybe listen to things you’d turn off if they were on the radio. Maybe this is where you can still get that fantastic feeling of finding a really obscure record that nobody knew about.” One of the podcasts he’s most proud of is a meticulous stage-by-stage exploration of how it feels when you’ve got a cold coming on. “That’d never survive a pitching process, would it?”

Podcasting has now outlasted the device—the iPod Classic, 2001–’14—that gave it its name. (They used to call the then-DIY format “audioblogging” until Guardian journalist Ben Hammersley accidentally renamed it in a throwaway line in 2004 and the new name stuck.) When Steve Jobs brought podcasting to public attention at an Apple product launch in 2005, his description was typically evangelistic. “It’s sort of like TiVo for radio, for your iPod,” he said. “It’s not just the Wayne’s World of radio, but real radio is jumping onto this... who knows? Maybe there’ll be 10,000 podcasts soon.” Actual figures are blurry but total podcast series available on iTunes alone reached 250,000 by 2013.

The format dipped towards the end of the Noughties. In 2011, the BBC felt able to ask “Podcasts: who still listens to them?” and declare the format redundant in the age of social media. Now, with Twitter degenerating into a meaningless daily hate-session and Facebook drowning in fake news, podcasts feel like an island of reason and calm. 

“I’ve been a journalist all my life, and the way people engage with podcasts is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in any other form of media,” says Jacob Weisberg, presenter of Trumpcast and chairman of the Slate Group, which produces podcasts as addictive as Slate’s Political Gabfest and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. “People who listen to podcasts spend hours and hours with you every week, voluntarily,” says Weisberg. “They seek you out. Other media just don’t get that kind of engagement.”

The question is, can it pay for itself? In early 2016, Andy Dawson, the Sunderland comedy writer who created the modern-life-is-rubbish blog Get in the Sea, struck up a moderately combative Twitter friendship with comedian Bob Mortimer. “I think it started with him haranguing me about a portable plastic greenhouse I’d just bought,” Dawson recalls. “He said it was shit and would fall down.” After a few tries at getting TV ideas off the ground, Mortimer suggested that instead they try making a football podcast “to see what it would be like”.

Mortimer thought they might get 500 listeners. In the event, the first episode of Athletico Mince (a Dawson coinage; they nearly called it Paragon Balls) was downloaded 15,000 times. Rambling, peculiar and full of in-jokes, Mince now attracts upwards of 120,000 fans for every episode. “If we were making pop singles,” says Dawson, “we’d be number one every week.”

“The beauty is there’s no outside influence,” he continues. “We’ve got total creative control. There’s nobody saying you can only say ‘fuck’ once a show. There’s a punk rock, fanzine attitude and our sense of humour is attuned. It’s a joy for me ’cos I’ve been a massive Vic and Bob fan for 25 years. It was seeing people from the North East on TV that made me want to be a writer.” Dawson knew they were onto a winner when people began telling them, “I hate football but I love this podcast.”

Mince finances itself American-style with unobtrusive sponsorship messages, but with a star-led podcast you can behave like a brand. There’s a Mince book released last month and possibly live shows later in the year. Dawson is aware that the budding industry must up its game if it wants to make podcasting self-supporting. “If you think you’re going to make a fortune overnight now you’re probably deluding yourself,” he admits. “Get yourself on the coat-tails of a much-loved comedian and light entertainer, that’s my advice.”

That might not be entirely necessary in future as the companies that monetise podcasts find that their CPMs—the “cost per thousand” eyeballs/ears metric that tyrannises media—can outshine those of text and even video. “The beauty of podcasts is that you can pick a fairly niche idea and build a really engaged audience around it,” says Dan Quick, content producer at the British podcast aggregator audioBoom, which hosts Mince. “The level of attention is really high and really valuable. Podcasts are the polar opposite of clickbait. They don’t reel you in and then fail to deliver. They have to be good to survive.”

There are still speed humps in podcasts’ path. Even with Bluetooth or Apple’s CarPlay, it can be fiendishly difficult to play podcasts while driving. Without an Android equivalent to Apple’s user-friendly Podcasts app, the 80 percent of smartphone users who don’t use iPhones still find playing podcasts unnecessarily fiddly. And there remains the tricky issue of how to pay for all this. But for the best minds in content creation, podcasting could finally be a light at the end of the tunnel of media doom.

“Slate started at Microsoft,” says Jacob Weisberg. “Bill Gates used to tell us that people always overestimate how much technology changes in five years but they under-estimate the change in 10 years. Podcasting really followed that circle. After five years you might say, meh, not much impact. After 10 years? Wow.”

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, June/July 2017.