Lending an Ear: the Rise of Podcast and Radio

We often hear about the death of print media and the advent of subscription newsletters, yet what we have lost sight of is the creation of new forms of content streaming delivered through our ears, rather than our fingertips or eyes. Despite its apparent novelty, however, audio-based content has been present for quite some time. The radio was invented in the late 19th century; National Public Radio, a staple of the average American’s morning car ride, launched in 1970; and the very first podcast—Radio Open Source, which still airs today—was born merely fifteen years ago, in 2003. Today, two notable phenomena have emerged as a result of broadcast’s increasing digestibility: the increasing ubiquity of podcasts and the greater presence of college-based radio stations.

What’s so appealing about a podcast, anyway? To modern individuals navigating their way through a hyperactive, multitasking society, podcasts offer a refuge from the hectic, often impersonal demands of the outside world. Listening to audio is inherently intimate; once earplugs are inserted, it can almost feel like an isolated one-on-one experience from the speaker to the listener. Further, the portability and ease of audio is a plus. It’s simple enough to walk from one place to another, all the while listening to NPR’s perennial classic “This American Life” or Sarah Koenig’s 2014 hit “Serial.”  

Beyond their loyal audiences, however, podcasts have attracted celebrities into the mix. Hosting their own regular talk shows, individuals like Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig play ambient music and interview guests amidst general commentary. Koenig specifically created his podcast Time Crisis with the intent to contrast contemporary music with music of different eras, balancing the discussion with regular guests such as Jerry Seinfeld and Rashida Jones. Aside from its 12k followers on Twitter, Time Crisis appears to be a personal creative project, similar to those of other celebrities ranging from Anna Faris to Snoop Dogg to Shaquille O’Neal. A space to comment on food and sports, beauty and culture, podcasts have become the norm for a rising number of celebrities who seek a space to disseminate their personal thoughts to the world before them. The dramatic increase in the popularity of podcasts has spurred the creation of a podcasts section on Spotify, a dedicated Android podcast app, and the launch of a curated podcast listening list by Pandora Radio. The podcast market is certainly poised for continued expansion.

Interestingly enough, the meteoric rise of podcasts comes just as doubts about the longevity of radio have intensified. Do people ever listen to the radio in their cars anymore, or do they simply plug in their auxiliary cord to a Spotify playlist? I would argue that the radio remains a principal source of news for many Americans today, and it continues to entertain and humble us with stories of individuals who come from all walks of life. More importantly, it has been sustained by college campuses across the nation. There has recently been a greater representation of radio stations run by university students. Painstakingly forging playlists and creating programs to be played, these students have ushered in radio to a new generation while embracing the facets of free speech and autonomy. College radio stations, time after time, have also served as the very platforms on which less-recognized bands, later gaining much success, debuted. For many, student-operated radio stations, which are based on college campuses, represent a rebellion against selling out to corporate greed and a commitment to the terms “small” and “local.” They exist as bastions of autonomy and boldness amongst the conformity sometimes exhibited within colleges across today’s nation. Today, just as they got their starts years ago, college radio stations remain significant in the preservation of radio’s pertinence in a post-radio, podcast-full world.

“Post-radio,” perhaps, is too strong of a word. Radio isn’t going anywhere soon, nor are podcasts. Both have asserted their relevance, and they have consistently served as strong outputs of audio-based content. ‘Ear-ie’ as it may be to see that print media is losing its glamour, the resurrection of radio and rise of podcasts serve to remind us that the landscape for content distribution is always in flux. Radio and podcasts will certainly be here for a while, but it may be quite soon that we latch on to another form of content streaming. Content distributors must realize, sooner or later, that maintaining an audience’s attention requires constant evolution towards the audience’s needs. So as long as this rule is followed, creators will have no problem attracting ears, eyes, or whatever’s next.