By Katie Czenczek, News Editor
It’s likely that at some point over the past three years, you’ve heard someone talking about their favourite podcast. I might even bet money that you’ve tuned in yourself.
My first real introduction to the medium started at the beginning of this semester. Newly moved into a shitty basement suite and starting my first semester at UBC after transferring from Dougie, I needed a way to entertain myself on my hourlong commute. My playlists had all dried up, a symptom I blame on “not being with the times.” I tried to read on the bus but would end up with horror flashbacks of Kelowna road trips that ended with me puking in my sister’s baseball hat. I had listened to a couple episodes of Death, Sex & Money in the past, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for entertainment-wise.
It took me a while to realize that what I needed was a good story.
Between the course load, work, and learning how to cook anything that didn’t come out of a takeout box, I didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and watch Netflix or read a novel in my non-existent spare time. As someone who is currently going to school to learn how to write stories, the lack of time I had to enjoy them was getting to me.
That’s when I discovered the world of podcasts.
The origin of podcasts as downloadable series of audio files stems largely from 2004, thanks to the work of internet entrepreneur Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer. The duo created the program iPodder to download radio broadcasts from online straight onto Curry’s iPod. Remember kids, this was back in the days before Apple discontinued my favourite product.
Developers picked up on the idea, fine-tuned it, and voilà, podcasts became a thing. The proliferation of portable media players created the perfect environment for downloadable media files to catch on.
A friend of mine shared a list of her favourite podcasts on Facebook, which is how I found Wooden Overcoats. I was missing out on a platform that changes the game for anyone who, like me, enjoys stories but can’t dedicate an hour to them at home.
I’m not sure why it never occurred to me before that this was a thing—I’m enrolled in a course on writing for podcasts next term that, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t really thrilled about. I thought that they had to be nonfiction-focused.
The audio drama became my entry into another world while trying to pretend that I wasn’t stuck in public transit, and I know that I’m not alone in this. Granted, not everyone is solely listening to audio dramas, but that’s the beauty of it; there’s a podcast for every subject you’d be interested in.
According to a study published by Concordia University this year, 68 million Americans are listening to podcasts monthly, while Ulster Media’s 2018 study found that nearly 10 million Canadians have tuned in sometime in the past year. The majority of Canadians and Americans began listening in the past three years. So, what is causing the rise of the podcast?
There are a number of different reasons. Streaming services available now have made podcasting even more accessible than they were when they first started in the early 2000s; smartphones sync with cars so they can be listened to during anyone’s commute; and monetization is making podcasting lucrative. In other words, it’s more accessible and there’s more content being published because people can actually live off of the cash flow.
The average Canadian has about a 30-minute commute to work. For students who have to transit, those numbers increase to 44. It might just be coincidental, but the average podcast length—just like the sweet spot for album lengths—is around 40 minutes.
Just like the internet when it first became popularized, it’s the Wild West of podcasting currently, with around 525,000 different series in circulation. US regulations on decency in broadcasting have yet to include podcasting, so hosts can swear, talk about sexually explicit content, and create an experience that’s entirely faithful to their own artistic vision.
Meghan Fitzmartin is involved in two of these over half a million podcasts available.
A co-host of Wine and Comics, writer/creator of the sci-fi drama podcast Red Rhino, and currently working in LA as the showrunner’s assistant on Supernatural, Fitzmartin sat down with me via Skype to share her views on why podcasts, and specifically audio dramas, are growing in popularity.
“I think that it’s one of the most inclusive communities in terms of entertainment,” she said. “The audience already feels niche enough, so it doesn’t matter how many queer characters you have, and in fact, it’s expected. It’s a display of culture being able to exist on its own and I think that that’s what’s calling to a lot of people.”
In particular, millennials are the ones answering the phone. The Ulster Media study found that 52 percent of monthly podcast listeners are aged 18 to 34. While mediums like television and novels are still criticized for being decades too late when it comes to diversity, audio dramas are cutting-edge.
Fitzmartin also said that another reason why podcasts have grown in popularity is because it requires less know-how to create.
“It’s really accessible,” she said. “A lot of entertainment isn’t. If you have a microphone and an idea, you can go ahead and make it.”
What is exciting for those wanting to create their own podcasts is that the field is still primarily untouched by large production studios. Similar to YouTube, the industry is still dominated by people who are recording and uploading content at home or in small studios—but what makes it different is that the content is often catered towards an adult audience. This intimate, low-budget production line is exactly what Fitzmartin said makes audio dramas stand out.
“I love telling stories in any medium because each medium has so much it can bring to the table in terms of an emotional space,” she said, “I think that the thing about audio dramas—which can be translated to television and I’m really excited for that to happen—is that it’s so intimate. When you’re utilizing your imagination that way, you’re making abstract thoughts concrete. So there’s this interesting combination, which is why I’ve loved them since I was a kid.”
Fitzmartin’s first introduction to audio storytelling happened when she first listened to Adventures in Odyssey, an Evangelical Christian radio drama.
“It was such an interesting introduction into radio drama because I wasn’t allowed to watch television, but we could listen in the car to this audio drama.” she said. “I grew up from a very religious background, and Christian media is not well-known for being well made. Going back now and listening to it as an adult, it is still some of the best storytelling I’ve ever heard.”
Before this semester, I never really thought about how podcasting changes the game for people who want to create stories. I know that one day this too will probably change when big production studios start to trickle in, but as of right now, the audio drama community is relatively small compared to other genres. Namely, both in Canada and the US, comedy was the reigning champion of the podcast world this year.
Not only do I think that’s really exciting for people who are delusional enough—myself included in this—to go into fields like writing or acting, but it’s exciting for the general audience too. As with any relatively new medium, people will need to push the boundaries in order to see what works, and that’s what makes for good entertainment.
For anyone wanting to start their own first podcast, Fitzmartin gave two snippets of advice. The first is to try and meet with an audio engineer before you start recording, and the second is more focused on writing for audio.
“It is not anybody’s fault, but as soon as people read your words, it sounds terrible,” she said. “It’s not the actors’ fault, they’re doing an amazing job, and it’s not you—it’s just weird. It literally doesn’t sound like the English language anymore.”
Over the past decade and a half, podcasting has truly spread to the masses. This format has enabled a whole generation to have their voices heard in a way that wouldn’t necessarily have been possible in other forms.
As for me, it’s given me some hope that I’ll be able to create a story that people will listen to—and that’s why I’ll stick with that podcasting course next semester.
For those of you who want to try out podcasts but don’t know where to start, here’s a list of the OP’s favourite podcasts.
Yeah, But Still hosted by Brandon Wardell and Jack Wagner (Isabelle)
Reply All hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman (Jacey)
Race Chaser hosted by Alaska and William (Jessica)
Heavy Content by Sam Nock (Cara)
My Brother, My Brother and Me hosted by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy (Bex)
Armchair Expert by Dax Shepard (Naomi, who also started her own podcast called The Ladyrising Podcast)
Masterpiece Studio hosted by Jace Lacob (Jerrison)
Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness by Jonathan Van Ness (Roshni)
Stuff You Should Know hosted by Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant and Josh Clark
Wooden Overcoats by David K. Barnes (Katie)
You can also check out Meghan Fitzmartin’s podcast Red Rhino at redrhino.libsyn.com, or Wine and Comics at wineandcomics.libsyn.com/podcast.