Podcasts are a threshold medium. Almost everyone has had to read a book, or at least stories, at some point in their life and no one ever thinks about movies as a medium to “get into”. But you will find many people who simply haven’t understood the appeal of podcasts, who are unfamiliar with consuming audio as a medium beyond music. Then one day they try out a show or two, and it sticks, and suddenly they are unable to leave the house without a pair of headphones.
For a huge number of people, the world over, the show that helped them cross this threshold was Serial. The first season of the investigative journalism podcast told the story of a young woman’s murder in Baltimore, US and the police investigation as well as trial that followed. The true crime show, serialised over 12 episodes, is generally acknowledged to be the break-out hit of the medium. It has now been downloaded more than 80 million times, and its massive success helped broaden the size of the podcasting audience, which also led to more investment into the medium. Podcasting revenue globally is expected to hit about $650 million in 2018, a huge jump from what things looked like even five years earlier, but still tiny compared to the $45-billion global radio industry.
Indians might have an even steeper hill to climb than many others when it comes to getting onto the podcast bandwagon. In the US, for example, talk radio and audio journalism have a much older history, and most Americans would be familiar with programs on National Public Radio. It is still illegal to deliver the news on private FM radio channels in India and carriage fees remain high, meaning most who grew up with radio are either familiar with simple music shows or programs on All India Radio. That makes podcasting almost an entirely new industry in the country, both in terms of those with experience making audio content and with consumers who are not used to the medium.
The smartphone and digital data revolution ushered in over the last few years, however, means there is tremendous potential for podcasts to pick up in a big way. But it also requires people to cross that high threshold and actually begin listening.
How do I listen to podcasts?
In some ways, Apple helped create the podcast industry. First, the company began listing podcasts on iTunes, back in 2005. Then in 2008, new iPhones could suddenly download individual episodes on the go. And then in 2014, right before Serial’s massive success, new iPhones came with Apple’s Podcasts app pre-installed. Because of the sheer popularity of iPhones in the US, where one in every two phones is from Apple, the company’s Podcasts app also dominates, with 70% of podcast market share. If you have an iPhone, and are starting off with the medium, just open up the Podcasts app.
On Android things are a little different. There is no one app that rules the roost, but there are a number of options.
- Google Podcasts: Launched just earlier this year, Google is hoping to do what Apple did in the US, by leveraging the massive global spread of Android and hope that users rely on a native app. The app is ideal for beginners, because it is simple, easy to understand, and promises to deliver show recommendations based on your listening history.
- Soundcloud: Already the go-to app for independent music, many podcast creators also upload their shows directly to the service, which means it carries a huge variety of sources. Finding interesting podcasts is harder, though, so it is mostly ideal for those who already have an idea of what they want.
- PocketCasts: If you’ve tried out Google’s podcasts app, but would like a better interface and quicker downloads, consider this paid app. It is only Rs 100, and unlike the free apps that will come with annoying advertisements, the small cost brings you a much cleaner experience and the full range of podcast options.
- Stitcher: One of the bigger podcasts apps, Stitcher is not known for having a great user experience – it is actually quite buggy on Android and does not download quickly – but its catalogue, particularly if you pay to access its premium content, makes it relevant on any list of apps.
When do I listen to podcasts?
This is a question that comes up very often from those who are not used to the medium, partly because audio is an oddly liberating medium. You’re not stuck behind a screen, you don’t need adequate light, and you can tune in just about anywhere. So do you just sit down and start listening? Do you combine it with something else? Will you be able to pay attention if you were to do that? Can you prevent yourself from fidgeting if you’re just sitting down?
Half of the people who took a simple poll on Twitter said they listen to podcasts while commuting. Most common after that was while doing household chores or while out for a walk, with very few people sitting down to just listen while doing nothing else. My experience, and Chris Bailey’s research into how successful people are at multi-tasking, suggests you should do the same.
Most people are unable to just sit and listen, because the temptation to pull up your screen and do something else is too high. But combining it with more complex tasks, like answering email, means your attention will be divided. Try combining podcast listening with simple, mechanical habits that you don’t have to think too much about: taking the metro to or back from work, an evening walk in an area you know well, while folding clothes, cleaning up or cooking a simple meal.
What podcasts should I listen to?
That is the subject of this entire column, so a few paragraphs won’t do it justice but here a few suggestions: You could consider the podcasts we highlighted previously, like The Ezra Klein Show or this clutch of improv comedy podcasts. Serial, the hit show mentioned earlier, is another great place to start and for many people, its parent show, This American Life, which tells you magazine-style stories every week, initiated them into the world of podcasts. Radiolab, another magazine-style show that explores complex topics, is also a popular first show. The responses to this tweet might also give you ideas of where to begin.
Reddit India maintains this big list of Indian podcasts, and you can also go check out the two Indian networks, IVM Podcasts and Audiomatic. A number of Indian news organisations have also gotten into the podcast game so if there are publications you follow, it is quite likely they now have audio offerings too. The iTunes charts will also give you an idea of what is doing well globally. And a simple Google search will deliver hundreds of podcast recommendations, across genres, from history to comedy to interviews to music.