Why are podcasts so popular right now? Four conclusive explanations.
“I’m subscribed to 26 podcasts right now,” I overheard my friend say recently, “but I don’t even know where the name ‘podcast’ comes from.”
Either he’s too young, or just couldn’t remember the brick-sized iPods that replaced the Walkman (RIP). Regardless, I was more stuck by the number “26” – not that it was a crazy high number of podcasts on his subscription list, but that mine was almost as high (22 to be exact).
Podcasts have not just outlasted the thing for which they were named, they’ve exploded in popularity since their namesake’s demise.
So, why are podcasts so popular right now? We can boil it down to four key explanations.
Podcasts are friction in a frictionless world
Technology exists to reduce friction – to make things easier, faster, and more efficient. It’s become so ingrained in our daily lives, that we no longer appreciate it, we expect it. Without Uber, how else are we supposed to get from one side of the city to the other? Order a taxi like some caveman?
Podcasts challenge the purported benefits of technology. They are friction in our frictionless world. Sure, subscribing to that crime podcast your co-workers can’t stop talking about couldn’t be easier. But listening to it asks more from you than other content mediums.
Podcasts require focus to catch every detail, preparation to sit through several hilariously irrelevant sponsor messages, imagination to spin the words into mental imagery, and patience to wait for the next episode to come out next week.
Still, that doesn’t answer why we crave this friction. As Hugo MacDonald from Quartz describes, the affinity for friction is about progress.
Friction gives us heat and fire. It quite literally moves mountains. Rubbing two people together may cause arguments—but it also makes babies. Friction is a positive force in all walks of life precisely because it’s only when we’re in opposition to something that we learn how to move forward.
I’m not sure whether a podcast has ever, indeed, “made babies.” But I am sure that podcasts create a deep sense of engagement between listener and content, making them an excellent medium for brands and thought leaders alike.
(P.S. New to recording podcasts? All you need is a little help to get started.)
Podcasts are a format for the way we live today
Our appetite for content is limitless. Our ability to fit more into our waking hours is not.
Podcasts offer a unique format that can be more easily inserted into our busy lives than, say, reading a book or binging Netflix. For example, the average commute in the US has recently ballooned to 26 minutes one-way. Over the course of an entire year, that equates to roughly 9 full days of time commuting to and from work.
Commuters have turned to podcasts in large numbers because of their pragmatic and engaging format. Whether you only have a quick 15 minutes to spare on the bus or train, or a full, hour-long drive to work, there’s a perfect podcast out there for you.
And of course, podcasts cover any and every topic under the sun. Big into current events? There’s a podcast for that. Want to impress at an upcoming party with your knowledge on the history of gnomes? Yup, one for that, too.
Whatever your lifestyle, podcasts can conform to fit.
Storytelling is how we perceive the world
In 1938, the voice of H.G. Wells floated through radios across the U.S. as he read his fictional story, “War of the Worlds.” Unfortunately, slight hiccup; listeners perceived his fictional story as real. His show caused a national hysteria, striking fear in the hearts of listeners that aliens had landed on earth and were going to kill everyone. Actually.
Here we are, roughly 80 years later, and our fascination with audio storytelling is alive and well. After all, what more are podcasts than on-demand radio shows?
Our penchant for storytelling goes much further than its entertainment value. Storytelling is how we perceive the world. And to answer the question, “Why are podcasts so popular?” we have to acknowledge their ability to tell real, engaging stories.
A Stanford study showed that wrapping statistics and information in storytelling elements can increase retention rates from 5-10% to 65-70%. That’s a huge statistic to know if you’re a brand trying to engage with your audience.
Storytelling through podcasts connects with people on an emotional level that is attractive to its millions of listeners every day. Like Maya said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
By listening to a podcast, you are invited into a community
The second you tap “subscribe” on a podcast series is the second you immerse yourself into a community of like-minded listeners.
The breadth of podcast topics available ensures you can find your niche; the depth of content you can dive into on any topic (thanks to weekly episodes) ensures you are fully immersed and engaged.
Whether it’s through participating in an online forum for fans, attending a live taping of your favorite show, or discussing the latest episode amongst co-workers and friends, podcasts incite engagement and activity beyond their natural borders.
With the average podcast listener now listening to 7 episodes a week, up 40% between 2017 and 2018, these communities, and podcasts’ popularity overall, will continue to explode in the coming years.
Ready to sit on the other side of the mic and start a podcast of your own? You’re in luck – the guidance and equipment you need are nearby.