Podcasts often tell stories. Even when it’s a podcast about an event such as Brexit, or analyzes a controversial idea. I remember, back in 2010, the podcasts I listened to were elaborate stories, whether it was about the media, or even an emerging area of sustainability. One podcast that has stuck with me over the years was This American Life, hosted and produced by Ira Glass. It was always divided into Act One, Act Two etc., and the story within the story created a colorful quilt.
No wonder Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer for a podcasts about immigration called“The Out Crowd.”It was all about documenting “the emotional truth” by weaving it into “stories around characters and scenes and story arcs…” It is exactly how the best podcasts are made. To a large extent, podcasts are a work in progress. An experiment with audio using a medium (sound recording) that has existed for more than a hundred years. This American Life declares: “We view the show as an experiment. We try things.”
The best example of an experiment was how one of its shows was turned into a live musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda! Even as the pandemic shut many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling. Watch this. No Listen to this!
Trust me – it will revise anything you’ve thought about the ‘spoken word.’
Podcast listening is rising sharply though many people still find podcasts hard to fathom. On the one hand podcasts’ ‘long form’ story structure doesn’t fit into some people’s social media consumption habit filled with memes and GIFs. Or, they tend to be dismissed as too mundane, given how many ‘vlogs’ (video blogs) bubble over with rants and risqué material guaranteed to harvest clicks. There is, however, a wide chasm between these two. Plenty of gaps being filled by experimental podcasts. Atlantic magazine has ‘The Experiment’ to do a deep dive into the culture and politics. Slate, in 2016 began what it called a ‘rolling podcast’ style of delivering fresh content around the elections, as did the New York Times’ podcast ‘The Daily.’ While these niches await proper nomenclature many podcasts have mined the gaps that the media were once reluctant to invest in.
My hypothesis is that podcasts are lighting a fire under the media, giving rise to a new journalism. The climate couldn’t more right for it, with people cloistered in make-shift home offices, or tired of the formulaic story arc on the evening news. There’s also the smart-speaker set, who can listen to something different while making coffee, or doing laundry.
The term ‘New Journalism’ isn’t a new label. It was used in the Nineteen sixties and seventies when journalism was invigorated by fiction writing techniques.
What differentiates this kind of journalism is that in a podcast, the journalist-as-host brings in a sense of immediacy not possible in print media. The journalist tiptoes in and out of the story to connect the dots.
In December 2019, the Pulitzer Board announced a new category for audio reporting – basically podcasts. It called this an experimental move in recognition of a “renaissance of audio journalism” that opened up “non-fiction storytelling.” I’ve been listening to The Daily for about a year now, alongside This American Life,On the Media andThis Week in Tech. So I was delighted when This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer. This long-running show may have been the spark for many podcasts today.
Even as the pandemic closed many, many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling. Here’s to audio journalism!
I love the fact that the audio format has been on the upswing, even despite the explosion of screen-based communication options. Depending on who you ask, they will tell you video didn’t assassinate the radio star for various reasons. Such as
Podcasts is immensely portable, and does is perfect for multi-tasking
Podcasts capture the ‘authentic’ voice of the person or the moment being represented – no fake ‘DJ voice’ required
Podcasts have in their DNA something akin to long-form journalism – deep dives into content, rather than skimming a topic
Podcasts lend themselves to drama, even while being authentic. The nearest thing to the documentary.