by Tereza Walsbergerová
In the last five years the popularity of radio podcasts had risen to the point where even Stephen Colbert acknowledged them on CBS’s The Late Show. What is so special about this seemingly mysterious and underground medium and why one may consider it the ideal medium for the millennial generation? This article offers a brief introduction to the ins and outs of podcast with a focus on radio podcasting in America.
As attention spans grow shorter and the demand for more diverse and instantaneously accessible content grows stronger, traditional broadcast media cannot keep up any more, which has consequently created more space for new media to flourish and evolve. Just like the previous generations, the “baby boomers” and “generation X”, thrived on their consumption of TV and radio, it can be said that the age of new media has had similar nourishing effect on the more technologically-savvy millennials. How? The answer can be found among the essential needs of the generation itself – it is all about accessibility, independence, and diversity. Podcast is the epitome of these things.
According to the Macmillan Dictionary, podcast is “a multimedia file, such as a radio programme or video, that can be downloaded or streamed from the Internet onto a computer or mobile device”. In other words, the main difference between a common radio or TV broadcast and podcast is to do with accessibility. While traditional broadcast is usually aired once on a specific station at a specific time, podcast episodes, while usually uploaded according to a certain schedule, are accessible to any user at any time – either by streaming the content online on multiple different platforms, such as Soundcloud, YouTube, Stitcher, Libsyn or Podbay, or by downloading it into a device via RSS feed, such as iTunes. Additionally, although the etymology of the word (podcast = iPod + broadcast) suggests relation to Apple products, users do not actually have to worry about having to sell their soul to the devil for a subscription (as they might sometimes have to in case of TV) as most podcast providers strive to make their programmes accessible on multiple platforms.
Information wants to be free, and so no topic is taboo in the podcast world.
Furthermore, another advantage of podcast besides its accessibility is its independence. Despite the fact that nowadays many authors and producers are starting to bind individual podcasts into networks in order to provide easier access to specific programmes, the idea of being independent from the commercial mainstream as well as free of charge is still very much on everybody’s minds. Moreover, information wants to be free, and so no topic is taboo in the podcast world. In part for that reason there are many different types of podcasts that can be used for many different purposes, which satisfies the millennials’ demand for diversity. The iTunes Store alone offers as many as sixteen different categories of radio podcast. Obviously, this article could not possibly contain all of those, but here are some categories that might interest the actual millennials reading this magazine.
The category that may perhaps seem closest to them is education. There are many ways radio podcasts can educate us about particular topics and the most common way tends to be via discussion. Stuff You Should Know is a prime example of that as it offers hundreds of episodes, each concerned with a certain phenomenon that may seem mundane or even boring at first sight, but usually turns out to be fascinating. For instance, there is an episode on crop circles, which contains both rumoured and actual history of the phenomenon as well as real life anecdotes and references to topical events. Those who are curious about the inner workings of some of the more “everyday” matters may also be interested in episodes about topics such as x-rays, the placebo effect, drag queens, yawning, or the general evolution of language.
One can safely say that the news and politics category overlaps the most with radio broadcast out of all the podcast categories on iTunes (some commercial networks even upload their programmes there). Again, the biggest difference between such a programme and truly independent news and politics podcast is in the level of unconfirmed, speculative or even dangerous (yet interesting) information that is provided to the listener. This level of truth can be, of course, both advantage and disadvantage, but the crucial aspect is yet again accessibility and freedom of information. One way or another, podcasts like Serial, which tells stories of real life events in America, such as murders or disappearances, may have never been produced via any other media as successfully as podcast.
Another podcast “genre” that has become increasingly popular with millennials since fan culture became more mainstream is the fan podcast. While most of these podcasts are amateur – made by fans for other fans – there are also some very professionally made fan podcasts out there with their production value on the same level as any radio broadcast. What can be appreciated the most about such podcasts is the degree of thoroughness these fans can employ in order to discuss every single episode of a particular show (book, film, game…) and the number of angles from which they look at it. For instance, Gilmore Guys offers a very entertaining and thorough analysis of every Gilmore Girls episode from the point of view of two men in their twenties – one that has grown up watching the show, and one that is currently watching it for the first time. Their analysis includes for instance segments such as “Pop Goes the Culture” – a discussion of all the pop cultural references used in every episode, “F-F-F-Fashion” – a brief discussion of the clothing, or “Twitter Q&A” – in which the hosts communicate with their listeners via social media. Moreover, they often invite cast members, random friends, or even unrelated celebrity guests on the podcast, which adds another level of dialogue and therefore makes the discussions more enriching.
When it comes to fiction, the independence and freedom connected to podcasting is fundamental to the creation of culturally, sexually, ethnically, and gender-diverse content.
The category that has perhaps been the most nourishing to the millennials in its podcast form is then fiction. As has been said previously, there are several differences between a common radio broadcast programme and a podcast programme. When it comes to fiction, the independence and freedom connected to podcasting is fundamental to the creation of culturally, sexually, ethnically, and gender-diverse content. For example, it can be said that programmes like Alice Isn’t Dead – a horror story about a female truck driver (Jasika Nicole) looking for her seemingly dead wife Alice, would most likely not be as successful on the air under American radio broadcast networks such as CBS or ABC, if it were even allowed there.
Furthermore, those who like their fiction to be aural rather than visual may find that not only are fiction podcasts a great way to pass time without having to focus on written text, but all of the extra material that is not provided in written fiction – the voices, the sound effects, the music, the meta conversations with authors – guarantees a full immersion into the story and therefore a virtually unique experience, which is something that has been increasingly difficult to find among all the distractions of the modern world.
In fact, immersion as such can be put on the list of the reasons why radio podcast is the medium for millennials. Some people may ask what is then the difference between a fictional podcast series and a classic audiobook, and the answer is that it is all in the original intention, which is directly related to its ability to provide immersion. While an audiobook, as a medium, however well-produced and acted out, will always be “just” an adaptation of a book, which is a medium intended to engage the mind through sight, podcast has already been created with the intention to engage the mind through hearing, which makes it easier for its listeners to connect with the content. Having this connection is vital to millennials, as in this age everything moves so rapidly that sometimes it is difficult to stand still in order to connect to anything at all.
In summarisation, podcasts represent that kind of connection to the world, and not necessarily just for the millennial Generation, too. There are no rules when it comes to podcast. As long as you keep your mind (or rather ears) open, it can enrich your world with plurality of opinions, freedom of information, culture and text analysis, independent music, or perhaps just the exact number of times Lorelai Gilmore mentions Mussolini on Gilmore Girls. And that counts for something.
Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast by women for women about women
Stuff You Missed in History Class for everyone who got bored during high school history
Hidden Brain podcast about the power of the mind
The Heart podcast about sexuality and intimacy
Supernatural: The Crossroads all-male podcast for the fans of Supernatural
Gilmore Guys two men sit down to talk about Gilmore Girls
The X-Files Files breakdown of The X-Files episodes
The Baker Street Babes all-female podcast for all your Sherlock Holmes needs
The Three Patch Podcast podcast dedicated to the fans of BBC’s Sherlock
Alice Isn’t Dead horror podcast from the roads of America
The Thrilling Adventure Hour throwback to retro radio shows
Welcome to Night Vale fictional radio show from the town of Night Vale
The Black Tapes scary podcast about scary things
News & politics
NPR politics for all your political news needs
Serial investigative journalism at its finest
This American Life self-explanatory podcast by the creators of Serial
Us & Them podcast about the issues that separate America
State of the Re:Union stories about the people of America
A Life podcast dedicated to everyone on the asexual spectre
No Such Thing as a Fish in which the QI Elves discuss anything and everything
Rain Man Show current pop cultural phenomenons up close and personal
The Nerdist in which Chris Hardwick talks about stuff and things
Happy Sad Confused in which Josh Horowitz interviews celebrities
Welcome to Night Vale: Charmingly Creepy Satire of American Paranoia
“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” That is the very first sentence of the cult American fictional radio podcast Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, first released in 2012. This sentence is not just a fantastic introduction into the podcast, but also sums it up perfectly; the mysterious yet charming city of Night Vale situated somewhere deep in the American desert is a place where every single paranoid thought that you have ever had (as well as some that you have never had) turns out to be true. There are dark hooded figures walking around the streets, Sheriff’s Secret Police have their eyes on you twenty-four seven, the mighty Glow Cloud sometimes blazes over the town and rains small animal carcases, dogs are not allowed in the dog park, the angels are not allowed to be called angels, there is a faceless old woman (Mara Wilson) secretly living in your home, and then there is you. (In fact, there is a whole episode dedicated to you. You should probably listen to that one to find out what you do in it.)
The mysterious yet charming city of Night Vale situated somewhere deep in the American desert is a place where every single paranoid thought that you have ever had turns out to be true.
In case you are worried about becoming overwhelmed by all the strange and supernatural – do not despair, because Night Vale’s honey-voiced community radio host, Cecil Palmer (Cecil Baldwin), will guide you through it all. His show has everything you need – news, traffic, horoscope, advertisements, the weather, and many other segments that will surely clarify things. That is, if you would consider this a clarification:
“Let’s go to the seven-day outlook. Your daily shades of the sky forecast:
Wednesday: Robin’s egg
Friday: Coal dust
Saturday: Coal dust with chances of indigo in the late afternoon
Welcome to Night Vale is not all just weirdness and paranoia, though. It is also a story about love – as the listeners get a chance to witness the blossoming relationship between Cecil and the newcomer Carlos (Dylan Marron), bravery – as you bear witness to an uprising against an evil corporation, and politics – as you experience Night Vale’s mayoral elections where a literal five-headed dragon (Jackson Publick) is running as one of the candidates. Above all, though, it is a story of a community and this particular community makes Welcome to Night Vale one of the most diverse programmes in America, full stop. Not only is the main character established as queer, but the podcast also contains strong female characters, disabled characters, and gender-neutral characters. On top of that, a great deal of the voice cast are actors of colour, which certainly adds to the diversity despite the fact that the authors do not usually provide racial descriptions of the characters. All in all, one may simply say that Welcome to Night Vale welcomes everyone. Even you. To quote Night Vale’s City Council: “Please pick up a New Citizen Welcome Packet and mandatory orange poncho at the City Hall.”
Not only is the main character established as queer, but the podcast also contains strong female characters, disabled characters, and gender-neutral characters.
Welcome to Night Vale (2012–present)
- country of origin: USA
- written and produced by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
- music by: disparition.info
- released under: Night Vale Presents
- starring: Cecil Baldwin, Dylan Marron, Mara Wilson, Meg Bashwiner, Kevin R. Free and others
- running time: usually 20–30 minutes
- official website: welcometonightvale.com
- available for free on iTunes, Soundcloud, Youtube, or Libsyn
- the first Czech live performance of Welcome to Night Vale – “Ghost Stories” will take place on Tuesday, 10 October 2016, in Prague.