On Podcasts, the Future of Audio

Every day, I commute half an hour to work, and another half an hour back home. During those thirty minutes inside my car, I'm simultaneously alone, but surrounded by some of my closest friends. This may sound strange, but bear with me, I'll explain.

Back in the mid-aughts, around 2006-07, while I was still in high school, my brother was a student at the UofT Mississauga campus. For a while, he worked with their on campus radio station, CFRE, and one day, he brought home an .mp3 file of an interview CFRE had with one of our favourite bands, Moneen. I must have listened to that interview hundreds of times, devouring the words and their live acoustic renditions of some of the more popular songs. At the time, I didn't know two things. The first being why I loved listening to that interview so much, and the second being that that was my first exposure to what would soon become one of my favourite things in life - podcasts.

If I'm being entirely honest, I'm still not 100% sure as to what draws me into listening to podcasts. I think it's a combination of being able to passively listen in on incredibly interesting conversations about politics, technology and design while also being able to learn more about the things that interest me. But that's not where podcasts end, rather, where they begin.

Podcasts are more about the art of story telling, and in the last three years, it's been going through something of a renaissance. From new titles like Serial, that spawn discussions about the weekly updates (and subsequent discussions on those discussions) to Welcome to Night Vale, which is a sort of meta-podcast about a radio show taking place in a fictional mid-western town where all sorts of strange things happen, to Radiotopia, anchored by the incredible 99% Invisible, which is all about design in the modern world. Each of these podcasts brings something incredibly unique to the table, and every day people spends hours upon hours consuming and listening to these shows, and many others, from fantasy football to terraforming Mars.

Hello, my name is Tapas, and I have an addiction to podcasts

Hello, my name is Tapas, and I have an addiction to podcasts

The interesting thing though is that podcasting isn't new by any stretch of the imagination. It's been around for decades as talk radio, but only now is it really making noise. The reason for this is that I think it's now far more accessible. Anyone can find a show that they like and subscribe. You no longer have to tune in at a specific time and sit in your car or by a physical radio to listen. Instead, you can set up notifications, have the show you like to auto-download, and listen at your own pace. It's the audio version of video-on-demand, and it's fantastic.

The second reason as to why I think podcasts are booming now it's that it's such a personal and intimate experience. It doesn't matter where you are when you're listening - a car, train, bus, or walking down the street - you feel like you're sitting with these people inside your ears and like you're actually participating in that conversation in that exact moment. That's something you don't get with television or games. Sure, those two mediums may be more visceral, but they're not nearly as tangible. 

There have been many times when I've been driving home from work late at night, only to see other drivers around me staring at me as they pass me looking utterly confused and scared because I'm laughing to myself. What they don't know is that in that moment, Chuck Nice (from StarTalk Radio) just cracked a hilarious joke and he, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I are all sharing a laugh - together.

I've been listening to podcasts for the last four or so years, and in that time, I've managed to get my friends into them as well. Sometimes we listen to the same, and others not at all, but that's okay. And that's the brilliance of podcasting, it really does bring people together around topics you'd never think anyone else would ever share with you. It reminds me of Google's new advertising tagline for their Android OS platform - "Be together, not the same."

So, for as long as the people behind my favourite podcasts and radio shows like Radiolab, 99% Invisible, Welcome to Night Vale and Song Exploder keep producing amazing content, I'm going to keep listening and supporting them, because that's what friends do.