Now we are talking

Excess screen time during the pandemic is turning people to podcasts and the value of voice

What do rapper Snoop Dogg, actor Alec Baldwin, comedian Bill Burr, health guru Jillian Michaels, entrepreneur and influencer Gary Vee, startup investor Tim Ferris, relationship therapist Esther Perel, talk show host Oprah and the Obamas have in common? Podcasts.

Podcasts are perfect for those who like to listen to experts talk about topics they are interested in, or passionate about. They are a terrific way to entertain yourself without staring at the screen, while doing household chores. In fact, podcasts are a hit with multitaskers who love to listen to something stimulating while they are driving, cooking or folding laundry.

Some people even listen to podcasts while they are on the treadmill. Step aside, Justin Bieber. Joe Rogan is the new joggers’ jam. Additionally, bedtime reading has been swiftly replaced by bedtime listening, especially with adults who prefer to close their eyes and fall asleep to a pleasant, confident voice that they have grown rather fond of.

Information, entertainment, or education: the purpose of a podcast does not matter, as much as the quality of content. Podcasts tend to be of all kinds: in-depth conversations on fascinating subject matters, comedy and silly banter to destress and smile with, business and financial advice from industry experts, insights and experience exchanges on parenting and child care, marketing tips and tricks, guided meditations, post-match sports talk, movie breakdowns, TV series discussions, literary interviews and reviews, or cultural commentary. Podcasts are popular because they are easily accessible, just a few taps away, either on the browser or inside an app, and usually free.

What makes podcasting different is its ability to establish intimacy between strangers. Much like radio, it helps the listener form a relationship or connection with the voice they listen to, which is why podcasters enjoy impressive levels of loyalty. After a few hours of relevant and valuable content, audiences keep returning to the same creators for more episodes.

Another unique selling point of podcasts is that they are highly engaging, with astonishingly low drop-off rates, which means that they are ripe territory for advertisers to disrupt and catch ears at. Host-read advertisements also mean that listeners trust the product more, so radio ad-like commercials do not need to interrupt an episode mid-conversation.

There is something real and human about listening to other people talk on a podcast that is radically different from TV, film and YouTube entertainment. We could say that podcasts are a regular staple in digital media culture and consumption, and not just a passing trend. Podcast culture is interesting and diverse, like human society itself, because there are podcast newbies, podcast junkies and everybody else in between – there is no such thing as sameness when it comes to understanding listeners, and the only way to get to know anything is to test and learn.

We are not talking about cutting edge technology or a recent discovery of this type of audio media, and yet, podcasts reached peak popularity in 2020, especially since the pandemic. People had time, and needed free entertainment. TV show hosts and actors needed an outlet that did not require entering a set or using complicated equipment.

What is more, Zoom fatigue and excess screen time has meant people need to give their eyes a break, and keep hands free. Timing wise, podcasts are perfect for today’s app-savvy audiences, but the funny thing is, they got published before the Internet age.

Back in the eighties, podcasts were called ‘audio blogging’ -- a way of recording thoughts and feelings, like written blogs, but did not quite take off because they lacked ease of distribution. In 2003, when the iPod was a prevalent personal device through which audio blogs could be downloaded, the term ‘podcasting’ (‘pod’ from ‘iPod’) came into being.

By 2005, it went mainstream once Apple added podcasting as a feature on iTunes. By 2018, with most carrying smartphones with mobile data on them, podcasts saw another huge spike, and in 2020, when celebrities turned to podcasting as a means of making content, and subsequently, earning big bucks, podcasts were finally seen as a simple, friendly and convenient medium for people everywhere to make entire careers out of.

Those new to the world of podcasts can start by exploring a few apps that help find the channels that resonate with them, and even inspire them to start their own podcast. Apple Podcasts, an early leader that offers millions of unique podcasts that are well curated, and is available to iPhone users.

iPhone users can check out quality podcasts on the app from all over the world. However, the next best podcast platform, Google Podcasts, is both Apple and Android-friendly. Google Podcasts has some cool content, and can get personal recommendations and manage listening activity.

Spotify, known for its music collection, offers 2.2 million podcasts. Audible, an Amazon product, is known for audiobooks but also hosts 100,000 podcasts. TuneIn Radio  which streams more than 100,000 radio stations, boasts a rather large collection of 5.7 million podcasts.

Castbox, a popular player, scrubs podcasts from all over the web, including iTunes. It is totally free, comes without ads, and is especially great for those interested in language learning through listening.

Those who want to launch their own unique podcast can try Podbean, an Android podcast app where they can not just stream and download content, but also create their own podcast, straight from the phone. Podbean offers a few handy features like adding sound effects like applause, drum rolls or laughs, and placing music clips in your episode to give it a personality as well as create smooth transitions.

And saving the best for last, there is Anchor, a professional yet beginner-friendly app that helps users record their own podcast and publish them online across listening platforms. Anchor is the right choice if you want to regularly publish episodes and grow your audience organically. It offers unlimited hosting, and makes money off your content, but also serves up ways to monetise your podcast. How about it? Now we are talking.

Saniaa Shah