by Nick Andersen ’12
I’ll start by getting this out of the way: I don’t know any more than you do about Hae Min Lee’s 1999 murder.
For twelve tense weeks this past autumn, I eagerly downloaded each and every episode of WBEZ’s Serial podcast, following along with reporter-host Sarah Koenig as she unpacked a hazy and potentially unsolved murder based in suburban Baltimore.
It was a thrilling, gorgeously produced exercise in transparent reporting and audio-based storytelling. Even more, it was the highest of high-points for the podcast form, and an especially exciting time to be working in the audio field.
Podcasts aren’t new. In fact, the podcast itself is approaching its tween years, having grown up and, dare I say it, thrived under the benign neglect of our broader popular culture. But the moment we’re approaching now—a moment where media producers of all types are eagerly trying to “serialize” their content—is a moment that I’m particularly excited about.
The numbers are there. In January 2015 alone, according to NPR CEO Jarl Mohn, NPR had more than 80 million podcast downloads across its broader network offerings. Online culture magazine Slate’s podcasting network saw 6 million downloads in October 2014, and independent design podcast 99% Invisible can command up to $45,000 in per-episode advertising funding an episode.
As Serial has shown, the audience is there, too. A Slate podcast about Serial was a remarkably successful (albeit temporary) venture. The Public Radio Exchange’s blossoming year-old Radiotopia podcast network completed one of the most successful KickStarter campaigns in history. Even more, Serial’s addictive quality showed its millions of devoted listeners just how much spare listening time they had in their daily lives.
It’s that time that I’m excited to try and exploit in my professional life. My home station, Boston’s WBUR, is storming into 2015 with an impressive collection of podcast projects in the works or on air, including our already launched audio version of the popular Dear Sugar advice column. And we’re not alone. Stations, independent producers and podcast networks around the country are seizing on this surprising moment of popular attention and transforming it into a sustaining force for our industry.
It’s a frightening time for audio journalism. Cars and the people who drive them are speeding away from terrestrial radio sources, opting instead for digital streaming and music on demand. Where podcasts can and will step in is in this movement toward “listening on demand,” meeting our listeners of the future where and when they want us.
My colleagues and I in public media will do our best to be there when you want us, but for now, I’m excited to tune in to the future and hear what it ends up sounding like.
If you turn up your volume, you might hear it, too.
Nick Andersen is an Associate Producer at WBUR, the NPR station in Boston, Massachusetts