The case for serial listening

Podcast, perceived as an “intelligent” medium, is a fertile ground for storytelling, especially in journalism

September 30, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 01:31 am IST

 Adnan Syed walked out of a Baltimore court after his conviction in the murder of one Hae Lee Min was overturned.

 Adnan Syed walked out of a Baltimore court after his conviction in the murder of one Hae Lee Min was overturned. | Photo Credit: AP

On September 20, 41-year-old Adnan Syed walked out of a Baltimore court after his conviction in the murder of one Hae Lee Min was overturned. Hae Lee Min’s body was found in 1999. Mr. Syed had been in jail for 23 years.

As a case of possibly wrongful decades-long incarceration, this was nothing new for the U.S. However, this was the ‘Watergate’ moment for a medium that has been coming into its own over the last 20 years.

Mr. Syed’s case formed the core of Serial, a podcast hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig that, in an arc of 12 episodes between 2014 and 2016, picked holes in the prosecution case against Mr. Syed. Serial’s episodes have been downloaded over 340 million times, and it sparked the wave of ‘true crime’ podcasts in the U.S. that really pushed the medium into the mainstream. Over one-third of Americans listen to podcasts regularly now, with growth across all age groups. By some estimates India now has over 95 million active monthly podcast users, only behind the U.S. and China.

Podcasts have also been growing as a business, as evidenced by the fact that international podcasting star Joe Rogan brought his Joe Rogan Experience over to the Spotify stable in a deal that is said to be worth over $200 million. Advertising on podcasts, which was at $105 million in the U.S. in 2015, stood at $1.4 billion in 2021.

The rise of podcasts is not surprising. The growth rates of on-demand media in the form of streaming platforms have been outpacing by-appointment media such as linear television and radio for some time now. It is also not surprising that as phone screen sizes and bandwidths expanded, on-the-go media consumption moved from text to images and audio. After all, it has been only about 400 years since text entered mass circulation, while humans evolved to learn from visual and auditory cues.

Podcast also currently enjoys the benefit of being perceived as an “intelligent” medium; one so far unsullied by the shenanigans of social media or the cacophony of TV. This may be partly due to the notion that the ability to hold forth on a subject for a good length of time requires knowledge or experience. Of course, this notion can be deceiving, as has been proven on the Internet.

This medium also subverts the dominant Web 2.0 consensus that shorter is sweeter. Hence, while seconds-long TikToks, Reels and Shorts rule the roost on social media platforms, on podcast platforms it is not odd to find listeners willing to closet themselves with speakers for two or three hours — most podcasts are between 25 and 60 minutes long. Given the human brain’s ability to dedicate processing power elsewhere while performing mundane tasks, it is easy to cook or clean while binge listening to ancient history or modern crime playing in the background.

These make podcasts a fertile ground for storytelling, especially in journalism. The medium’s rapid ascent also makes it a necessary one to tell your story. However, the current aesthetic of the podcast is minimalist, which puts the conversation starkly at the centre of a mostly naked stage. The bells and whistles of radio shows developed in large broadcasting stations are mostly frowned upon here. The music is ideally fleeting and functional. Without the visual and audio aids, some journalists may flounder; some may also soar. It is not surprising then that sharp interviewers like Kara Swisher, the doyen of Silicon Valley journalism, has shifted to podcasts as a primary medium. You may not see Mark Zuckerberg sweat under her questioning, but you can definitely feel the heat.

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