Let’s be honest, podcasts used to be the sole preserve of geeks.

I was one of them. I would connect my iPod (remember them?) every day to my huge unwieldy PC to make sure I could always listen to the latest episodes of my favourite shows. Later, smartphones made all this easier, but podcasts continued to be a bit of a geek thing. Not anymore. They’re an outlet to learn, share and engage with people. Breakout podcasts like Serial have made the format hugely popular, and now they are even more in the spotlight since the start of the lockdowns and quarantines because of COVID-19.

In the UK, one in eight people now listen to podcasts, according to media regulator Ofcom. That’s an increase of 24% on the previous year. Much has been said about podcast listening taking a hit because Covid-19 has removed the daily commute – a usually popular moment for podcast consumption. However, we can’t ignore this fact: 22% of people who own a smart speaker use them to listen to podcasts. In short, as well as accompanying people as they travel, podcasts also live at home.

As podcast audiences have broadened, so have the types of programmes available. There’s also a wide range of purposes for the existence of these shows. And at a time when most people are still distanced from colleagues, friends and family, they have an incredibly important role to play. For those who are isolated at home, podcasts bring other voices to the home. Those voices inform them, entertain them and in many cases provide a welcome distraction from what’s happening in the outside world.

Many people are also using lockdown to learn new things, develop new hobbies and gain insights from those in the know who can connect with them in a friendly, approachable way. Brands and personalities that are able to hit that sweet spot will provide something really useful during a time of societal shift. Even for those who have never picked up a microphone before, now presents a great opportunity to use the medium of podcasting to reach out to people.  

For many, loneliness can be the hardest part of lockdown. And although many are making use of video calling and social media, there’s something quite unique and powerful about listening to a compelling conversation – even if it’s not one you’re part of. It all depends on the content of the conversation and the way it’s being presented.

 Of course, not every podcast will serve this purpose, nor should they all try to. The point is this: podcasts can do more and be more than you might think. The diversity in podcast audiences means that with adequate creativity thrown into the mix, you can reach the right people. And you can give them something they might desperately need.

For example, the Happiness Lab has created a series of podcast episodes to help listeners tackle anxiety through the coronavirus pandemic. PWC, meanwhile, has released a podcast series about how businesses can remain resilient during the crisis. These are two examples targeting very different audiences, but both have been able to create relevant content that speaks to people about issues important to them. And in the latter example, it helps the brand to be front of mind as a fast mover with an authoritative voice.  

There are some great podcasts being made at the moment – even during this pandemic. It’s certainly possible, and for many podcasters, creating shows with guests in different locations is the way they’ve been operating for years anyway.

Some podcasts have the big budgets and production values of a major broadcaster such as the BBC, while others are being produced in makeshift studios with a barebone setup at home. The most successful podcasts have one thing in common – they are made by human beings. By this I mean they carry the warmth of a real-life conversation. Podcasts are a very personal medium. Listeners are brought into a story with real depth or welcomed to a cosy chat over a coffee. They are allowed to smirk over a well-told joke or made to think about a new perspective they’ve just received.

Podcasts serve very real purposes for so many people. That’s why they cannot be made without forethought and a clear appreciation of the audiences. So while we’re living through the COVID-19 crisis, and even beyond it, we can find new ways to engage with listeners who can become captive audiences that stay with us for a long time.