Stay. With. Us. For many a millennial with a smartphone and a pair of headphones, Ira Glass’ breezy Baltimore cadence will be familiar. He is the host of WBEZ’s This American Life, a podcast which spawned Serial, the unexpected media hit of the decade, and the catalyst for podcasts storming straight into the mainstream.
Serial followed the story of a supposedly open-and-shut murder case from 1999. An experienced producer from This American Life, Sarah Koenig, tracked down the main protagonists, and over 12 audio episodes she exposed some of the flaws and missing pieces in the case. It was a viral hit in 2014, with the final episode downloaded 70 million times. When series two launched in December 2015 the server crashed. Serial is no flash in the pan. By November 2015 more than 1.5 billion podcasts were downloaded in the UK alone.
This is the second coming for podcasts. When the iPod and iTunes launched in earnest in the mid-2000s, podcasts were the free feature which came with the product. The Ricky Gervais Podcast was regularly number one on the charts at this time, but in my opinion, his banter-ramblings with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington lacked coherence and charm. It also missed the key ingredient which is propagating this second coming – storytelling at its best.
This American Life is consistent storytelling excellence. Each episode centres on one theme with a variety of features (or acts) ranging from the painful to the poignant to the absurd. Producers intersperse their features with interviews, reportage, memoirs, field recordings, fiction or poetry. The style is quite formulaic – familiar, gentle and curious. And because the listener often has their headphones in there is a palpable emotional connection between the storyteller, the subject and the listener.
Other favourite American aural imports include Invisibilia, about the invisible forces which shape human behaviour, and the first series of StartUp, a meta-meta podcast about starting up a podcast company.
In the UK the BBC leads the way with Desert Island Discs, an exquisite example of how to unfold the tale of someone’s life. Kirsty Young disarms her guest and unearths their hidden stories through the mechanism of choosing their favourite music. While Seriously… gathers the best radio documentaries on the BBC in one place for those after something quirky and curious. There are also some independent podcasts which regularly hit the top of the podcast charts, including last year’s outstanding The Adam Buxton Podcast. He interviews his favourite artists and media personalities – invariably friends – and teases out their stories and oddities over an hour-long chat. (I can highly recommend Buxton vs. Louis Theroux!)
The podcast revolution, the next media frontier, is exploding in America. It’s an area where public relations can excel and lead. Richard Edelman has previously discussed how media companies are willing to entertain new ideas for shows that have a brand ‘sponsor’ but with good storytelling and compelling content at the core.
Acast launched in the UK in September 2014, and this is a free-to-use podcast platform which hosts and promotes podcasts for brands and links podcasters with advertisers. In 2015 it achieved 24 million streams and downloads per month – a 364% increase on the previous year – while hosting over 50% of all commercial podcasts in the UK. The straightforward play for brands is advertising, usually native advertising, where the host will read out the advert in the same tone and style of the podcast.
Owning the podcast and making it true to your brand could also be a very fruitful strategy for some. In a Marketing Week interview, managing editor of Asos.com, Lucinda Greasley, said: “You need a strong idea and a unique personality or you’re just adding to the noise. All the girls that do the Asos podcast work at Asos, so they are bringing a voice to our brand.”
Alternatively, brands, companies and public figures should be aware of the major players in the podcast arena, and look to engage with them. A four-minute grilling on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme is a rite of passage for many a FTSE 100 CEO or government minister, and is helpful content for the BBC website and subsequent 24-hour news cycle. But recently Hillary Clinton was applauded for her appearance on Buzzfeed’s Another Round, where she transcends the brusque manner she is often criticised for, coming across as articulate, personable, and funny, while responding more freely to questions on Black Lives Matter, sexism and some of her failings.
So a broader interview in a podcast provides the opportunity for spokespeople to open up, tell their story and come across as honest, authentic and human. And contrary to popular belief, people (especially millennials) are willing to listen to, and actively seek, longer pieces of content. For the foreseeable future, this revolution is heading in one direction. Stay. With. Us.