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In July 2003, two fellows at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, journalist Christopher Lydon and software engineer Dave Winer, sat down for an interview together. This gave way to arguably the very first modern podcast. This gave way to arguably the very first modern podcast.
Twenty years later, the podcast industry now has over 460 million listeners across the globe and is projected to increase even more. Yet from Lydon and Winer’s innovation in 2003 to its popularity today, this growth has not been exponential or effortless. In 2005, Steve Jobs and Apple included over 3,000 free podcasts on iTunes and iPods. But podcasts were still a niche form of entertainment in the 2000s, and iTunes eventually grew out of its popularity over the years until eventually iPods were finally discontinued by Apple. How, then, did this “podcast renaissance” come about 20 years after its premiere?
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in April 2023 showed that the top three reasons that Americans listen to podcasts were entertainment, education, and diversion. And these reasons seem to follow the general trend of why people engage with social media nowadays — to relax, to learn, or to distract themselves.
Science has uncovered the dopaminergic side effects of the engaging visuals on social media long ago. For podcasts, this visual fulfillment in social media platforms is replaced by a similarly addictive audio fulfillment, where the listeners feel an intimate but fabricated connection with the speakers, triggering the same feel-good hormone that brings them back to podcasts.
Podcasts have come to represent a milestone in the digitization of information, disseminating stories in a more succinct and accessible way. Take news for example. The printed and distributed newspapers first grew into websites and newsletters, saving one the effort to physically go and pick it up. Now, digital articles are summarized and read out loud on a podcast to listeners anytime, like the one atop this page for example, saving one the effort that it takes to actually read the article. Moreover, through jokes and differentiation in tones, podcasts are often crafted to be more intimate, informational, interactive, and entertaining than words on a page. They inject the printed stories with voices, emotions, and lives. And they make both words and information alike accessible everywhere at any time.
This increased ease of access to information might have led to the current resurgence of podcasts. Information has become a gateway to socialize — and podcasts just may have become one of the fastest and easiest ways to get this information. Indeed, people are actively looking for interesting and trendy topics to talk about with their colleagues, friends, and daily acquaintances — and according to the Pew Research Center, 68% of American podcast listeners would regularly discuss the content they consume through this medium with others.
Podcasts provide a surface-level overview on a smattering of interesting and socially relevant topics, giving listeners just enough information to be able to engage in small talk and be seen as “kept up” on the latest news. True, retaining any information on one’s own requires more effort than listening to a summarizing podcast on one’s feed. But if one only wants to impress others or begin a conversation through new knowledge, podcasts become an accessible and efficient medium for this goal.
Additionally, the Pew Research Center reported 81% of American listeners to play podcasts as a background sound while engaged in other activities, such as commuting, exercising, or doing chores. Even while doing mundane, daily tasks, people seek information via podcasts — in the age of information overflow, podcasts provide an effortless and accessible way to learn what is going on in the world.
However, this incessant desire to obtain information seems to preclude people from leaving time for themselves and slowing down their fast-paced routines. For instance, when one gets accustomed to listening to podcasts that summarize books with varied tones and rapid progression of plot, it will become difficult to return to reading the plain, written words and prolonged development of plot in the paperback. One then glances over intricate details that give life to the characters and the beauty of the language itself. Knowing the basic idea of a book is easy and fast; discovering and appreciating its plot, language, and characters becomes time-consuming and draining in contrast.
The “podcast renaissance” raises the question of whether it is possible to slow down and appreciate a subject more meaningfully after being so accustomed to consuming it through such a quick and convenient medium. Accessing information via podcasts and using this latest information in conversations provides topics for small talk. But knowing only a little bit about everything can hardly lead to deep conversations.
Indeed, multitasking to podcasts has become an even more efficient way to digest this constant flow of information. But to what extent can we truly retain everything in the podcast when we cannot even devote our full attention to the subject? Podcasts are accessible, informational, and entertaining. They are a snapshot of our fast-paced lives, of a society with too much information at our fingertips. The question that remains is whether we want to reconsider how we think and act in the age of information and podcasts, as well as whether we still can.
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