Column: Are we on the brink of the Golden Age of podcasts?

Image credit: Casey Fiesler (CC-BY)

Hollywood’s Golden Age, also known as the 30s through the 50s, saw cinema’s cultural dominance thrive. Radio had a solid run in people’s kitchens too, leading up to the last couple of decades when TV took over, which is widely considered the Golden Age of television. Even musicals had a golden era in the middle of the last century… So, naturally, it’s time for the podcast.  

Long dismissed as the domain for niche interest, or Radio 4 listeners catching up on The Archers or Desert Island Discs, podcasts are not exactly part of day-to-day conversation. Most people – by which I mean most young people – don’t even know where the podcasts app on their phone is. But there has been a surge in the last year of people of all ages being drawn into podcasts in some form or other. 

So, what exactly is it about these portable (and free, might I add) radio shows that people are suddenly enjoying so much? 

There is a correlation between society’s busy-ness and how we consume culture. In the 1940s, 60% of the US population went to the cinema weekly. Now, it’s just over 10%. A cinema trip involves organising a group, travelling there, and then spending around two hours watching the film. Not to sound like a lazy millennial stereotype, but who has time for that every week? The era most of our generation is most familiar with, probably due to our complicity in its proliferation, is the Golden Age of TV. Television was the perfect response to people having less time to go to the cinema, offering not only shorter content, but the luxury of not having to leave one’s home (I am not helping my lazy millennial image). This has gradually been condensed and made even more easily accessible, from Netflix, to the dawn of YouTube series… This shift online also struck the print newspaper off its throne for providing pop culture features and news commentary.  

In the world of constant commuting, running errands and packing our lives with as much as is humanly possible, sometimes there simply isn’t time to sit down with a book or a newspaper, or go to the cinema, let alone be in any one room for enough time to merit putting the radio on or sitting in front of the TV for half an hour. And so, here we are. So busy that we consume our culture on-the-go. Podcasts are the drive-through takeaway of newspapers and radios… a lazy millennial’s dream! 

Something else I hear more and more is that with podcasts you are never alone. This is the most tragic but also relatable thing ever, but is podcasts’ provision of constant stimulation symptomatic of modern society’s deep-seated fear of loneliness? Are we so afraid of being alone with our thoughts that we must drown them out with constantly-available-to-download journalists’ voices. In many people’s lives, the only real free time alone they have is travelling from A to B, which used to be the perfect time to zone out or reflect. But now, this is the prime domain of the podcast… Are we so culturally greedy that we must fill every waking moment with new thoughts and stories? Or are we victims of the surge of cultural production, as the means of creating content are so much more readily available? The sheer wealth of commentary and narratives advertised to us instigates a pressure to consume as much as possible; I am certainly guilty of whinging to my friends that I am drowning in podcasts. 

All that said, I think podcasts are certainly a sign of progress; it is just like reading a magazine for people who don’t have the time or money to buy and read one. It is also clearly how people want to take in certain content now: for example, This American Life’s S-Town was downloaded a record-breaking 10 million times in just four days. So, prepare yourself, and your phone’s storage, for the Golden Age of Podcasts is nigh… 

Podcast recommendations to get you started: 

- To laugh: The Guilty Feminist 

- To be gripped: S-Town, and when you’re done binging on that, its predecessor, Serial 

- To learn: This American Life 

- For funny pop culture chat: The High Low 

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