Listen up! What podcasts do differently – and why it matters

March 10, 2017 • 3 minute read

It may sound cliché, but I really am coming to the field of public relations at a particularly interesting moment in time. In the United States, protests over press freedom have broken out, and former U.S. President George W. Bush recently defended the media, proclaiming that their work is “indispensable to democracy.” Even as we recognize the importance of media content for good governance and the future of global civil society, the way we get this information is transforming at breakneck pace.

As podcasts gain popularity, they continue to push the boundaries of traditional media; both in content and style. I’m subscribed to many and am always on the lookout for additions to my queue. For me, podcasts play when I have the luxury of a wandering mind – while I’m making dinner, going for a run, commuting to work or walking to the store. While forms of “new media” are often criticized for allowing consumers – often those of my millennial generation – to skim, reacting almost mindlessly to a constant flood of updates, I’d argue podcasts can push us in the other direction.

Many podcasts release new shows only once a week, or even less frequently, meaning they can dive deeper into a subject and address it from several angles. The TED Radio Hour, for instance, explores one topic through several speakers in a range of industries, often focusing on a change in society or addressing how new information/research is altering how we understand human relationships or institutions. In November 2016, an episode titled “Democracy on Trial” featured discussions with academics, activists, reporters and writers, and former elected officials about alternative systems and facets of democracy that might improve or ultimately destroy it. Following surprising election results in the US and Europe, the topic was extremely timely. However, the podcast presented not news and current events, but rather the context required for better understanding. In short, I would argue it was creating smarter, more critical media consumers.

There is also something about the medium that allows the information to percolate. I’ll keep thinking about the topic afterward and come back to it without planning or conscious effort – something I can’t say usually happens after scrolling through social media posts. Occasionally shows will also have “re-runs,” replaying older episodes from their archives. I used to skip these if I’d listened when they first aired, but lately I’ve been taking a second listen. Many are surprisingly evergreen, even a year or two later, and I’ve gotten new or further insights from additional noodling on the topic and how it’s being presented.

As communication professionals, it’s critical that we not only strive to stay ahead of media industry trends, but also understand and utilize the way these changes can and should affect content. Some innovations will allow us to simply increase the size of our audiences, but there is also value in considering how the variety of forms of media available to consumers affects the way they relate to and use the information presented.