Turning the volume up on podcasts

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Sometimes we need new words to describe new things.

And so it was for journalist Ben Hammersley, one night 15 years ago, when filing a story on the topic of internet radio blogs.

Just as he was about to leave the office he received a call from his subeditor.

“They said: ‘We need one more sentence – just to fill the page,'” Hammersley explains.

“So I wrote something pompous like: ‘And what should we call this new phenomenon – audioblogs? How about podcasts?'”

Skip forward a few months and everyone in tech circles seemed to be talking about ‘podcasts’. It was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But it was not until 2012, when Apple created a podcast app, that podcasts really went mainstream.

Suddenly producers of audio stories could reach millions of listeners. And hit shows soon started to arrive.

One of the most notable early successes was Serial – a true crime series by Sarah Koenig that captivated a huge audience in 2014. The first two seasons have been downloaded over 340 million times.

In the UK around six million people now listen to at least one podcast every week – an audience that has doubled over the past five years.

Podcasts can be heard on dedicated apps like Pocket Casts and Overcast but also on Spotify and BBC iPlayer Radio.

Listening to a podcast is an unusually intimate experience. Many people feel as if they know their favourite hosts.

And while there are now very popular podcasts, there is also a vast number of niche shows about every conceivable topic.

I love discovering shows about design, business and culture – including 99% Invisible, Reply All, Design Matters, and the Observatory.

Advertisers love podcasts because, unlike most other forms of media, they are able to capture an audience’s full attention. Podcast hosts often even read out the ads.

The value of podcast advertising in the UK has grown dramatically – from £8.6m in 2017 to £16m in 2018.

Some brands have cut out the middleman and started to create podcasts themselves. Gimlet Media – a podcast production company recently acquired by Spotify, even has a division dedicated to helping brands tell stories that will resonate with listeners.

The only problem for podcast makers today is one of over supply. With over 700,000 podcasts to choose from listeners are spoilt for choice.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post.
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