Back in the day, long before most of us who religiously scour the Internet for content all day were born, one of the primary sources of news and entertainment came in the form of radio. Families would gather around a large, bulky contraption that produced grainy, tinny sounds, and strain their ears to hear stories relayed to them from radio stations miles and miles away. Sometimes these stories were true happenings going on in the world, and sometimes they weren't — serialized fiction was a popular form of radio and a revolutionary source of entertainment within the home.
Naturally, as is the way of technology, new forms of entertainment came to push radio aside. TVs, color TVs, computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and more paraded into our lives, and radio became something that only made sense as a secondary activity — while driving, for example. The draw of a visual component was overpowering, and so for decades creative storytelling focused on the mediums that people sat down and turned their full attention to. Then in the mid-'00s, a little technology we like to call podcasting entered the fold and "radio" storytelling started to come back in a newer, richer way.
Fast-forward 10 years, and we've now seen an explosion in the way podcasts are created and consumed. Whether it's a free-flowing conversation on sports and pop culture like The Bill Simmons Podcast or a serialized story following the growth of a startup each "season" on StartUp, podcasts have enjoyed an incredibly high production value and ease of access thanks to smartphones. By simply plugging in some headphones and opening a podcast app, suddenly you can have high-quality storytelling and news delivered to you whenever you choose. It's a serious evolution from timed radio programming ideal for a morning car commute, which is essentially all the medium had left as of 10-15 years ago.
Perhaps the biggest moment for podcasting came about last year when Sarah Koenig and her small team launched their serialized investigative show Serial. Its central mystery about Adnan Syed and the ex-girlfriend he allegedly killed in 1999 was undoubtedly the reason why it became such a pop culture sensation, but the way it was delivered in weekly installments showed what the medium is really capable of. With the backing of This American Life, Koenig put together an incredibly rich and compelling story that captivated people and lived well outside the confines of its own podcast. People let their theories about Syed run wild all over the Internet and turned rabid for new episodes of Serial by the time it had released just five or six.
Now that podcasts are fully on the rise and have become a viable avenue for advertisers, this sort of audience-story interaction is primed to get stronger. Because podcasts are inherently a very personal experience in the moment and simultaneously communal in the discussions everywhere else, there's bound to be continued innovation in both storytelling and distribution. If you're a fan of good stories and good content, that's excellent news indeed.
Cover image: Casey Fiesler via Flickr