It was never about guilt. I still don’t know if Adnan Syed strangled Hae Min Lee. But I remember the ride alongside both the fellow devoted and the previously uninitiated who collectively jumped headfirst into Serial. Week by week, Sarah Koenig enthralled fans through her accumulative approach to the story of Lee’s murder and Syed’s subsequent conviction. Serial transcended its humble medium, finding its way into dorm room and dinner table conversation and sending thousands of people to the r/serialpodcast subreddit to discuss the show, present theories, and generally dive into the world of podcasting.
While the ‘Serial effect’ has been well documented, for many, it was just a one-time thing. As listeners searched for something to fill the absence of Koenig’s storytelling, the DIY spirit of most podcasting was bound to prove underwhelming compared against the editing and production prowess of WBEZ, the Chicago radio station behind Serial. While shows like This American Life (whose budget spring-boarded Serial’s production) and NPR’s Radiolab satisfied those searching for a more Serial-like feel, the end of Season 1 left a podcast-sized hole in the media consumption of new converts. With such a compelling introduction, it’s no surprise they were hungry for more, but it was more than a captivating narrative that had drawn the legions to the cult of Serial.
While podcasts in their current form have only existed since 2003, talk radio – the more established older brother of podcasts – has been around for nearly a century. The personalities of Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Jim Rome have been fixtures in American cars and homes for decades as their radio shows have provided a place for people to hear news and discussion from people who make it enjoyable. Stern, Limbaugh and Rome, while all lacking Koenig’s knack for storytelling, have nonetheless prospered through the evolution of their respective audiences into communities.
That sense of community is the driving force behind the thriving subculture of podcasting. Take, for example, the popular comedy podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!. Hosted by Scott Aukerman, it has generated a large following since its start in 2010, with each episode garnering nearly 200,000 listens. Aukerman has created a show, since the beginning, that his audience feels apart of, inviting listener submissions for everything from the opening “catchphrase” of the show to a theme song for the “plugs” section at the end of each episode. When a fan-submitted piece of content is included, Aukerman gives them a shoutout by name, cementing them as a part of the magic.
Direct content submission is merely one of many avenues which allow listeners to intimately engage with their favorite shows. Many podcasts are streamed and recorded live online, adding another layer of fan/production interaction. The TWiT.tv network of podcasts streams all of its shows live as they are recorded, with a chatroom available for listeners to discuss the show as it happens. Many of the shows utilize the chat as a source of quick research, commentary or correction, and the hosts will often communicate with the audience before and after the recording of the official episode. TWiT.tv now streams shows 24/7, elevating the chatroom to a living community that’s always available.
The audiences of TWiT.tv and Comedy Bang! Bang! exemplify the podcast listener’s ability to generate communities and subcultures in the vein of more established forms of entertainment, but promise for growth lies in how the podcast, as a medium, enables an authentically deep connection between host and listener, listener and listener. Both TWiT.tv and Comedy Bang Bang! utilize varying guests from week to week, with more popular guests returning for additional episodes. This format transforms the shows into a fantastic archive for fans of specific guests to hear more from some of their favorite celebrities in a less-traditional setting. Comedy Bang! Bang!, for example, has seen repeat appearances from actors like Jon Hamm (Mad Men, 30 Rock), Adam Scott (Parks & Rec), and Gillian Jacobs (Community). Their episodes offer listeners a unique look at the actors in a looser, more improvisational setting, often riffing and doing bits in tandem with Aukerman.
No podcast more effectively provides dashes of these unguarded celebrities to sustain its own community than Harmontown. Hosted by the creator of Community and Rick and Morty, Dan Harmon, the show first rose to prominence when Harmon played a scathing voicemail he received from an angry Chevy Chase, who was a former cast member on Community. When Harmon was fired from his own show for a season, he took the podcast on the road, recording live episodes in dozens of cities across the United States. Throughout that tour, Harmon revealed a lot about himself and the people around him, all while meeting thousands of his fans who, much like the characters in Harmon’s aptly-named TV show, were looking for a community they could feel welcome in. The personal revelations and tight-knit community that defined Harmontown illustrate the unique ability of podcasts to offer listeners insight about their favorite celebrities that is applicable to their lives as well.
That connection – untainted by network, studio or PR firm influence – is an unsatisfied desire in the diets of today’s media consumer. This desire is evident in the appeal of Jimmy Fallon’s lip-sync battles, where fans feel celebrities are “having fun being themselves,” or the seemingly universal adoration of moments like this, where Jennifer Lawrence shows that she’s “just like us”. Yet even these “real” moments begin to seem manufactured or unreal as we see them repeated and commercialized.
Podcasts, on the other hand, have always existed as a relatively underground medium. Individual shows are able to become hits, but the number of people who consider themselves fans of podcasting in general remains low. Even on Reddit, a community where podcasts receive significantly more attention than in most venues, the disparity between fan bases is staggering. While r/podcasts, the primary subreddit for generally discussing the medium, has a respectable 23,000 subscribers, subreddits for more traditional mediums like r/movies and r/television boast a staggering 8.1 and 5.3 million subscribers, respectively.
The lack of notoriety is one of the reasons that traditional standards of commercialism and promotion have yet to impact podcasts. Even though many shows feature advertisements to help pay for production, they’re typically reserved for the beginning or end, and rarely involve the guests or surreptitious product placement. For example, WTF with Marc Maron is, without a doubt, a commercial success, but Maron hasn’t ever strayed from the authentic conversations he established his show upon. Even when Barack Obama, the President of the United States, was a guest, the show remained true to its roots, with Obama somewhat controversially using the n-word while discussing racism in the United States.
If the largest of podcasts featuring the largest of guests can still somehow capture “real,” then it should come as no surprise that podcasts, by and large, are one of today’s premier mediums for honesty and connection. Whether it’s the social aspects of Harmontown, or Comedy Bang! Bang!’s energized change of pace, podcasts have carved out an important place in our homes. And if you should need it, they can be called home too.