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There's a podcast for that

Podcasting provides outlets for entertainment, education

Created date

August 28th, 2017
Image of a microphone for a podcast.

Image of a microphone for a podcast.

When a new radio show called Your Radio Playhouse premiered on WBEZ Chicago in the fall of 1995, listeners had to catch it right as it aired. Even as the show entered national syndication with a new name just one year later, it could still be heard just once a week. But thanks to the advent of podcasting, This American Life is now at each listener’s fingertips, ready to stream or download almost anytime, anywhere.

Podcasts, or serialized Internet radio programs, are rapidly growing in popularity. A recent study by Edison Research reported that an estimated 67 million Americans listen to at least one podcast a month, with 42 million listening to at least one a week. Listeners can simply stream or download episodes from tens of thousands of podcasts using their preferred smartphone or tablet app (like iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, and Overcast)—or less frequently, directly from the podcast’s website. 

Endless array of topics

And with that many podcasts to choose from, listeners are bound to find a show that interests them: comedy, finance, news, politics, fashion, true crime, medicine, history, technology, pop culture, film, gaming, music—and those are just the top-level filters. Within each category, listeners can get as specific as they want by searching particular television shows, time periods, or geographic areas, for example. 

This hyper-specificity of podcasting and resulting mass of choices may seem overwhelming to a first-time listener, but that variety is exactly what makes the medium attractive to a steadily growing audience. Listeners of all ages could be looking for a theatrical podcast, but Millennials may want something like Dead Pilots Society, in which actors and comedians perform unaired television pilots, and their grandparents may enjoy Lux Radio Theater, airing classic radio shows from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. 

While many podcast listeners subscribe for entertainment purposes, quite a few of the most highly rated shows give your brain a workout too. Hosts of Stuff You Should Know take a weekly deep dive into all kinds of topics—pain, ketchup, Baby Boomers, lighthouses, and the Iditarod, just to name a few—with plenty of jokes mixed into the ample historical and cultural context. 

Other shows, like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio, tackle complex subjects with a panel of experts, journalists, comedians, celebrities, and other guests. Employing multiple, often differing perspectives on these podcasts creates a conversational style that allows for both a wider investigation into the topic and a more engaging experience for the audience. 

Learning tool in school

As primary and secondary schools integrate more technology into their curriculums, educators are looking beyond simply broadening access to devices like laptops and tablets and making podcasts part of their lesson plans. They’re finding a wide range of formats to work in a number of subjects: fact-based explainers satisfy the sciences, and long-form storytelling showcases incorporate elements of literature and fine art.

In an article for The Atlantic, author and teacher Michael Godsey observed his high school English students struggling to keep their focus when reading a novel but being actively invested in the wildly popular Serial, a hypnotizing, exhaustively-reported true crime podcast from 2014. 

Godsey says he taught the podcast to encourage a number of things, including “critical thinking, listening comprehension, and the art of storytelling.” But he did not anticipate how engaged the students would become while listening and reading along with a printed transcript: they eagerly asked questions, studied maps, debated, and wrote in their journals extensively. The program’s dialogue-heavy narrative style inspired his students to listen critically. 

Of course, not all podcasts require this level of guided discussion and supplemental reading. Often, listening to a podcast is simply an intriguing exploration into people, places, things, and ideas. And the ease with which listeners can search and play shows makes them accessible for the tech-savvy and novices alike.