If you don’t want to read me attempting to be insightful on the branding issues faced by podcasts then scroll down to my suggestions (they’re all great I promise).
My initial intentions were to write a piece about what podcasts are and why they can be such an interesting, versatile medium but I almost immediately faced a hurdle in a question I’ve been asked many times and never been truly able to sufficiently answer: What is a podcast? I know that sounds silly and I know that if you yourself consume them you probably have an idea. But would you be able to confidently and successfully answer that question unprompted?
I would classify myself as a huge podcast fan. I spend a sizeable chunk of my time listening to podcasts; in the last couple of years I have spent more time listening to podcasts than listening to music or consuming any other media (to the huge detriment of my film/music consumption). Therefore I hope it’s fair to say that the fact I can’t answer the question isn’t through ignorance. It’s odd being unable to simply define what it is, particularly when so many people consume them. So here’s my attempt to classify the word and understand why it can be so difficult to explain:
The etymology of the word is a portmanteau of Pod (from iPod) and Broadcast. So in that respect the simple answer is “It’s a broadcast that you can listen to on your handheld device”. But that doesn’t really sell the medium very well or even satisfyingly answer the question. BBC Radio 1 even experimented with distancing themselves from the frankly underwhelming term opting for the phrase ‘Free Download’. I could blame Apple for this whole problem but that won’t get me very far so I guess that’s out of the window.
Perhaps the key to defining what a podcast is would be to eliminate everything that it’s not: Is it fact based or fictional? It can be either. Is it original content or repeats from other formats? It can be either. Is it video or audio? Well, it can be either. I personally only really listen to audio podcasts, in fact I’d have gone as far as saying that podcasts are an audio medium but that’s wrong of me as they do also exist as a visual format. This dichotomy is one of the medium’s strengths but is also a huge issue, as when trying to define it or explain to your grandparents what you do in your spare time, there is probably no definitive answer. A catch-up service where you listen to the highlights of Desert Island Discs is a podcast, an hour and a half Nerdist interview with Duncan Jones that was filmed in 360 degrees is a podcast, and a show where two men watch the film Grown Ups 2 52 times in a row and report on their experience after each viewing is a podcast.
Another issue that lies within the question is that nobody ever asks what TV, Radio or Film is because they’re all a massive part of everyone’s lives. As such we’re generally underequipped to answer a question like this. Maybe the solution to the question lies in relating it to another medium that people are more likely to be conscious of. Maybe after some soul searching, walks along the beach at sunset and evenings wasted scrawling furiously on notepads in trendy cafes I’ll finally get it: Podcasts, they’re like Netflix but for sound but not always, also they’re generally free but not always… Actually that’s even worse than the handheld device broadcast stuff. So why isn’t it more a part of everyone’s lives and why are people asking this quesion? A quick and potentially inaccurate trip to Wikipedia informs me that in the guise of ‘Audioblog’ (and you thought ‘podcast’ was bad) podcasts have existed since the 1980s and even if that specific date isn’t accurate they’ve definitely been around for long enough and thanks to people like Ricky Gervais and shows like Serial podcasts, they definitely have a sizeable audience. If you don’t listen to podcasts, you almost certainly know somebody who does. But maybe you don’t know that they do.
Podcasts are generally a solitary listening experience, which means that people talk about it less and as a result there are still large chunks of the populous who have had no experience of it, even second hand. The phrase “do you want to come over to my place and listen to podcasts” has never been uttered by a living being and it’s unlikely that it ever will. Put it this way, I love podcasts, I love making podcasts but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to talk to about them unless I know the person I’m talking to is also a fan and if someone in a pub tells me they don’t know much about podcasts I’m not going to go out of my way to sell them on the idea past the phrase “you should give it a go, you might be surprised”.
I believe at this point I’m supposed to wrap up by musing on potential solutions to this branding issue or look to the future of the format but I don’t really know any solutions past my theoretical pub advice and if you already listen to podcasts then perhaps just broaden what you listen to. With that in mind if you don’t know where to start with podcasts or you currently only listen to BBC or Guardian podcasts then here are some British podcast recommendations (nothing against the tremendous output of the Guardian and BBC – I simply decided to give my recommendations some restrictions)
Iain Lee – Talk Radio
This podcast is a daily highlights show sourced from Iain’s brand new show on talkRADIO. It’s a late night call-in show but past that it defies any real categorising, which is something that Iain places real emphasis on. There are no specific topics that you are required to speak on if you call in and there are rarely any features. This opens up the line to some really odd topics but also some fascinating chat and regardless of what’s happening on the phones Iain is always an engaging host. A highlight has to be from a recent episode called ‘The Lovebomb’ where Iain found a user on Periscope with one viewer and got some of his listeners to watch it and fill her feed with kind comments. However, it’s not always silly and on the other side of the spectrum there have recently been shows where Iain spoken frankly and sensitively about an evening in the hospital where he feared his mother was going to die (she’s doing okay).
Pappy’s Flatshare Slamdown
If you don’t like puns then this isn’t for you. Pappy’s Flatshare is hosted by the comedy trio Pappys and is an enjoyably shambolic take on the panel show format. Each week they do a show based around a flat gripe (Leaky Roof, Tax, Washing up Etc) complete with comedy guests, bizarre pun based rounds and homemade jingles. One of the funniest things that I have ever heard on any podcast anywhere is Romesh Ranganathan playing ‘Drum & Basement Jacks’ a game where people have to MC about famous Jacks over a drum & bass beat.
Hip Hop Saved My Life
On the subject of Romesh Ranganathan, he’s not simply a comedian who is funny on other people’s podcasts but someone who hosts their very own. As the title suggests the main theme of the show is hip hop music and in each episode he gets a comedian or musician to come in and talk about music – – but don’t let that put you off if you’re not a massive fan of the genre. The show is often insightful and always hilarious.
The Empire Podcast
Due to the huge pull that Empire has a brand their podcast is always packed with A-list guests which will never be a bad thing but the key to the podcasts success is the hosting team themselves. The format is exactly what you’d expect from a podcast from the people who make Empire magazine going from listener questions, to news, to interviews and reviews, but Chris Hewitt and the team elevate it to something much better than a generic magazine format podcast with jokes and genuine rapport.
The Comedy Score
Each week comedian Joel Dommett and his best friend/composer Steve Dunne invite a guest in, talk to them about music and get them to tell a story. Two things set this apart: firstly Joel and Steve are really funny and obnoxiously likeable people to listen to but second and probably most importantly is that Steve takes the story and, in post as they say *in the bizz*, adds a cinematic score to the story.
There are five for you to start with but there are a huge number of brilliant podcasts that I’ve not mentioned and are well worth your time: Elis and John, Distraction Pieces, The Adam Buxton Podcast, Flickering Myth, Sodajerker On Songwriting, The Alex Baker Podcast, The Allusionist, The Bugle, The Parapod, Walsh On Film, Thug Book Club, RHLSTP, Jon Holmes, No Such Thing As A Fish and that’s without mentioning the fine work of The Guardian, The BBC or any international podcasts. Of course you can also listen to the Sinema Podcast I work on right here. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t really matter what a podcast is, just get involved.