The return of the podcast

About 10 years ago, a new word entered the language: podcast. The word is what students of language call a “portmanteau,” or a mash-up of two existing words to make a new one – in this case, the words “broadcast” and “iPod.”

Podcasts began as cheaply produced audio programs uploaded onto the Web and made available to subscribers for free. From the beginning, they ranged from discussions about news, books, music and politics to full-blown dramas – kind of like old-time plays from the early days of radio. What people liked about podcasts was that anyone could make them – all you needed was a computer, a microphone and some editing software.

In 2013, there were a billion podcast downloads from Apple’s iTunes store and last year there were about 225,000 podcasts out there. That may seem like a lot, but if you consider that people are uploading four million hours of video content every month to YouTube and that there are about 450 million English language blogs on the Web, podcasting is still just a small piece of the digital pie. And for a while there (in 2009) it looked like podcasts were going away as total numbers of downloads declined.

Lately, though, podcasts have really been taking off. One reason may be that more and more people are discovering them through the app store on their phones. People listen to podcasts while walking, while cleaning the house and even while working out at the gym (though personally I’d probably just lie down on the treadmill if I were listening to “This American Life” instead of my usual mix of hip-hop and heavy metal).

Stuck in traffic?

The real reason for the new popularity of podcasts, though, may be that people are listening to them on the drive to work. Newer cars are internet connected. Industry insiders say that 50 percent of the new cars sold in 2015 will be able to stream podcasts – meaning that more people will be listening to podcasts as they stare at the taillights of the car ahead of them in the traffic jam.

As well, the economics of podcasting are making them more popular. Making a podcast costs nothing – while producing a standard radio show comes with huge overhead in terms of personnel, studio time and equipment. For advertisers – who are always trying to maximize the number of people they reach for the least amount of money – podcasts provide more “impressions” at a lower cost.

Now I admit, I’m usually the first person to jump feet-first into a technological trend, but for some reason I missed the first big wave of podcasting a decade ago. Then, a few months ago, my friend James Bullbrook asked me if I would consider hosting a podcast with him. James, like me, is a former political staffer and speechwriter. He’s also a scriptwriter and a film fan. He felt that he and I might have some interesting things to say on a wide range of topics.

In a few weeks, we’d picked up a couple of high quality microphones and some free software. We found a free piece of music to use as the show’s theme. We came up with an idea for a name (“Reticulating Splines,” after a phrase that was written on the loading screens of the old Sim City games) and created a Twitter account.

So far, we’ve produced three shows and we’re just starting to find our footing and a style that works for us. Overall, the experience has been really pleasant – and easy, too. Our podcast is basically a one-hour conversation between friends with all the boring bits cut out and edited down to 20 minutes. Here’s a shameless plug: if you’re interested in Canadian politics, writing and film, I invite you to check it out at @splinespod on Twitter.

It occurred to me while James and I were recording our last podcast that, really, this is something churches have been doing for a long time. Since I was a kid, churches have been recording sermons on tape and giving them to people who missed the service for health or personal reasons.

Many modern churches are already riding the podcast wave. It doesn’t take much to turn a 20-minute sermon into something people can listen to any day of the week. And pastors – who are trained to hold an audience’s attention exactly the right length of time for a podcast – make excellent and natural hosts.

If your church hasn’t explored this and you’re interested in setting up a church podcast, send me an email at moc.sregor@gnardyoll. I’d be happy to help you out. Now is the time to get (back) into this exciting new(ish) medium.


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