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The Year We Started Taking Podcasts Seriously


Just a couple years ago, the idea that the president of the United States would record a podcast episode from comedian Marc Maron’s garage would have been hard to imagine. But in 2015, podcasts became serious business. 

As of early last year, more than a third of Americans have listened to at least one podcast (probably Serial), and 17 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast in the past month, up from 12 percent in 2013. Many of those shows offered diverse voices that would have been hard to find on the public radio you grew up with. Just listen to the badass hosts of Buzzfeed’s Another Round, Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, grilling Hillary Clinton on her racial justice policies. They ask her tougher questions than we’ve heard in any of the televised primary debates.

2016 will be the year that people stop asking, “Do you listen to podcasts?” and start assuming that you already do. Rather than an assortment of anomalous blockbusters, podcasting will become an established medium in the new year. Media criticism for podcasts will become a thing, and ethical standards around host-read advertising will develop (more on that later). Only one member of your family will ask you this year to show them how to get onto their iPhone’s podcasts app; the rest will have figured it out by this point. This means you’ll actually have time to listen to that new Gimlet show now: congrats!

Here’s what else you can expect to happen in podcasting in the year ahead:

Prepare for native advertising. 

Advertising rates will continue to increase, and ads will come to us in new forms. While creative, host-read ad spots that garnered top podcasters twice the ad rate of network TV were the big thing in 2015 (here’s looking at you, Squarespace), 2016 will be the year of native advertising. The Message is a good example of what’s to come: co-created by the Panoply network and GE’s Podcast Theater, the 8-episode sci-fi mystery show features real technology developed by GE. It’s a legitimately good story, and the native branding frees the show from ad interruptions (which listeners are learning they can skip over anyway, potentially lessening their value to companies). Gimlet’s creative director is already pursuing similar branded content opportunities for the network.

Of course, as with native advertising on news websites, these will need to be transparent in order to keep listener trust. But if an advertiser wants to pay six figures for a branded show, which in turn allows a podcasting company to fund three other non-sponsored shows, there are plenty of reasons to accept.

Hosts will become stars. 

This time last year, only two professional podcast hosts had enough clout to appear on late-night TV: This American Life’s Ira Glass, and Serial’s Sarah Koenig, who appeared on The Colbert Report in December. In 2016, more hosts will become newsmakers in their own right. Another Round’s Nigatu and Clayton, Reply All’s PJ Vogt, and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars have “podcast star” written all over them.

The bad news: because of the increased visibility of these hosts, we’ll probably hear the self-deprecating “I can’t believe I’m on TV! I have a face for radio,” joke more than we can really stomach.

The word “podcast” will disappear.

I’ll admit that this is more of a plea than a prediction. The term “podcasting” is a clunky portmanteau, a Frankenstein’s creation made from “iPod” and “broadcast,” which are outdated in their own right. Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything has a great episode on who coined the term “podcast” in the first place. TL;DR: it was a big mistake that should be erased from the public record immediately. I motion to have it replaced with the much more accurate terms “audio” and “audio shows.”

Serial-mania is over

I know, I know. You loved the first season. But it’s time to admit that there are now many other, tastier podcast fish in the sea. Serial season one was a magical unicorn with excellent reporting and storytelling, but we made it what it was through our collective and coordinated enthusiasm. I feel preemptively frustrated at the number of articles that will come out in 2016 about how season two, which follows the highly-publicized story of U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, isn’t nearly as good as season one. You will blame your disappointment on bad topic choice, or the weird collaboration with movie producer Mark Boal, or on less good Mail Kimp—er, Chimp—ads. If you are planning on writing this piece in 2016, back away from your computer, and listen to another podcast instead.

So many new shows. 

In 2014, the number of actively hosted podcasts exploded from 16,000 to 22,000. A key reason for that growth is technological: Smartphone ubiquity, easy-to-use listening apps, and in-car audio hookups have created a boom in audience numbers, and the cost of making a podcast remains low. 

And so it almost goes without saying that the field is only going to get more crowded in 2016. Be on the look-out for new curatorial tools to help manage the influx, including apps like NPR One that select shows and episodes based on your interests. With so many options out there, we’ll need all the help we can get.