"Radio" Stories Hip Again

Apr 1, 2015

Harkening back to the golden age of radio when radio was the dominant home entertainment medium and families gathered around elegant living room radio consoles to experience the latest episodes of Dick Tracy, The Lone Ranger or The Shadow, dramatic audio storytelling is making a comeback.  While the nostalgic days of radio are long gone, podcasts are breathing new life into the tradition of telling stories without pictures. 

Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, the co-hosts of “Invisibilia,” a new podcast from NPR.
Credit John W. Poole/NPR

Consider this:

·         Last year, Apple reported that subscriptions of podcasts through iTunes reached 1 billion.

·         According to CNN, the podcast phenomenon Serial, from the producers of This American Life, was downloaded over 40 million times as of December 23, 2014.

·         Roman Mars’ 99%  Invisible and Radiotopia podcast projects have raised over $1.2 million in the last years in Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns.

·         NPR’s newest podcast Invisibilia, another spinoff from producers of This American Life, was downloaded 9.1 million times in the first 21 days following its release and 20 million times in total.

According to recent iTunes download statistics, public radio is the king of podcasts with over half of the top 10 podcasts -- like Radiolab, Planet Money, This American Life and TED Radio Hour.  This isn’t surprising considering public radio’s long tradition of creating sound-rich and compelling audio content, even when it’s not profitable.  What is surprising is that in an age when so many video options compete for audience attention, the relatively simple, low-tech art of a human voice telling an interesting story is breaking through the noise.  And, equally surprising is that, according to a recent Edison Research study, the podcast audience skews younger than the general population with half of all podcast listeners under the age of 34.  So, the generation that grew up watching movies laced with the coolest high-tech CGI visual effects is also drawn to spoken word programs pioneered by public radio.  Who knew?  It’s enough to make all of us who passionately work to keep public radio relevant jump for joy.

Still, many questions remain unanswered in this brave new digital world, like the persistent digital dilemma:  How does all this new content get paid for?  While there are notable success stories attracting dedicated funding for popular public radio podcasts, most continue to be developed with funding from local stations and their listeners.  And, it remains to be seen if younger podcast consumers will gravitate to other public radio content and ultimately see their local public radio station as an essential community partner worth their financial support.

Yet, even with key issues in the wind, there is no doubt that the renaissance of audio storytelling is a positive sign – a sign that the desire to share our human experience via a well told story is timeless.  And, it is this tradition that will preserve the best of what public radio has to offer, no matter what new technology emerges to transport those stories to us.  The challenge for all of us in public radio is to find compelling new stories and develop creative ways to tell them with authentic voices that cross generations, bind us together as a culture and help us understand the unique perspectives of people with diverse experiences different from our own.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.