The Golden Age of Audio Entertainment

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By Daniel Ofman, staff Writer, @OfmanDaniel

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Radio nerds across America and the world can’t contain themselves. Podcasts are actually entering mainstream pop culture and no one’s apologizing. With the booming success of the podcast “Serial,” which was released in October of last year and ran for 12 episodes, many podcast aficionados are secretly doing culty-podcast-fan dances. Producers are paying more attention to quality audio storytelling due to Serial’s rapid popularity as the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes. Not too shabby.

“Serial” was a weekly podcast in which Sarah Koenig — the show’s creator and host — delved into the intricate case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in Maryland for murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
As the show unraveled, Koenig provided listeners with new information that she found through hours of interviews and research. In essence, the intrigue was that people didn’t know what to think throughout the series. Adnan Syed seemed like a charming dude; however, the evidence that Koenig provided throughout the show swayed listeners’ opinions after each episode.

With Serial’s unexpected popularity, other podcasts fully devoted to analyzing “Serial” started popping up on iTunes and online. “Serial” also instigated endless discourse on Reddit where fans discussed all the intricate details of Syed’s case. This was a big part of Serial’s charm— conversations and sharp opposing opinions that created great anticipation before each new episode. In many ways “Serial” returned to the episodic tradition, which was an integral part in the rise of the radio’s original popularity.

Before television (what?!), families would huddle around their radio sets at home and listen to the ballgame, a variety show, a soap opera or a radio play. This would be a communal experience, however, it would also be personal. With the popularization of television and the big screen, most personal and narrative-based programming shifted from audio to visual outlets, leaving radio as a rather dry entertainment medium.

This sort of audio narrative made a partial resurgence in the ‘70s and ‘80s with audio documentaries, shows like “Car Talk,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and other programs that drew on old forms of radio drama and variety shows.

However, all of this wasn’t a phenomenon. It wasn’t the “it” of its time the way AMC drama “Breaking Bad” was a few years ago or the way “Seinfeld” was in its heyday or, dare I say, like “Serial” was from October to December of 2014.

It wasn’t until 1995 (the year that I was born, coincidence? I think not) when Ira Glass produced some of the first episodes of “This American Life” for a broad national audience that personal narrative-based audio entertainment became popularized. Today “This American Life” is still the most popular and most downloaded podcast on iTunes.

Thanks to Ira Glass we have a conglomeration of a new wave of unique podcasts. Serial, Radiolab, Planet Money, Snap Judgement, Startup, Invisibilia and other podcasts that have significant followings have all been influenced by This American Life.

WHY THE HELL SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT ANY OF THIS RADIO GARBAGE?!

It’s simple. It ain’t radio anymore. They’re all podcasts, and podcasts are up and coming. Thanks to Sarah Koenig, the tight-skinny-jeans-hipster-folks of Brooklyn and Portland are tuning in and others are following. Five million downloads is not a laughing matter.

At this point the question lurking is why? Why would this form of entertainment suddenly have this strange resurgence in a time when we have curved HD screens, smartphones and Netflix?

There is something inherently personal about podcasts. People usually listen to podcasts on their handheld devices through headphones. It’s just you one-on-one with the content that you’re listening to. There’s a conversation going on in your head with familiar voices that you learn to love. It’s something intimate in a time when privacy and personal time is becoming rare. That’s where the podcast appeal comes into play.

That or maybe you’re a nerdy radio fan. Who knows?

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