'Serial'

‘Serial,’ a spinoff of ‘This American Life,’ was the perfect podcast at the perfect time to break open the format.

In 2014, the podcast, “Serial,” became a worldwide phenomenon and introduced millions of people to the idea of downloading or streaming spoken word shows to their phones. 

The term, “podcast,” has been around since 2004 — just two years older than the iPhone — but the idea of “audio-blogging” from a computer started in the 1980s, as a small group of early techies was exploring the possibility of computers being able to talk to each other over telephone lines. 

The obvious historical genesis comes from the golden age of radio shows that were the focus of family entertainment before television took over in the 1950s. 

“Serial” quickly broke out of the normal thousands-of-listeners classification, as some of the more popular podcasts typically reach, to the tens-of-millions-of-listeners classification. This was an almost unthinkable number for podcasts at that time. 

“Serial” was the perfect podcast at the perfect time to break open the format. As smartphones and the ability to use the various apps have become ubiquitous, there has never been a better time for the general public to discover the hidden intellectual gems of podcasts with so much ease.  All that was needed was for one show to capture the nation’s attention, and “Serial” had all the right qualities to do just that. 

The sudden rise of podcast popularity is a small counterbalance to the rampant spread of anti-intellectualism that has taken over so much of the country. 

As so many Hollywood movies are written only for mass consumption, as television channels, such as The History Channel, have become caricatures of themselves by devolving their programs to the search for random, mythical creatures, and as a sizeable portion of the population has decided it’s “hip” to disagree with basic scientific knowledge, we need a place where knowledge and nuanced thought is celebrated. 

Podcasts are the perfect place to easily and cheaply spread smart, detailed and nuanced ideas and discussions. 

The first podcast to reach a million listeners was “This American Life,” which started as an NPR show in 1995 and is hosted by Ira Glass. 

Ira and his team developed the art of creating engaging, poignant shows, using real people telling their stories. In this technology age, where videos and video games are always within reach, “This American Life” showed us that we still crave a genuine, heartfelt story, and we still want to hear smart people discussing complex topics without the fear of being beholden to corporate advertising money.  

Many of today’s most popular podcasts started as NPR shows, which makes sense as the government funding was able to close the initial gap of production costs. In fact, a simplistic and fairly factual way to describe podcasts to a newbie is to say, “It’s a DVR for radio shows.” 

There are many current podcasts that deserve mentioning, but there is one guy who is slowly being raised into the tiny circle of podcaster all-star elites, Dan Carlin. Carlin produces two regular shows. His most popular is “Hardcore History,” where he chooses a monumental historical time, such as the rise and fall of Rome, or WWI or the all-consuming dominance of Genghis Khan, and tells the story after months of exhausting research on his part. 

Some shows will be divided into four three-hour sections. If someone pitched the idea of “telling an oral 12-hour historical story” to a commercial media company, they would have been laughed out of the office. Yet it works, and it’s one of the most popular podcasts in existence.

“Fresh Air” and host Terry Gross take the process of interviewing into artistic territory. There are many times I’ve been more interested in the questions from Terry than the answers from her guests. Her curiosity about the human condition is infectious.  

“On Point with Tom Ashbrook” is one of the best current topic discussion shows around. When so much of our media is kowtowed to the financial interests of corporate and political powers, Ashbrook works hard to dig into complex issues that are ultimately steering the direction of this country. 

“Radio Lab,” “99% Invisible,” “The Joe Rogan Experience,” “Ted Radio Hour,” “Planet Money,” “Story Corps,” “Common Sense with Dan Carlin,” “The Diane Rehm Show,” “Philosophize This!,” “Invisibilia,” “The Gist,” Slate’s “Political Gabfest”: if you have a desire to learn and challenge yourself with new ideas, the podcast universe is ripe for discovery. 

It is almost with a sense of poetic justice that all the technological innovations of the information age have only brought us full circle back to the golden age of simple radio storytelling.  


Brian Paul Swenk writes for The Mountain TimesBluegrass Today and his own blog, The Lonesome Banjo Chronicles. He plays banjo in the North Carolina-based band, Big Daddy Love, and is an App State graduate with a music industries degree through the Interdisciplinary Studies program.

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