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Podcast Survivor: In Defense of Hobby Podcasting

Despite the title of this post, I don’t actually think there’s any attack on hobby podcasting from which the genre needs defending. Rather, I feel like much of my writing about podcasting for the last six months has been so focused on the questions of sustainability and funding that I don’t want to give the inadvertant impression that only popular, highly remunerative podcasts are worthy of my attention.

Here is where I return to first principles: I am such a fan and supporter of podcasting because it greatly democratizes the distribution of audio programs. Like blogging before it, podcasting allows a would-be radio host or producer to reach a global audience with very minimal cost.

I started out as a supporter of, and worker in college and community radio more than twenty years ago for very similar reasons. These grass-roots radio forms permit people who might never consider a career in commercial or public radio to present music, culture, news and ideas to an wide audience. Moreover, these outlets provide the opportunity for listeners to hear new perspectives, or listen to people who are more like them than the typical radio DJ, announcer or journalist.

Podcasting builds upon and broadens this opportunity because it is free from the scarcity of the broadcast spectrum, which then means there are fewer–if any–gatekeepers needed.

The impulse to create, communicate and share is a strong and vital one. For people whose interests and talents lie in areas like speaking, interviewing, music and audio design, podcasting is a natural medium for expression with minimal barriers to entry.

Of course, the ability to produce podcasts does not inherently result in listeners. While I don’t mean to dismiss this imbalance, this is truly no different than any mass medium. Just because you build it does not mean they will come.

At the same time, if you don’t build it, you can guarantee they won’t come.

I think it’s worth examining the drive to reach a large and ever-growing audience. Not that I think one shouldn’t have this goal, but it doesn’t have to be everyone’s goal. What often matters more is that media message is available for those people who may enjoy or benefit from it. That may be millions, thousands, hundreds or just a few people. But if you don’t ever put your podcast out there, you’ll never know.

Even if a podcaster’s audience is small, each one of those listeners is still important. It’s like the well-worn observation about the Velvet Underground: They didn’t sell a lot of records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band (influenced by VU). Impact, influence and connection can and must be measured by more than downloads and CPMs.

In fact, hobby podcasts are critically important for the growth of podcasting as a medium. Several popular podcasts that brought fresh attention to the medium essentially started as hobbies. I’m thinking of shows like WTF or Grammar Girl. I think this also applies to one of the most talked about news podcasts, Welcome to Night Vale, which breaks with typical podcast conventions by interpreting the nearly forgotten genre of radio drama in an inventive and contemporary way.

Some of the next big podcasts may very well start out as hobbies. More to the point, I hope so. Because it’s an arena where we have a good shot of hearing new approaches, fresh voices and innovative storytelling.

No, it’s not necessary for a podcast to start out as a hobby in order to achieve these things. But it is important for there to be this sector of the medium, where experiments can happen unburdened by expectation, with minimal risk and maximum freedom.

As long as a new podcaster doesn’t need more than an idea and a computer, tablet or smartphone, plus a microphone and a site to upload her files to, then podcasting still has a future as a democratic medium with the potential to bring new voices and stories to a wider audience.

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One Response to Podcast Survivor: In Defense of Hobby Podcasting

  1. Tim Mars February 27, 2014 at 2:39 am #

    I don’t know Welcome to Night Vale, but I take issue with ‘the nearly forgotten genre of radio drama’—at least in the UK. I listen to an amazing range of radio drama broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra and Radio 3, mostly on my iPhone via BBC iPlayer or podcast downloads, from dramatisations of novels (Brideshead Revisited, Barchester Towers) to adaptations of stage plays (Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen) to original radio plays. It has become my principal means of literary consumption.

    The radio high-point of last year was Pandemic, a trilogy of radio plays written, produced and directed by John Dryden (with sound design by Steve Bond and music composed by Sacha Puttnam), which won the Writers’ Guild award for Best Radio Drama. It’s a gripping story, but the soundscape is what makes it so special and absolutely engrossing and claustrophobic. John Dryden has pioneered a sort of radio verité, recording on location without a studio, and consequently everything sounds almost unbearably real, with the sound recordists following the actors from space to space, recording footsteps, doors opening, phones ringing, traffic, car horns, the acoustics of different rooms. That coupled with fast cutting, brilliant use of music and sound design produces an astonishingly rich densely-layered soundscape.

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