They went into decline somewhat during the smartphone revolution but they never really went away, and now they’re bigger than ever – so much so that Google, no less, has joined the party.
The definition of what constitutes a podcast has changed over time, but the principle is the same: they are programmes – music, drama, sport, news, you name it – which instead of being broadcast on to Radio 4, say, are “cast” to your iPod.
What has changed over time is the mechanism by which the material gets from producer to listener. iPods were mostly not connected to the internet, so a computer was needed as an intermediary, with iTunes or similar software doing the downloading and transferring.
Today’s smartphones are all-in-one devices, so a single app takes care of all that. And that’s where Google comes in.
Its new Podcasts app does for these programmes what Google itself does for the rest of the internet, searching for programmes and suggesting new ones it thinks will interest you, then downloading them to your phone so you can listen whether or not you’re connected to the internet. It keeps track of what you’ve heard and optionally deletes those you’ve finished with. For iPhones, Apple has long had a similar app.
There are many other “podcast catchers” for both platforms, but the arrival of Google is a signal that this method of delivery has moved from the fringe to centre stage of the media mix. That’s not surprising, since many producers of podcasts are publishing heavyweights like the BBC and America’s National Public Radio, producer of the Radio4-esque This American Life. Many comedians, actors and TV shows have podcasts of their own, and more than a few – particularly those concerned with unsolved crimes – have achieved global popularity on the scale of Downton Abbey.
The original podcasts were audio-only affairs, and many still are, but the move to smartphones has meant that video platforms like YouTube have also got in on the act. Technically, these are streams, not podcasts but they are nevertheless “proper” programmes you can listen to whenever you have an online connection.
The downside to these podcasts is that literally anyone can produce one. No audition process nor quality control is involved, and as a result, a great many are undiluted drivel. That’s where the Google app comes into its own, weighting those with the best provenance and filtering out the rest.
The BBC offers a “walled garden” of its own podcasts, many of which are extended versions of its regular radio shows – not just from Radio 4 but all the national networks and local stations. Its iPlayer Radio app, available for Android and Apple decides, blurs the distinction between programmes and podcasts by letting you download almost everything for offline listening. The only practical difference is that podcasts stay in the library indefinitely so you can browse past episodes, and they tend not to expire once downloaded.
You might be surprised at just who is podcasting these days. Ed Miliband has a show called Reasons to be Cheerful, and with 25 episodes under his belt, he has apparently found more of them than expected; and the actor Alec Baldwin hosts a chat show from New York called Here’s The Thing, with an astonishingly stellar roster of intelligent, A-list guests. It’s all radio, but not as we’ve known it.