Never mind Radio 4 – Podcasts are now ready for prime time

For years, they were the domain of the amateur and the anorak, with a microphone from an old Grundig plugged into a laptop in the spare room – but podcasts have emerged from their broadcasting backwater into an art form in their own right.
Podcasts have created a world of listening beyond Radio 4Podcasts have created a world of listening beyond Radio 4
Podcasts have created a world of listening beyond Radio 4

They’re big business, too: where once Radio 4 was the only place to hear long-form documentary, drama and discussion, now every large media organisation – even those whose radio networks were abandoned decades ago – is producing its own.

There is no difference between a podcast and a regular radio programme, except in the way you receive it, and even then there’s an overlap. The choice is almost limitless, and if you have a current favourite TV show, film or celebrity, it’s highly likely there will be an accompanying podcast to further your enjoyment. The actor David Tennant, for instance, hosts a regular show in which he chats with similarly big names from the worlds of television, comedy and elsewhere. Programmes like his are made with all the production values of Radio 4 but without the constraints of fixed running times, impartiality or other inconveniences.

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All you need to hear this and a thousand shows like it is an app on your phone – which can then be paired with your car stereo or a Bluetooth speaker for listening around the house. A tablet, PC or laptop will also work at home.

The app you choose can be iTunes, Spotify or one of the many dedicated podcast “catchers” in the Apple and Google app stores – or an “all-in-one” service like TuneIn Radio, which also serves up live streams of radio stations from the world’s airwaves.

TuneIn is free, although a paid upgrade aimed mainly at American sports fans is available, with no added commercials. You will still hear those put there at source by the original producer, though.

The BBC, of course, is amongst the biggest producers, and those programmes it makes available as podcasts are all accessible from within the same TuneIn app. However, BBC radio streams were removed from TuneIn last year, after the corporation took its bat home when the developers refused to share their statistics on who was listening, to what and when.

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That means you will also need the BBC’s own app, BBC Sounds, if you want to hear those on your phone. Sounds does have the advantage of offering catch-up as well as live streaming, but it’s not a comprehensive podcast receiver since nearly all the content is BBC-exclusive.

The mechanics of listening to podcasts have not changed since the days when they were broadcast from someone’s spare room: you subscribe within the app to those you like and receive each new instalment automatically. These can be downloaded for listening offline and, if you want, deleted after a few days to save space.

Finding content in the first place is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack – but the same rules apply as with network broadcasting. Once you find a station or podcaster you like, most apps will drill down and point you in the direction of something similar. There is, it’s fair to warn you, still a lot of poorly produced content out there, which is inevitable in a medium where anyone can produce absolutely anything. But the best apps will weight trusted brands like the BBC and its American counterpart, National Public Radio, over podcasts whose following can be counted on the fingers of the podcaster’s own hand.

At the moment, all of this is free, but that may not always be the case. Spotify is diversifying from music streaming into doing for podcasts what Netflix has done for TV – producing its own programmes and making them available only to subscribers. For the moment, though, it’s a veritable garden of Eden out there.