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How podcasts became the soundtrack to our lives

In under twenty years, the podcast has gone from niche to normal. But how did it happen? And what are the secret ingredients that keep listeners loyal?
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HEADSHOT THESSA HEIJMANS

Written by Thessa Heijmans

EMEA Head of Social Media

If you have any spare time on your hands, kick back and ask a group of friends or colleagues, “what’s your favourite podcast?” You won’t be disappointed. In under twenty years, podcasting has grown from ‘slightly niche internet radio broadcasts’ to a genuine phenomenon. It’s a testament to how vast the podcasting world has become when the best estimates of available shows are routinely reported as ‘over two million’ and streaming platforms are striking eye-watering deals for hit shows. But just how has podcasting found itself a place in people’s hearts? And why does this matter? After all, the world is certainly not short of entertainment. Ultimately, it seems that the podcast simply arrived in the right place at the right time for a global culture that was about to change beyond all recognition.

It’s funny how circumstances collide, isn’t it? For example, public access broadcasting has been around in America for what feels like forever and Cable TV providers are obliged to keep channels available, free of charge, for the public to use. In the nineties, the concept of Public Access Cable started to be used as the subject for movies, such as Wayne’s World, and at almost precisely the same time ‘confessional media’ hit the Internet in the form of the first ever ‘personal blog’ – Carolyn’s Diary. These set the scene nicely for a world that wanted a taste of something away from the mainstream. Audiences weren’t looking for polish, but purity. The authenticity of something unfiltered that was the very hallmark of the earliest online experiences in chatrooms and blogs.

Then something happened in 2001 that was the beginning of everything we know today. A little white digital audio player with matching headphones that could hold “a thousand songs,” as Steve Jobs announced when he launched it in a special Apple event. This is obviously enough to elicit a huge LOL today but look at the choice of word: songs. Even Steve’s legendary crystal ball didn’t predict that his company would be the catalyst for a new form of media entirely. Even the name, coined by journalist Ben Hammersley in February 2004, is a portmanteau of ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcasting’. When the article was released, the iPod was on its 4th Generation, with a snazzy new look and new ‘mini’ range. Sales boomed, reaching 10 million by December of that year. And again, in happy coincidence, as sales of the iPod rose, the price of audio recording equipment dropped. As veteran writer and broadcaster Christopher Lydon says in the piece, “Everything is inexpensive. The tools are available. Everyone has been saying anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster." How right he was. By the time 2005 rolled around, the Oxford American Dictionary named ‘podcast’ their ‘Word of the Year.’

The branding for Canon’s two podcasts one on top of the other, in landscape format. The top reads ‘Shutter Stories, A Canon Podcast’ with the O of ‘stories’ illustrated to look like a camera shutter. It is written against a red background with a red tinted image of a person’s hands holding a Canon camera. Below the text reads ‘Print Matters, A Canon Podcast’ and it is set against a white background that is designed to look like crinkled paper. On the top left and bottom right there are triangles of red halftone dots.

Our podcasts began with a passion for photography and print, and we’ve been able to bring some of the most well-known names in both industries to speak about subjects that really resonate with our listeners.

There was no stopping it. Anyone who wanted to be heard found their way onto popular shows – or started their own. The ‘access anywhere’ experience that streaming provides gave the podcast a new status as the soundtrack to busy lives. After all, it’s a format that fits neatly into a world that now multitasks as a matter of course (most podcasts sit in the 30-minute zone – perfect for a morning train journey). But it was the social aspect to podcasting that really set it apart from other media and gave audiences a connection and closeness that TV and radio broadcasters just couldn’t habitually replicate, no matter how hard they tried. Fans were seen, heard and responded to by their hosts through Twitter hashtags which also served to create communities of listeners who would use the platform to take part in ‘listening parties’. In a world where we are more and less connected at the same time, this experience feels familiar and, most importantly, more authentic than passive listening.

Today it’s estimated that over 400 million people worldwide now listen to podcasts and the numbers just keep increasing. And like all media, there’s pretty much something for everyone, but comedy podcasts consistently top the charts, followed by news and current affairs and, of course, true crime, which has a devoted following. However, that doesn’t mean that all podcasts in these genres are successful. Much has been written on the ingredients for a great podcast, but ultimately, it distils down to a few basics: know your subject and stay with it (a good podcast can be described in a sentence), be consistent (new episodes arrive regularly and the audience knows what to expect) and know your audience.

Take, for example, our very own Shutter Stories. For three years we’ve given our listeners access to some of the world’s best photographers, videographers and filmmakers, who’ve shared pro-tips and technical advice, as well as bringing plenty of inspiration to the party. It’s been a big success (if we do say so ourselves!) and much of that is because the Shutter Stories team are passionate about the world of film and photography, so our hosts and guests are experts, we regularly release new shows, and love getting feedback from our listeners. In fact, it’s been so well received that we recently launched a second podcast specifically for the print industry: Print Matters - A Canon Podcast. Again, we’ve taken the winning formula of inviting experts to explore the issues that matter, what’s hot in printing and how print service providers can grow and add value.

The Shutter Stories team are passionate about the world of film and photography, so our hosts and guests are experts, we regularly release new shows, and love getting feedback from our listeners.

So, what’s next in the world of podcasting? Well, it’s certainly not going to get any smaller, so will in many ways continue to be a place of exploration, discovery and experimentation, just like public access television. At the same time, it will offer a different way to connect with your favourite celebrities, brands, magazines and other media. Podcasts are being seen as a hotbed for new talent and ideas, with big studios keeping their eyes peeled for opportunities to turn great ones into the next big TV show, and their hosts into mainstream stars.

Media lines are beginning to be blurred even further by video podcasts and these are now supported by the major platforms after it became clear that YouTube was the runaway first choice for listening to podcasts. Even Twitter, the natural home of the podcast fan community, has jumped in on the act and now also supports podcasts, allowing creators, marketers and brands to embed audio files. Does this mean that podcasting has come full circle? Creators already consider vlogging and podcasting to be the norm, so it remains to be seen how streamers such as Amazon Prime and Netflix absorb vodcasts and podcasts into their services. Whatever the future looks and sounds like, one thing is for certain – if you ask for podcast recommendations, you’ll never come away empty handed.

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