This is not about the 90% of podcasts that are still three people at a table talking about something. Nor is it about all those podcasts that are basically a byproduct of radio production. It’s about the new stuff—the bigger, glossier, narrative formats that are going to change audio and storytelling for good. This is part one of a two-part series. Part two is about the platform battle and you should also read my 11 essentials for the modern podcast.
Podcasting is evolving fast. There’s a strong sense that we’ve passed some kind of tipping point, that this is how we’re going to consume audio (the stuff that isn’t live radio or music anyway) from now on. The creative battle is under way—formats, genres and production norms are all in play. The platform battle—who will distribute this stuff, who will own the payment gateway and the relationship with the customer—is about to begin (more about that bit in my next post).
Storytelling formats are going to set the tone and dominate the fancy end of podcasting. The iconic 2018 podcast is going to be a true story told using the techniques of fiction. Netflix is our model here, not a radio station. And things are moving fast. Serial —the groundbreaking hyper-addictive episodic story that started all this—already sounds old-fashioned, under-powered. But these formats are expensive and there’s a premium on scarce production talent so only well-funded organisations can play. That means it’ll probably be the three-letter incumbents (BBC, NPR, ABC…) and the newer, specialist outfits with their own funding (Panoply, Gimlet, Radiotopia…). The specialists have a significant head start.
Production is rich and multi-layered. This is what I mean by ‘symphonic’. In this podcast category, where Heavyweight, Mogul, Slow Burn and maybe a dozen other big shows live, the pressure to create complex productions —and emotionally rich stories —is going to be enormous. One inspired amateur with a microphone this is not. Resources and talent will be coordinated, teams assembled, walls filled with Post-It Notes. The best of the new generation of podcasts are already made on a pretty grand scale —they’re big productions with credits to match (16 people for this episode of Mogul, 47 for scripted drama Bronzeville —including a cast of 18, a caterer, a historic consultant and two executive assistants). Some of these podcasts are big enough and confident enough to have a ‘making of…’ episode.
There’s a tone of voice, a recognisable tenor, to these bigger, more ambitious podcast stories. Keywords: warm, humane, emotional, generous, personal, authentic. Podcasters like Jonathan Goldstein. Manoush Zomorodi, Roman Mars, Helen Zaltzman (and the form’s honorary Godfather Ira Glass, natch)… have a thoughtful, subjective, ironic way with their material. And in the writing there’s a deliberate continuity with the tradition of serious, crafted, non-fiction storytelling that produced all that amazing 20th century writing —the New Journalism, the whole clever lineage of long-form magazine writing too. Joan Didion in the New York Times Magazine, Hitchens in Vanity Fair…
There’s a ‘big city’, Public Radio, New Yorker feel to this stuff. Nothing rushed or half-baked about symphonic podcasting. This is luxury storytelling for nice people who probably still buy the Sunday papers. Audio that flatters the listener’s intellect and is as likely to make you cry as to smile. Incidentally, of course, all of the symphonic pioneers are American. This is not because they’re any cleverer than the rest of us, but principally because an economic model —venture capital— exists there that can mobilise large amounts of money for speculative productions that may never break even. Everywhere else producers are stretching existing production budgets or bootstrapping like mad. Radio producers, who think they already know all about audio storytelling, are going to have to learn some humility, too. Their skills will be vital but their cottage industry economics won’t.
TBH these formats can sometimes be a bit sickly. If Jonathan Goldstein makes me cry in the first reel again I’m going to unsubcribe; the enveloping sound world of Jad Abumrad’s gripping Supreme Court documentary series More Perfect is so detailed and so rich as to be a little too much. Everything in high-end podcast land is amped-up, slightly overdone. Look over the shoulder of a producer in this part of the market and you’ll see a workstation with dozens of active tracks. There’ll be subtle and engaging sound design, a commissioned score and incidental music and post-production effects. You can almost hear the producer’s titanic effort to fully engage the audience’s feelings. The signature emotional tone of the symphonic era is slightly over-wrought. Or maybe I’m just being too British about this. Anyway, dial it down, gang. No need to lay it on so thick. We can feel it.
Of course, I don’t want to over-do the analysis. Is podcasting evolving into a new and influential journalistic form, with its own shape, its own creative logic and its own economics? Definitely. Will it become grand and influential, will the symphonic era produce a generation of famous voices, writers and producers? Will it shape the culture? Possibly.
So that’s the creative battle. My next is about the platform battle that’s about to begin —who will distribute the new generation of podcasts, who will own the customer relationship and who will make all the money. And further down on this blog, you’ll also find 11 essentials for the modern podcast. Meanwhile, like I said, I think that we listeners are going to spend a lot more time sobbing into our lattes in the symphonic era, so here are:
Five episodes from symphonic era podcasts that will make you cry.
Heavyweight —Isabel (Gimlet). I love Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight. I think it’s the signature symphonic podcast. Even though I’m frankly ashamed of the way he always makes cry (and usually when I’m on my bike, making it all very inconvenient, not to say dangerous). This one’s no exception. Goldstein provides evidence that he can achieve an emotionally complete storytelling experience even when his main character refuses to provide the resolution we all want.
The Allusionist —Joins (Radiotopia/PRX). One of my absolute favourite podcasts, Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist is all about language, defined very broadly. She’s evolving the show in a really interesting, dare I say, symphonic direction. This episode is an essentially un-presented sequence of very moving voices from the trans and non-binary community and it will also make you cry).
Ear Hustle —Left Behind (Radiotopia/PRX). This podcast, which came to the world via Radiotopia’s talent search Podquest (more about that here) is a stunning piece of work —my podcast of the year, by a mile. And one of those rare productions —in any medium —that I think stands a chance of producing actual social change. It’s made inside California’s San Quentin Prison. This episode, like I said, will make you cry.
Mogul —August 30, 2012 (Gimlet). Gimlet’s lovingly-made six-part doc about hip hop impresario Chris Lighty. This one (which is the climactic episode, so SPOILERS) will also make you cry. Sorry.
Note to Self —You Deserve to Die (WNYC). Manoush Zomorodi’s show is not the kind of podcast that would normally make you cry. It’s a podcast about the way we live in the networked era and episodes are usually on a spectrum that goes from self help to consumer advice to WTF-is-Silicon-Valley-doing-to-my-brain? This one is going to make you cry, though. Seriously. (and it’s the only one on this list that comes from an actual radio station— WNYC).