From “pirate radio” to one of the world’s most popular mediums, podcasting’s rise over the past decade has been phenomenal. Daniel Cribb chronicles its growth and chats with podcast veteran Wil Anderson and newcomers Alex Jae and Bec Charlwood.
Have you ever been excited about being stuck in traffic? It’s an odd feeling that maybe only podcast addicts relate to, many of whom were first drawn to the medium by Sarah Koenig and WBEZ's 2014 smash Serial. Podcasts have come a long way since the true crime investigation broke podcast records in 2014, and even further over the past decade.
No one is better suited to give insight on its rise than Aussie comedy legend-turned-podcast sensei Wil Anderson, whose venture into the format began at the start of the decade with TOFOP in 2010, with Charlie Clausen, before he kicked off widely acclaimed show Wilosophy in 2014.
“Charlie and I always joke that if we knew we’d still being doing it 10 years later we probably would have picked a name for the podcast that we wouldn’t have had to explain as many times as we have over the past decade,” Anderson laughs. “When we started a decade ago, it was still very much a hobby. Often people will ask what TOFOP is about and I’m like, ‘Ah, well, we’re from the time when your podcast didn’t need to be about anything.’ It was just enough that you had a podcast.
“You didn’t really have to differentiate yourself from other podcasts on the market because the truth of it was that there wasn’t really that many other podcasts in the market. There were definitely people before us, but it was very much a pirate radio thing and the start of a world.”
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Much like Anderson, few expected the industry to take off as much as it did. Throughout the '00s, there was buzz around podcasts, but many thought that after its first wave of popularity, which peaked around 2006 with The Ricky Gervais Show and This American Life, the medium would die out. But a few well-placed podcasts kept the torch alive.
In 2011, weekly US series The Last Podcast On The Left, hosted by longtime friends and comedians Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski, helped shape true crime podcasts before industry juggernaut This American Life unleashed Serial. The tale of Adnan Syed well and truly brought podcasts into the forefront of the entertainment industry.
By this time, affordable recording equipment and means of self-promoting had advanced tenfold compared to the peak of the first boom in the mid-'00s, meaning that almost anyone could start a podcast, and gain a listenership.
And with that, more and more genres began popping up with everything from comedy, politics, true crime, education and more casting a wide net and drawing more people in – there are even podcasts that talk about other podcasts now.
With so much competition, it can be hard to break into the market, unless you have a unique idea, which is exactly what Sydney-based comedians Alex Jae and Bec Charlwood delivered when they launched The Ladies Guide To Dude Cinema earlier this year; a podcast that sees the duo “review the movies dudes can't believe they haven't seen”.
“I think a huge part of the popularity of podcasts is that you don’t need a lot of equipment,” Charlwood says. “Some people record podcasts off their phones, sometimes you only need one person for it, it costs you no money to put together, whereas if you’re doing anything in a visual medium, that’s going to cost so much more and take so much organisation and time.”
The duo are both avid fans of podcasts themselves, including TOFOP. Jae notes the appeal of the medium for a consumer: “Wil’s was actually the first podcast I listened to that really got me into being an obsessive podcast listener, and the immediate appeal is that you can hear people talking uncensored and without any kind of restriction.”
“It does kind of create a sense of connection with people," Charlwood adds, "because you feel like you’re sitting among friends. That’s why there are so many podcasts with insane cult followings – like My Favourite Murder, for example, they call their fan group, the ‘Fan Cult’. If I met either of those hosts [Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark], I would 100 percent consider them my close friends because I’ve spent upwards of 300 hours listening to them speak.”
“It also creates a community among the listeners as well,” Jar adds. “You find people in other countries that you really connect with and have common interests with.”
Charlwood also notes that podcasts “fulfil that need that’s growing to just fill every orifice with something at some point”.“People are so busy now and like to do two things at once and with a podcast you can do that,” she says. “You can be driving and listening to a podcast, you can be cleaning your house and listening to a podcast, you can be watching a movie and listening to a podcast.”
While podcasting doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, Anderson does believe the format has some fairly large hurdles to overcome as we enter a new decade.
“Now the big businesses have gotten involved and normally when the big businesses get involved the fun times become a little less fun,” Anderson says. “Because things become corporatised and when things become corporatised people who don’t really understand what it’s about in the first place and what made it special come into the industry. That’s just the nature of any emerging artform.”
Charlwood, however, has other concerns. “One thing I do worry about is children of the future finding their parents’ podcasts,” she jokes “Particularly my children, I hope they never, ever, ever listen to an episode of [The Ladies Guide To Dude Cinema], because that’s too much history to have on the book.”