Text by C. Scott Wyatt
Podcasts replaced local radio for me several years ago. With driving three hours daily, local radio started to seem like commercials interrupted by music, news or silly trivia.
According to data analyzed by Podcast Insights, there are 1.7 million podcasts as of January 2021. These podcasts have a combined 43 million episodes. The number of podcasts has doubled every two years since 2016.
People don’t finish the books they start, according to research data. Fewer than 10 percent of readers finish the best-selling nonfiction titles they access on Amazon Kindle.
By comparison, 80 percent of listeners complete podcast episodes. That’s why Apple and Spotify have invested heavily in podcast services. Spotify has been signing podcast producers to exclusive contracts. The shows remain free. Spotify inserts additional ads during the shows to generate revenue. For now, most shows have three or four short breaks.
TuneIn, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, Stitcher and dozens of other streaming services have expanded to include podcasts.
As an audiobook lover, I decided to download podcasts featuring authors I enjoy onto my iPhone. I listened to those shows while commuting. I discovered several podcasts on economics, statistics, history and technology.
Freakonomics Radio, FiveThirtyEight, EconTalk, Macro Musings and Conversations With Tyler hooked me on podcasts. However, even I don’t want to listen to economists and statisticians every day for three hours.
I soon found Mike Rowe’s “The Way I Heard It,” a podcast similar to the legendry Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story.” Rowe tells the unusual story of a famous person or event and then, at the end, reveals the subject’s identity.
My wife and I love the History Channel and, of course, it produces podcasts. From “This Week in History” to “The Food That Built America,” History Channel shows never fail to teach me something new about our past.
Podcast apps offer suggestions using recommendation engines, much like Amazon and Netflix. That’s why some ask you to connect to friends, too. These algorithms compare the likes and dislikes of millions of listeners to entice you to add new podcast subscriptions.
Algorithms cannot determine that a show is the best or most accurate podcast, only that more people listen. Popularity then leads to yet more popularity.
Still, if you want to find a niche podcast about an odd or esoteric topic, first search using Google Podcasts (podcasts.google.com). When it comes to searching, Google remains the best tool. Look beyond the first few results, though, and you might discover a great show.
A new platform, Vurbl, promotes itself as the all-inclusive podcast aggregator, a special platform exclusively for audio content. While Apple tries to streamline categories for searching and browsing podcasts, Vurbl prides itself on having more than 200 categories and sub-categories.
What sets Vurbl apart are its curated playlists of podcasts. These suggestions don’t come from an algorithm. Real people, experts on various topics, organize the podcasts on Vurbl. By relying on humans, Vurbl hopes to promote the best podcast content.
The recommendations work because I added “How it Began: A History of the Modern World” after it kept appearing in the “You might also like…” list. I also added “15 Minute History,” which turns out to be 25 minutes per episode.
If you use an Apple device, the Podcasts app includes several features to help you locate interesting shows. You can browse by genre or check out the top shows. The 19 categories include news, comedy, true crime, sports, wellness, science, music and movies.
My passion for mysteries led me to the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen podcasts, featuring authors reading stories from the magazines. The satirical website The Onion produced “A Very Fatal Murder,” a podcast spoof of the public radio podcast “Serial.” The crime genre of podcast is so popular that there’s now a Hallmark movie series featuring a podcast host who investigates murders.
Some series run for a limited time. Other podcasts release new episodes indef-initely. Some of my favorites have been the limited-run shows on specific topics. I subscribe to more than 30 podcasts.
Although there will soon be 2 million podcasts, the dominant media corporations have taken over the medium. The top news shows are produced by the digital media divisions of the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal.
The top comedy podcasts come from ViacomCBS. Of course, Disney-owned ESPN produces the leading podcasts on sports. National Public Radio continues to produce excellent podcasts, too.
Sometimes I wonder which celebrity or politician doesn’t have a podcast. When everyone does something, it probably isn’t cool anymore. There’s a tipping point at which what was trendy becomes mundane.
Still, people can and do find those special interest podcasts with a few thousand listeners. Whatever your interest, there’s a podcaster producing a show for you.