There is a lesser-known 1994 Alec Baldwin movie called The Shadow. The noir aesthetic, the flirtations with mysticism and magic, and the special effects intrigued me as a little kid who dutifully watched the movie weekend after weekend, even imploring my parents to buy me the movie tie-in toys. My parents, hip to my interest in this Silver Age superhero, told me that the Shadow’s adventures predated the cinema, and started on a little-known platform called a radio drama. Years later, when lost or hard-to-find media became more accessible on platforms like YouTube, I listened to recordings of the Orson Welles narrated drama, and I thought to myself this is a lost art.
Little did I know that slowly brewing across the internet, a version of those radio dramas would return in the less gallantly titled platform called podcasts.
The Long Reach of Podcasts
In the United States alone, there are roughly 80 million podcast listeners per week according to a 2021 analysis by Pikkal and Co. To put that into perspective, according to Statista, there are roughly 122.4 million television watchers in the United States. A difference of roughly 42 million is nothing to sneeze at, but when you consider podcasts really took hold in the American mindset in 2004, that’s a lot of ground covered by the relatively new platform in a short time.
Of course, these are just North American statistics. Globally, there are even more listeners, making this audio-based format a viable alternative to traditional audio-visual platforms.
Podcasting Popularity, Explained
There are a lot of reasons to explain the popularity of podcasts. The portable nature of our communication devices makes it easy to stream your favorite podcast episodes from your laptop, phone, or another device. That portability serves the modern, multitasking lifestyle as we are able to wash dishes, exercise, study, and more all while our earbuds fit snugly in our ears. There is also something to be said about how niche some of the podcasts are. Interested in Mongolian throat singing? There’s a podcast for you. Want to know why Monopoly is laid out the way it is? Check out some episodes about game design. Essentially, if it exists, there is a podcast about it. Lastly, it’s important not to underestimate the community that evolves around podcasts and their hosts. The true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder, for example, has developed such a robust following that fans of the show affectionately refer to their community as murderinos.
The Key Ingredient
However, one often overlooked element of podcasts is the very thing that makes them unique to other platforms: their inherently sound-based nature. That is to say, what draws a lot of listeners in is simply the human voice.
Scientists have known about the connection between the human voice and socialization for a long time. In 2020, WebMD wrote an article conveying how the human voice is imperative in early brain development. Speaking to babies creates important synapses that help the brain create strong neurological connections and increase the rate at which a child will learn.
As adults, our brains don’t have much growing to do, however, the endorphins released when we learn later in life because of a flow state can often contribute to maximizing our educational experience. These synapses formed later in life are facilitated by the human voice and the ability to listen and intake information.
An Emotional Connection
But podcasts are about more than just listening to a human voice to strengthen our brains. Many listeners find an appeal in podcasting because of the emotional connection they feel to the subject or the host. We all know the saying it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Well, science can now confirm this old adage is true. In fact, a 2019 Berkely article breaks down 24 distinct emotions that can be conveyed, surprisingly, not by words, but by tone and inflection. This robust hidden communication often makes listeners emotionally invested in podcasts and therefore feel connected in a sentimental way.
To really understand the nuance of the human voice, one only must look at Samuel Beckett’s micro play Breath. The play is a brief twenty or so seconds, where the stage lights illuminate a pile of discarded material. However, playing over the view of the rubbish is a long, extended human breath. Some actors have made the breath sharp and gasping which swells the time span of the play to a near unbearable 20 seconds. Others have interpreted the breath as a long, defeated sigh of despair, while others have played with elements of relief, understanding, and acceptance.
“Where are the ads!?”
With a simple exhale, a wide swath of emotional experience can be conveyed without using any words. It is this power of the human voice that ultimately connects us to podcasts and the people involved in their production. That connectivity inspires such brand loyalty that sometimes, fans excitedly look to ads. Check out this review of Conan O’Brien’s podcast below to see exactly how much even commercials can endear a show to its audience:
Hi guys! I look forward to this podcast every week (and now twice a week!), it truly is the best thing about my Monday morning. I have one question: do you guys remove the ads for people outside of the US? And if so, why? They were amazing, it’s the only podcast where I actually look forward to the ad reads.
What Companies Can Learn
What does this mean for brands looking to expand their marketing efforts into the podcast territory? It’s a tool to humanize. Brands are often represented by slogans and logos and a social media presence. These tools often humanize the company, but neglect to emphasize the people behind it. We can be sated by a latte with a cute logo on the cup, or we can admire the quippy, consistent presence one might have on Twitter, but the stories behind those presences, the work that goes into making a brand successful, is often lost to the average consumer.
Tell Your Story
There is no substitute for the human voice. Hearing a CEO talk about why she started a company or interviewing a salesperson about how they used to drive door to door and now they tag clients on Instagram, or picking the brain of an analyst who compares trends in business to trends in music goes a long way in helping potential clients understand one oft-forgotten fact. Brands are made by humans. Every human has a story. A podcast is an opportunity to tell that story, whether that is to educate, entertain, or reconcile.
Ultimately, podcasts may be a way for us to feel connected in a sometimes-disconnected world. When we see actors or hosts through a screen, the illusion of connection is broken, and we remember that we are watching a screen. However, with the intense focus on a human voice, along with the psychological predisposition we have as humans to find solace and connection in the sounds of another person, podcasts may represent the emotional catharsis we’ve been waiting for for a long time… perhaps since the days of pulp radio, the Shadow, and the voice of Orson Welles.