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How the pandemic caused a paradigm shift for podcasts

A woman recording a podcast - Credit: Stocksnap

Podcasts have been with us for a few years now. But during the pandemic something has happened with this genre – a paradigm shift. A sea-change of massive proportions.

Lately, I’ve been trying  to  understand what exactly is going on. And if what is happening is a kind of paradigm shift. A sea-change of massive proportions is happening. No, it’s not in politics. It’s in podcasts.

This shift can have no higher signpost than the Pulitzer Prize. In 2020, it was awarded to a podcast for the first time in its history. This validates the medium in a new way, makes us see more clearly the revolution that is podcasts and podcasting.

The prize winner was This American Life, a podcast version of a hugely successful public radio show out of Los Angeles. The first ever Pulitzer for audio reporting went to an episode called The Out Crowd, which investigated the impact of former president Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, which forced immigrants to wait in Mexico rather than in the US, while their asylum claims are processed. Many were returned there from the States.

On the podcast, we hear from individuals waiting in makeshift refugee camps, and from the American officers who sent them there in the first place. The reporters on the podcast take us deep into the story of desperate people, from southern and central America who are trying to understand why the US was no longer a refuge for the oppressed.

Mexico had been the Holy Grail. If you could make it there, the US was possible. It was so close. Trump stopped that.

We hear the asylum seekers as they live in limbo, in their refugee camp. We hear from the officers who make them wait. And wait. It is a kind of Casablanca, like the city from the 1942 film, where people have gathered as their fates are decided by forces out of their control and events elsewhere. As in the film, we put ourselves in their place. As the narrator says at the start of the movie, for those in Casablanca – like those in the Mexican camp – all there is to do is “wait… and wait… and wait”.

This American Life is an example of why podcasting is booming. It is ultimately about connection.

In lockdown, we are searching for it, searching for a deeper way into our own humanity, and the humanity of others. We need stories; we need soothing; we need escape and we need information. A podcast can provide all of this and much more. And this is why podcasting is the next broadcast revolution.

There is no better example of this than the acquisition of Wondery by Amazon at the end of last year. This is the revolution writ small. Wondery launched in America as a podcast network, with backing from 20th Century Fox – the same company once headed up by the legendary Darryl Zanuck who had stated back in the day that TV would not be able to hold on to an advertising market. And that people “would get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”. This time 20th Century Fox has smelled the coffee.

The genius of Wondery was to make it like TV. It even has its own sonic tones, too, like the way NBC in the States used to sound. You heard it and then you knew instantly what station you were watching and the look and content of what you were going to see. Like a TV broadcaster, podcasts are starting to get a “look”. And it is all through the ear.

This shift in our consumption of media will be permanent. And it is not only in podcasting. Warner Bros has decided to put all of its 2021 movies on the HBO Max streaming service. This will affect not only how we watch movies, but how films themselves will be made.

Podcasts are looking at films as a model as to what captures the attention of people, but also of what we are actually doing when we are being engaged. A podcast allows us to imagine. And now they will make us see, too, with the link between visual and audio, the new shape.

Creators will be different, too. More in control. The entertainment industry was built on huge gatekeepers who worked through middlemen: producers and directors. A producer could make or break a movie studio. But it was the ‘front office’, usually based in New York, that called the shots.

Movies were in trouble in the 1950s with the arrival of TV. Legend has it that after seeing a screening of Ben-Hur before its release in 1959, the entire hierarchy of its studio, MGM, burst into tears of gratitude. The studio was going to be saved – this time. The front office had made the right call. But the writing was still on the wall. The big studio monopoly on our entertainment space was done.

The pandemic is writing on the wall, too, and telling us that a return to normal – which means for most people a return to the workplace in the shape that it was in pre-pandemic – is probably not possible or feasible. As we adapt to remote working, those work places which will exist will change.

But we humans need contact, connection. So, Out to Lunch with Jay Rayner has become ‘In for Lunch’. There are all sorts of live ‘listen ins’ where a listener can connect with others.

And there is the visual. Podcasts are being made with an eye to seeing what we can hear. So that the listener can have the audio experience mixed in with the visual and perhaps with interaction, too.

This will all happen on the evolutionary level that was the difference between my mother and me. Mamma listened to the radio while she cooked; while she cleaned; when she rested. I watched television after I came home from school and throughout the evening after I did my homework.

Eventually Mamma started listening to less and less radio until it became a kind of artifact in our home, the old thing sitting in the corner. Because some of her favourite radio shows had migrated to TV.

Amos ‘n’ Andy, a dodgy so-called ‘satire’ about African Americans in Harlem, had to use real African Americans when it switched to TV, instead of white people. This changed TV itself.

So as we attempt to understand the world that this pandemic has made, the shape and change of podcasts will give us a kind of steer, a template. I learned this when my own podcast, In Search of Black History for Audible UK, became a success on both sides of the Atlantic.

For now, the Holy Grail is a phenomenon like Dirty John. Based on the true story of the marriage between an unsuspecting woman and a murdering con man, it made its way from podcast to the Bravo network in the States and to Netflix outside of the States, picking up a fanatical fan base and several awards.

It is the ultimate ‘just looking for  love / husband from hell’ saga, based on a true story. It is also a tale of  the search for connection and the attempt at self-redemption and justice.

As we face an uncertain future, podcasts in general and podcasts like This American Life and Dirty John do the same thing that the ancient bards once did. They enthral us. They tell us something about this complex business called life.

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