The day after Trump’s Access Hollywood video leaked, I saw something completely unprecedented happen in my podcast feed. Despite The Washington Post’s story breaking on a Friday afternoon, by the time I was cleaning my apartment the next day, my favorite shows had already released episodes responding to the news. On a Saturday!
Because podcast discovery remains labyrinthine for our listeners, many shows are designed to have a long shelf life. If I discovered The Moth Radio Hour or Modern Love this week, I’d be able to deeply binge on their entire back catalogues without hesitation. And while part of the joy of listening to the first season of Serial was following along “week by week,” the show is still being consumed with ravenous energy by fans who continue to discover it years later.
This is how personal storytelling set to feelings-rich organ music became an unshakeable cliché of the podcast medium. Those stories are what brought me here, but it’s not what’s kept me around. I love that podcasts are a way to take in news and information without being tied to a screen or a chair. Unlike my favorite public radio shows, my favorite podcast hosts are given license to explain and argue their opinions. In 2016, my favorite podcasts were ones that would help me digest the day’s news.
On that Saturday, October 8, podcasts broke from their regular schedules all at once, starting with FiveThirtyEight releasing an episode at 11 a.m. Their elections team became known this year for late-night emergency broadcasts and informal chats in diners over omelets. This specific episode featured a conversation taped before a live audience in Chicago the night before. From stage, whiz kid Harry Enten responded to the Access Hollywood recording: “If you’re a decent human being, it’s not something that you say.” The audience replied in affirmative applause.
At 1:30 p.m., the NPR Politics Podcast came out with their “Trump on Tape” episode. Three of their panelists gathered in NPR’s D.C. offices, and Ron Elving joined from home. New remote recording tools make these kinds of rapid response episodes more possible. Around 4:30 p.m., Slate’s The Gist released their episode “Trump’s Comeuppance?” down the feed. To make that episode, host Mike Pesca recorded 5 minutes of narration into an iPhone mic. Then the Report-It app automatically uploaded his file onto an FTP server, where his crafty producer across town, Mary Wilson, downloaded necessary elements, mixed and published the episode. In this episode, Pesca memorably compares Billy Bush to Chester the Terrier from Warner Bros. cartoons and uses audio to highlight the pup’s breathless deference and kiss-uppery.
Exciting new podcast publishing platforms such as Panoply’s Megaphone offer podcasters dynamic ad and promo insertion. To me, it seems inevitable that this same technology has the potential to be used for a regularly updated newscast. While I’m not privy to any plans in this area, I could imagine many podcast networks offering newscasts like this, with the option to geographically target and customize the content to different audiences.
As podcasts become better known as outlets for breaking news analysis, not everyone will want that. I have a friend who finds comfort in listening back to podcasts recorded before the 2016 election, before Terry, Marc and Dan knew the full threat to our liberal democracy. But soon podcasting’s forest of evergreen content won’t be able to stay the norm.
As our audiences continue to grow, many new listeners will arrive seeking refuge from Facebook’s fake news buffet and Twitter’s ideologue clutter, while expecting the speed of news they’ve became accustomed to from over-the-air radio and television. With more production staff, original programming, and audience demand, in 2017 we’ll see the rise of more news shows than ever, all experimenting with how quickly they can respond to breaking news. Let the race begin.