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Podcasts keep getting better

“It turns out that people — well, lots of people, anyway — are hungry for substance. Our attention spans are quite intact, ready, and willing.”

“Nobody has any attention span anymore. Least of all anyone under 40.” Until a few years ago, it seemed that virtually all media watchers, and media makers, agreed on this. Among the most powerful gatekeepers, anyway, the consensus seemed solid.

One of the most gratifying revelations to emerge from the podcast boom of the last few years is that the above article of faith was dead wrong. It’s an especially gratifying discovery if, like me, you love to produce long-form, in-depth, documentary audio.

Yes, the trend took off with Serial’s first season. Twelve episodes, “one story told week by week,” 100 million downloads in no time, etc., etc. Everyone knows that Serial’s success unleashed a new podcast stampede. More specifically, for my purposes here, it threw open the doors to the podcast series. Eight, ten, fourteen parts, a bunch of hours in total — the audio nonfiction (and sometimes fiction) equivalent of a good book, or of the bingeable Netflix series so many of us are burning through. Podcast listeners — who in fact skew younger than in most other media — seem to be saying: Yes, thank you. Take me on a journey. We’re going to take our time, dig into corners, get into the weeds? Sign me up.

So, we’ve got the many true crime series, each show or season tackling a single case (In the Dark, Dirty John, Empire on Blood, Atlanta Monster, Last Seen), while others dive into past political scandals (Slow Burn, Bag Man). In addition, podcasters are making series that explore personal journeys (First Day Back, How to Be a Girl) and historical and social themes (UnCivil, Caught, Scene on Radio’s Seeing White and MEN). There’s fiction and quasi-fiction (Homecoming, The Shadows), and limited series turning on a creative, imaginative device (Everything is Alive).

It turns out that people — well, lots of people, anyway — are hungry for substance. Our attention spans are quite intact, ready, and willing.

My prediction: More podcast series in 2019. (No kidding.) They’ll keep getting better, smarter, deeper, and more varied. Thank god and the inventors of the podcast. Bring ‘em on.

John Biewen is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and host/producer of Scene on Radio.

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Jean Friedman Rudovsky   Cross-newsroom collaborations strengthen communities

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Gabriel Snyder   Journalism doesn’t fit well in a funnel

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John Biewen   Podcasts keep getting better

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Patrick Butler   Measuring impact will increase audience trust

Heather Bryant   We are responsible for how we use our power

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Andrew Ramsammy   The great re-pivot to audio

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Talia Stroud   Engaging people across lines of difference

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Heather Chaplin   Agree we’re partisan — for the democratic system

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Kate Myers   Journalism continues to be bad for democracy

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Laura E. Davis   More access, but not that kind

Justin Kosslyn   Text hits a tipping point

Julie Posetti   The year of the fight back

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Elizabeth Jensen   Going where the Acela can’t take you

Marie Shanahan   Newsrooms take the comments sections back from platforms

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Charo Henríquez   Pivot to journalism

Don Day   Timewalls and other reader revenue experiments

Errin Haines   Say it with me: Racism

Gideon Lichfield   Goodbye attention economy, we’ll miss you

Tyler Fisher   This is journalism’s do-or-die moment

Geetika Rudra   The year of actionable (local) journalism

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Callie Schweitzer   The rise of the conveners

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Mario García   The rise of content “pilots”

Steve Myers   From trying to cover it all to covering what matters

Shannon McGregor   More bogus embedded tweets in our stories

Nathalie Malinarich   Video — yes, video

Hossein Derakhshan   The news is dying, but journalism will not — and should not

james Wahutu   Think 2018 was bad? Wait until you see 2019

Umbreen Bhatti   The story doesn’t end for the people we quote

Linda Solomon Wood   The year of the climate reporter

Robin Kwong   Tech shouldn’t be the only field pollinating “news nerds”