The Golden Age of podcasts

The exciting world of podcasts

The 1930s and '40s, the era of Jack Benny, "The Shadow" and Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," has been referred to as the Golden Age of Radio. Today, we're living in the Golden Age of Podcasts.

A podcast is like a pre-recorded radio show that you can listen to on your phone as you commute, do errands, cook, or work out.

Matt Lieber and Alex Blumberg, who have backgrounds in public radio, are the cofounders of Gimlet Media. "Podcasts are available on demand," said Lieber. "So in the same way you can go watch Netflix shows any time you want, you can listen to our podcasts any time you want."

They like to think of Gimlet as the HBO of podcast studios. Its 120 employees produce 24 podcast shows, in 13 state-of-the-art recording studios.

Podcasts are free, paid for by ads or sponsorship. And there are a lot of podcasts – at last count, more than 630,000 different podcasts on every conceivable topic. Want to hear about knitting? A search will get you dozens of podcasts, from Yarniacs and Never Not Knitting, to Knitting Pipeline, to Two Ewes Fiber Adventures.

"The shows that are popular right now go across all categories," said Lieber. "But people love crime! They love true crime," as in the podcast Crimetown. "There are also more kids shows today." (Like Chompers.) 

News is a bigger category, and The Daily, a 25-minute news podcast that The New York Times releases every morning at 6 a.m., is one of the most popular shows. "The Daily" has turned host Michael Barbaro into a minor celebrity. "So when I bump into people on the subway and they say, 'Are you Michael? Do you host 'The Daily?' I want to know everything about how they listen, when they listen, when it fits into people's lives, because they have such a strong connection to the show," Barbaro said.

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Michael Barbaro of The New York Times recording the "Daily" podcast.  CBS News

"What are the elements that have made 'The Daily' such a hit?" asked correspondent David Pogue.   

"I think it's the way we choose to tell stories. The curtain is removed. It's you, it's us. We're telling you about a process. You're hearing how we search for the news, and our own uncertainty sometimes as we're kind of grasping at the truth and figuring it out."

The word "podcast" comes from iPod, which was a big thing in, like, 2005. "But people are saying that right now is peak podcast – what is going on?" asked Pogue.

"Everybody has these smartphones in their lives [now], and I think the quality of podcasts has just soared," Barbaro replied.

These days, most of the popular podcasts are produced by large companies. But there's still plenty of room for the little guy. Just ask Ken and Martha Wiseman, retired teachers who are the creators of the RV Navigator podcast, in which they talk about the motorhome lifestyle.

"We get about 15,000 downloads a month, which to me seems great,' said Ken. "Because we have no marketing, no advertising, no promotional stuff at all – just word of mouth from people who listen all the time."

Recording the podcast, said Martha, is a matter of "finding a quiet place!"

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Ken and Martha Wiseman recording their podcast, "RV Navigator." CBS News

Usually they record their podcast (where else?) in their RV, where the entire studio consists of a microphone and a computer.

Ken: "Hello, Dear Listeners. We are podcasting to you from our mobile RV studio that might be parked in a campground near you."
Martha: "If you're in Titusville, Florida!"

The Wisemans' podcast doesn't play ads, and doesn't make any money. They get a different kind of reward for their efforts.

Ken said, "We always end our podcast with, 'We hope to see you in a campground near us.' And it's amazing that we do get people seeing us in a campground near them!"

Martha added, "We will run into somebody who maybe takes us out to lunch and talks to us about good things to see and do in their area. And it's really enriched our lives."

Last year alone, 200,000 new podcasts made their debuts. Advertisers are expected to double the amount they spend on podcasts by 2020. And 44 percent of Americans say they've listened to a podcast.

Plus, at least a dozen podcasts are now being adapted into TV shows, including Lore, 2 Dope Queens, Serial, and Homecoming.

But deep down, as the Times' Michael Barbaro points out, podcasts are actually a new spin on a very old idea. "The beauty of it is, that it's been made new in a very kind of urgent and lovely way," he said. 

        
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre.