In the last 10 years we’ve seen HD video, 360 video, 4K video, GoPro video and most recently virtual reality video. You can’t walk a block without some one saying “we live in a visual world” and one step into Times Square will prove most companies believe video is the way to sell you your next crop top or soft drink. However, in a world dominated by visual storytelling, radio which dates back to the 1920s continues to hold up. Just last year, “Serial” (a sister podcast to “This American Life”) broke an iTunes record as the fastest podcast to reach 5m downloads. Through its now 15 year old surrogate the Podcast, radio is finally attracting real money and expanding to more platforms than just Apple. Why the continued success and newfound growth? The answer is simple, it’s human.
RADIO IS HUMAN
Hearing is one of the key senses we use for learning in the beginning of our lives. A baby starts to talk before he/she can read, so hearing words and getting familiar with their sounds is critical to development. Knowing this, it’s understandable why storytelling began with sound rather than video. We’ve been listening to and learning from audio only stories much longer than we’ve been seeing them. Stories were told in caves or around fires long before we had electricity and running water. In the history of mankind, more generations have lived on this planet having only listened to stories than have seen them on a square screen. Perhaps this multi-century spanning human tendency is why in 2016, 40% of podcast listeners are 18-34. Half of all podcast listeners are humans who were probably born with a square screen in their hands. Being human connects us with sound, we need it to grow regardless of old we are or what generation we grow up in.
RADIO IS TRANSPORTIVE
The key to storytelling is knowing your audience. And if your audience can’t see the story, you better make them feel like they can. The great audio storytellers don’t need an image because they possess an incredible ability to make you feel like you’re there. Take Major League Baseball for example. Successful tenured MLB broadcasters like Vin Scully of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ernie Harwell of the Detroit Tigers and Harry Carey of the Chicago Cubs all possessed an amazing ability to make you feel like you were there. When you listen to an MLB game on the radio, you’re not just connected with the team but the announcer. A familiar voice factors heavily into sports fandom. “Familiar voices appear to influence the way an auditory ‘scene’ is perceptually organized,” explains lead researcher Ingrid Johnsrude of Queen’s University, Canada. Feeling like you’re there requires both a great storyteller and familiar voice. I am especially reminded of this now, as my Chicago cubs vie for their first World Series in over 100 years. Now that they are in conference finals, the games are nationally telecasted. This means I am hearing the game through an unfamiliar voice, a national broadcaster. For 162 games I rooted for the Cubs alongside the great voice of Pat Hughes, not Joe Buck Schmuck. That’s why I now stream the radio broadcast as I watch the games on TV. I feel like I’m at Wrigley Field, even if I’m sitting in my family room watching the Cubs play in Los Angeles. I have great audio storytelling to thank for that.
RADIO HAS GOTTEN EASIER
Listening to a podcast is a personal experience, that’s why Steve Jobs introduced them alongside the iPod, a device invented to be even more personal than the Walkman. The majority of Podcasts have always been listened to either in the privacy of a car or on a pair of headphones. The evolution of the smartphone has helped drive radio because it has become increasingly more powerful. Today making, streaming downloading and consuming radio on a phone is almost as easy as turning a transistor radio on. Thanks to faster processing, better access to internet and headphone innovation, more than 70% of podcasts are now listened to on smartphones. That’s up from 42% just three years ago in 2013.
RADIO CAN BE EVEN BETTER
Up until about 10 years ago, the majority of radio was listened to on one channel (mono) speakers. Now the majority is consumed on headphones or in cars. Thankfully we’re almost done with mono. Even Apple added a left and right speaker on their newest iPhone 7.
Headphone shipments have risen from 310,000,000 in 2015 to 340,000,000 in 2016. On average, people spend 4 hours a day listening to audio and 34% of those people are doing it on smartphones. This act of personal listening is something podcasts should be paying attention to.
The way we listen to radio is changing, the way we create it should be changing too
RADIO IS PERFECTLY SUITED FOR BINAURAL AUDIO
Binaural recordings are reproductions of sound the way human ears hear it. In fact, the word “binaural” literally just means “using both ears.” When you listen to a binaural recording through headphones, you perceive distinct and genuine 360° sound. When it comes to the 1s and 0s, a binaural audio file is the exact same thing as a stereo audio file. Meaning all existing radio and podcast platforms can support binaural natively since they support stereo audio.
Binaural should be the go to format for all podcasts. Every podcast incorporates field recordings, every podcast plays ambient audio so that you the listener can feel like you’re there. But it’s only left and right. When I’m listening to This American life walking alongside Ira Glass on a college campus, I’m only hearing to my left and right. It helps transport me, but it could be better. If I were really walking on campus with Ira, I’d be hearing the leaves crunch below me while I walk, students shouting from the windows in building up above and cars behind me driving on the street I just crossed.
Frontier of Change is a project that brings the voices and stories of Alaska’s changing climate to the streets and airwaves of Anchorage. The producers recorded binaural soundscapes and interviews with Alaskan locals to be mixed together into an immersive “soundwalk.”
Why are podcasts recording in mono with one ear!? You wouldn’t watch Planet Earth with on eye open. Why are you listening to This American Life with one ear?
THE TOOLS MAY CHANGE, BUT THE OBJECTIVE REMAINS
Tell great stories, the rest is just table scraps. The future will be filled with wireless audio, immersive experiences and consumer products that capture virtual reality content, but those are just tools. The objectives of great storytelling will always remain, paint the picture for your audience and make them feel like they’re there. Consumer electronics have helped binaural by pushing the stories to headphones and cars, now it’s time for radio and podcasts to follow the lead and create captivating stories in binaural. DEAR PODCASTS, don’t fall behind the curve. Create in binaural and watch the magic of sound based storytelling reach more ears than you could have ever imagined.
From One Ear To Another,