Why are podcasts so popular?

Everyone has a podcast these days – at least that’s how it seems. Thanks to the ease of producing a podcast at very little cost, anyone with a little knowledge of the technology is capable of recording and releasing their own show. But why are they suddenly so popular? 

In the years after Steve Jobs announced the original iPod in 2001, podcasting (getting its name from the device) became a successful mini-industry. Covering a wide range of topics, many of the shows on offer built up a good following. But somehow, around 2009, the scene began to wither.

The audience lost interest for some reason. While the likes of This American Life were still topping the iTunes charts, there wasn’t much else happening.

Fast-forward to 2015 and it was a very different story. Thanks, in part, to the hugely successful Serial, podcasting was back. And this time it meant business.

Potentially, this rise in popularity can be explained by the improved quality of podcasts. Once seen as amateurish, podcasts now had full-scale production teams, budgets and industry expertise behind them.

At the same time, technology developed. By 2015, unlike in 2009, most people were carrying a smartphone. This enabled them to download and listen to podcasts on the go, rather than having to wait to download them on a computer and sync their iPod or other device to be able to listen. And, increasingly, cars now come with satellite radio and internet-friendly dashboards meaning drivers don’t even have to connect their devices to listen while they travel.

But convenience isn’t the whole story. There has to be more that is compelling people to listen to podcasts than simply the fact that it is easy.

Read more: Why do some stories go viral?

Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University has studied how watching and listening to stories influences our physiology and behaviour. He told the Atlantic: “A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text. It’s the same kind of activation in the brain.”

Zak and his colleagues had participants watch short video clips featuring either an emotional or unemotional scene. Afterwards, they had to fill out a survey about their emotions, play a game designed to test their generosity toward a stranger, and have a blood test. They found that those who felt empathy for the characters in the clips that they watched were 47 per cent more oxytocin in their body than those who did not feel empathetic.

Oxytocin is released when people feel stressed so the researchers suggested that this could be caused by experiencing tension in a story. And since the release of oxytocin has been shown to increase empathy in other experiments, the researchers said that it’s tension in a story that causes listeners or readers to empathise with the characters and get transported into the story.

According to Zak, therefore, the best stories always have an increasing level of tension. “What we have found in our research is that people require some sort of stressor, some sort of arousal response in the brain to have this type of narrative transportation where we begin to share the emotions of the characters in a story,” he said. “It makes sense that we need some sufficient reason to have that response. Our brain is trying to save resources and energy and having this arousal response is costly. Therefore we only want to give attention to something when it matters, when there’s something going on.”

Additionally, Zak explained that since oxytocin has been shown to make people more sensitive to social clues, stories need to be character-driven to keep people’s attention. “You can tell a war story or something with a lot of action that will grab your attention but you still need a personal story, someone to empathise with. We need to have that social aspect for it to resonate with us.”

Looking for a good podcast? Check out our VOOM and Live.Life.Better. podcasts for inspiring stories and advice.

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