Podcasting as the Gen-Z medium

A girl wearing headphones

The growth of the podcast industry is undeniable. Today, it seems as though every person you know, journalism expert or not, has a podcast of their own. If not for expertise, what unites these individuals is their combined love and interest for audio technology, and the ability to express their knowledge and opinions to the masses. The increase in podcasting among younger generations is especially unique. They are migrating to the medium because their favorite celebrities and influencers are creating podcasts, hence demonstrating the influence of celebrity and influencer culture. Considering podcasts’ exponential growth and emergence into mainstream media, it raises questions about the social and behavioral forces that contributed to its rising popularity.

A podcast is defined as long-form media that is constructed in an audio format. It can cover content from education and news to entertainment. At its most fundamental level, it requires an individual to have a microphone and a recording device. The consumer of the podcast then listens to the recording wherever they choose. In the car, in their home, or during another activity. This basic explanation of podcasting gets into the medium’s intentional design and usage: to offer an accessible and personalized experience for consuming media.

Media Scholar Henry Jenkins, who teaches a course on the history of podcasts at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, touched on one of the most favorable traits of podcasting.

“Most of us listen to podcasts on earbuds and that affects the aesthetic of podcasting,” Jenkins said. “It’s designed to be in our head, not on our speakers across the room. That means it’s a more intimate medium, more personalized than radio has been.”

Junior Claire Fogarty, a podcast creator and student of Mr. Jenkins, agrees that podcasting is a more intimate medium but because of its dependence on the human voice.

“The intimacy of the human voice can really be an amazing story telling technique to feel like you are having a conversation with them,” Fogarty said. “With radio, broadcast, traditional television, there will be so many elements that you are not just focusing on the human voice.”

Both Jenkins and Fogarty addressed one of the primary social forces contributing to podcasting’s appeal. The ability to listen to a podcast anytime, anywhere and the added intimacy of feeling as though the media you are listening to is only being told to you, like a personal conversation.

Junior Isaac Tula, a podcast creator himself, said that podcasting simply comes down to the art of “conversing and storytelling.”

Podcasting offers listeners the ability to consume information in a timely manner. Despite podcast’s long-form roots, podcast episodes have progressively gotten shorter and shorter, lending itself well to individuals’ behavioral need to multitask, such as listening to a podcast on one’s commute to work.

The average podcast episode ranges between 25-30 minutes, according to Co-founder of Bumper Dan Misener, coinciding with the average commute in the US.

Jenkins related the oversaturation of media content with individuals’ need to multitask.

As we become used to oversaturating ourselves with information, many of us feel bored riding the bus, walking down the street, so we tend to listen to podcasts to fill in those gaps,” Jenkins said. “That is certainly one of my uses.”

In a media-driven society where it is normalized and expected to inundate ourselves with information, and do so while multitasking, it is no coincidence that individuals like millennials and Gen Z—who are byproducts of a media-driven society—are drawn to podcasting’s accessible and personalized nature.

Contributing to podcasts’ accessibility is the fact that anyone can create one; anyone can become a podcast creator. This is because there are various free apps available to the masses that assist in recording and distributing podcasts to media platforms. Because of the ease of access to podcasting tools, the average person can engage in the creation of podcasts as much as the consumption of them.

Jenkins stated that one third of his students in his course on the history of podcasts tend to have their own podcasts already. Despite having access to Annenberg Media Lab, he has succumbed to his students’ approach of using “simple tools available for free online that don’t require any studio” due to how easy it is to distribute.

Fogarty is a student who got into podcasting in 2018, before such simplified approaches were created. Considering that only four years have passed since she used a more traditional and lengthy approach to podcasting speaks to the immense growth and development that has occurred in the podcasting industry.

“When I started my podcast, I was 16, Anchor didn’t exist, there was a lot more DIY to it, and a lot more that I had to figure out on my own,” Fogarty said. “It was crazy when the thing I spent months and months on for my podcast you now can do in a couple of clicks on your computer.”

Anchor is a producing RSS platform that quickly and efficiently records and distributes podcasts. One of the reasons for its efficiency is because it is linked to Spotify and Apple music, two large media platforms.

According to a 2019-2020 study by Statista, Spotify and Apple Podcasts are the most popular platforms for consuming podcasts with Spotfy attracting 25% of listeners and Apple Podcasts attracting 20%.

With Spotify and Apple Podcasts increasing the medium’s ease of access, social media platforms are also amplifying podcasts by promoting them on their platforms. Snapchat, for example, includes clips and trailers of podcasts in the forms of ads or on stories to increase their visibility.

The demographic of Snapchat users are also millennials and Gen Z. Not only are podcasts being more widely promoted, but they are being promoted to younger audiences that consume and create the content they see and interact with online.

Fogarty confirmed this reality that the promotion of podcasts on social media has led Gen Z to engage with the media platform.

“Snapchat, believe it or not, is a really big promoter of podcasts and podcast channels,” Fogarty said. “A lot of podcasts will put mini versions on Snapchat.”

In addition to social media, TV shows and sitcoms have introduced podcasts into mainstream media, amplifying its visibility and recognition as an important media platform.

“We are seeing it represented in popular culture,” Jenkins said. “‘Only Murders in the Building’” is maybe the most notorious example where the lead characters and most of the plot centers around the production of a podcast. There are podcasts hosts that are showing late night comedy shows. We’re seeing Saturday Night Live spoof podcasts.”

Tula communicated another way podcasting has emerged in the social limelight.

“I see a ton of YouTubers having their own podcasts, so they are removing their ten-minute videos and going into depth on what they’re thinking or about their life,” Tula said.

Fogarty recently interned at a podcast company doing market research and discovered an interesting trend in her research: the majority of people listened to podcasts by Youtubers that they liked. Even more surprising is that listening to their favorite YouTubers was their first exposure to podcasting.

As Fogarty stated, there is this “cyclical” relationship where YouTubers or famous celebrities, in this case, “now have podcasts because more audiences have migrated to podcasts, and audiences are now migrating to podcasts because celebrities have them.”

Some examples of mainstream celebrities who have podcasts are Obama, Meghan Markle, Dua Lipa, and so many more.

While the younger generations’ route to podcasting was through social media and mainstream celebrities and Youtubers, the older generations’ route to podcasting was through radio.

“Podcasts for older generations were more like, ‘Oh, I love listening to Terry Gross in the car, now I can listen to it on my phone,’” Fogarty said. “Younger generations were getting to the podcast app through influencers, easy access via Spotify, and cross-promotion of social media apps that were already popular for them.”

The dramatic increase in the visibility of podcasts through social media and in mainstream media through celebrities, influencers, and YouTubers, are the primary determinants for its growing success and popularity, especially among younger generations.

According to Edison Research, in 2022, 62% of Americans age 12+ will have listened to a podcast once in their lives. This is a 57% increase from 2021 and an estimation of 177 million people.

Jenkins returned back to the larger appeal of podcasting aside from its accessibility and visibility in mainstream media. He articulated how podcasting’s appeal, by its very nature, is grounded in its nicheness and intimate qualities.

“I think a lot of people are excited that it is still largely grassroots,” Jenkins said. The mix of grassroots and professional means that there is high-quality stuff to get you started but there is also a fascination with how niche it can go.”

He emphasized that podcasts’ appeal for younger generations stems from their desire to escape “corporate media dominance.” They intend to navigate “alternative channels as they don’t feel their voices are heard or represented in the dominant medium.”

The accessibility, visibility, intimacy, and personalized nature of podcasting is what makes it the ideal medium for younger audiences to express themselves as a consumer or as a creator.