Ian Harris: The Power of Podcasts

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 3:19pm

Podcasts are the world’s most underrated form of entertainment. Originating in the mid-2000s after the debut of the original iPod, podcasts have slowly grown to become a dominant form of audio entertainment, with everything from TV recaps to political punditry to gardening. Unlike movies or TV shows, podcasts can be listened to on the go, and unlike radio, you don’t have to tune in at a specific time to listen to your favorite host. While podcasts have become popular, they have yet to achieve the level of critical and commercial success of TV, movies and music.

My personal experience with podcasts dates back to the summer of 2007. As many of you might remember, that was the summer that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was released in bookstores. Being the savvy nine-year-old pop culture expert that I was, I was of course completely obsessed. My family took a lot of road trips up to my grandparents’ place in northern Michigan that summer, and my dad decided to do a search for “Harry Potter” on iTunes in order to keep me entertained during the rides. What he found was a podcast called “MuggleCast: The #1 Harry Potter Podcast,” and the rest is history. I spent the entire summer listening to episodes of MuggleCast on the family iPod, and I never stopped. There’s something personal about podcasts, something that approaches the level of intimacy a viewer might have experienced in the past from a radio host or a network broadcaster they particularly liked. Podcasts are niche radio. To the nine-year-old obsessed with Hogwarts, and the parents tired of hearing about it from their kid, the idea of a show where they talked about “Harry Potter” for an hour every single week was mind-blowing.

MuggleCast was my first experience with podcasts, but it was far from my last. Today, I listen to almost a dozen different podcasts on a regular basis. While many of my friends struggle to keep up with all of their favorite TV shows in college, I easily breeze through dozens of podcast episodes a month. I live in a house off campus, which is about a 15-20 minute walk from the diag. Podcasts are a wonderful way to make the walk go by faster, especially in the winter. I can get my political fix from “Pod Save America,” a left-leaning political podcast hosted by former Obama speechwriters, wallow in my grief over the latest Michigan football season with the writers from Mgoblog on the “The MgoPodcast” or geek out over movies by listening to “Total Geekall” and “How Did this Get Made?” I’ve found there’s a podcast for every opportunity. Need to clean your bedroom or do laundry? Listen to a podcast. Have some mindless math homework to do? Listen to a podcast. Unlike music, you don’t have to worry about fumbling around with your phone in the cold weather to change the song or the playlist or the album. Put your hour-long podcast on and you’re good for the entire day.

There’s an easy friendliness to podcasting lends itself well to today’s diversified and increasingly niche entertainment market. There are “Game of Thrones” podcasts for people who have only read the books. There are podcasts about other podcasts. Podcasting is like listening in on a conversation between a group of friends talking exclusively about a subject you know you will enjoy. That’s part of what makes podcasts work. The distance between the listener and the podcasters feels very small. Anyone could start a podcast really. This semester, The Daily is expanding our repertoire of podcasts to focus on culture, news and student life in Ann Arbor. Many of the most popular podcasts today are ones that were started by a couple of friends who just liked to talk about history, or football, or movies, or painting, or bowling or whatever. That’s the genius of podcasts. There is literally something for everyone.

I don’t have time to watch TV. I struggle to get to the movies to see everything I want to. I still haven’t seen “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Shape of Water” or “Lady Bird” and am therefore disgrace to the Arts section. It’s a good thing “Game of Thrones” always airs in the summer, because my Sunday nights are always filled with meetings. I don’t have time to watch as many things as I want to. What I do have time for is podcasts. I have time for podcasts because podcasts don’t require my time. I can listen to them while making myself breakfast or while I’m taking a shower. On long car drives or airplane rides or while going to the gym, podcasts are the ultimate media for multitasking. There’s a low barrier for entry. Most podcasts are easy to jump right into, no matter how many years they’ve been running. The power of podcasts is that of an incredibly versatile medium, one that, while still in its infancy, has already become one of the most prolific forms of entertainment on the planet. For me, as for many others, podcasts have become a regular part of our everyday lives.

And yes, every Monday, I still listen to MuggleCast. Always.