While the word “podcast” didn’t even exist 30 years ago, podcasts are now a daily part of many people’s lives.
As per research from Edison, one-third of Americans aged 12 and over listen to a podcast monthly. That amounts to over 100 million people.
So, what is a podcast, and why are people drawn to them? In this article, we’ll answer both those questions and tell you how to find podcasts, how to listen to podcasts, and how you can customize your podcast listening experience.
Let’s dive in.
What Is a Podcast?
A podcast is a curated, radio-style program people listen to through their computers, tablets, or the internet. “Internet” is key here, as podcasts are distributed online.
Podcasting is a very flexible medium, as:
- Podcasts may consist of a single episode or a series with hundreds of episodes
- Podcasts vary in length from one minute to hours per episode (the average length is 41 minutes and 31 seconds)
- Podcasters (presenters that host podcasts) can cover any topic
- Podcasters can release their show as a pre-recorded program or a live program on a platform like Twitch or Youtube
Though every podcast has its unique style, podcasters generally present their episodes in one of three ways:
- Stand-alone: You can listen to each episode without listening to others
- Sequentially: You must listen to each episode in a set order to fully understand the story
- Theme-based: You can listen to each episode individually, but the episodes present nuances of a topic, and you may need to listen to all episodes to appreciate fully
Podcasts also combine elements from many genres of entertainment. If you were to describe a podcast in 15 words or less, you might say that they combine the intimacy of a YouTube channel with the production quality of a radio show.
History of Podcasts
To understand the history of podcasts, we need to look back nearly 20 years to the release of the first iPod in 2001. Although iPods weren’t the first portable MP3 player on the market, their release coincided with the release of radio and music streaming platforms like Pandora.
As the iPod gained popularity, people started looking to download radio shows onto their devices.
Entrepreneurs Adam Curry and Dave Winer made this possible in 2004. They created an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) software called iPodder that could download radio broadcasts from the internet onto iPods.
According to Winer, the first proper podcast was an interview he recorded with Christopher Lydon (a radio host who hosted Open Source — a radio show that’s now a podcast).
People also debate the origin of the word “podcast,” but it seems to have partially risen from a 2004 article by Ben Hammersley titled “Audible Revolution.” Although the article doesn’t use “podcast,” it suggests three similar terms: audio blogging, podcasting, and guerilla media.
Later, these terms changed to “audio blog” and “podcast,” with “podcast” ultimately gaining popularity (and thousands of google searches by the end of 2004).
As Google Trends suggests, the popularity of podcasts took off worldwide after 2004.
That year, the world got its first podcast service provider — libsyn.com. Then, in 2005, the word “podcast” was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year.
By 2009, 43% of Americans had heard of podcasts, and by 2019, that number had risen to 70%. That same year, an estimated 144 million Americans listened to podcasts, and 90 million of those listeners were listening monthly.
So what do podcasts look like today?
Types of Podcasts
There are many different types of podcasts in 2021, including:
- Conversational podcasts where hosts present content in a talk show style
- Interview podcasts
- Podcasts that tell fictional stories
- Podcasts that tell non-fiction stories or recount historical events
- Lecture-style podcasts that teach you about a topic
- Investigative journalism-style podcasts that present objective reporting
- Game-show-style podcasts where contestants compete against each other or the host
- Call-in podcasts where callers contribute to the discussion
As podcasting is a very flexible medium, many shows blend elements from each of these different “types.” For example, some episodes of the popular podcast Reply All feature interviews with guests, while the hosts present other episodes through narrative storytelling.
Naturally, the flexibility of podcasting means people can use it to produce content across a range of genres. As of October 2020, the most popular genres included comedy, news, true crime, sports, and health and fitness.
If you’re interested in the media industry, those genres may remind you of another popular entertainment medium — radio. But while radio and podcasts may cover similar genres, they aren’t the same.
Podcasts vs Radio
As we covered in the “History of Podcasts“ section, radio was crucial in creating podcasts. However, while the two entertainment mediums may share a history, there are many differences today.
These differences include:
- Curation: Podcasts are generally more curated than radio, as producers can edit them before publishing
- Production quality: Many podcasts include background music and sound effects that producers edit in during post-production
- Visuals: Podcasts may include visual elements (more on that in the “Audio and Video” section)
- Focus: Podcasts often dive deep into the nuances of a topic over multiple episodes, while many radio programs (especially morning and evening show programs) use an “easy listening” style that people can tune into and understand at any point
- Broadcast medium: Podcasts are distributed over the internet
But while podcasts and radio are different, they also share similar elements. These elements include the reliance on narrators, ad breaks that separate segments, and a strong focus on audio to tell a story.
How Podcasts Work
The world of podcasts generally works like this. First, someone records a podcast and edits it. Then, they publish it through a podcasting platform or directly onto their website using a built-in audio player. Once the podcast producer has released their podcast, consumers listen to it through their computers, tablets, or phones.
To understand how podcasts work, you need to understand two key things: video podcasting and a typical podcast format.
Audio and Video
Podcasting started as a purely audio-based medium, but that isn’t true today. As of October 2021, podcast database Listen Notes estimates over 2.6 million podcasts available online. Experts believe around 17% of them include visual elements.
These visual elements could be:
- A live video feed showing the podcast hosts as they talk
- Slides with different pictures, infographics, and graphs to demonstrate key points
- Pre-recorded skits, videos, and interviews
While visual elements aren’t necessary for a successful podcast, they can make the podcast better. That’s because visual elements can:
- Demonstrate critical points that are difficult to convey over audio
- Allow podcasters to attract a wider audience by creating content for users on video platforms like Twitch or Youtube
- Create an intimate environment between the host and the listener
- Provide a competitive edge that can increase the video podcast’s return on investment (ROI)
Typical Format (What To Expect)
As we mentioned in the “Types Of Podcasts“ section, every podcast has a unique style. However, most podcasts follow a structure like this:
- Summary of what happened in the last episode (if the podcast is sequential)
- 1–5 minute-long introduction and title sequence (this is one of the most critical parts of a podcast, as it needs to grab the consumer’s attention)
- 5–25 minute-long section of content
- 1–4 minute-long ad read
- Another 5–25 minute-long section of content
- Another 1–4 minute-long ad read
- Teaser for the next episode (if the podcast is sequential)
While this may seem similar to the format for a radio show, podcasts have some unique quirks that set them apart.
For example, many podcast hosts give shout-outs to Patreon supporters at the end of episodes. Patreon is a membership-based platform where fans fund shows through regular subscription payments.
Alternatively, many podcasters name their podcasts around easily searched keywords so people can find them online. For example, a podcast episode about ecommerce trends for 2021 may have a name like “State of Ecommerce 2021.”
Why Podcasts Are so Popular
In the 2004 article “Audible Revolution,” Ben Hammersley describes the benefits of podcasting as “something that newspapers can only dream about,” as podcasts have the “intimacy of voice, the interactivity of a weblog, and the convenience and portability of an MP3 download.”
Although podcasts have changed a lot since 2004, those benefits are still valid today — especially Hammersley’s point about portability.
While podcasts are an excellent tool for storytelling, a large part of their appeal comes from flexibility.
Many people listen to podcasts while running, walking the dog, doing errands, cleaning, and commuting to work. All of these activities require someone’s partial attention — so you couldn’t do them while watching TV or reading a book. But you can do them while listening to podcasts.
To understand why people choose to listen to podcasts, you only need to look at the most popular podcast genres. As people love comedy, news, true crime, sports, and health and fitness the most, we know they listen to podcasts to laugh, learn new things, develop new skills, improve themselves, and catch up on current events.
So that explains why people love podcasts. But why do they start them?
While every podcaster has their own “why,” many people and businesses start podcasts to:
- Market their services to potential customers
- Develop a web presence (creating organic content and distributing it online can drive organic traffic to your website and business)
- Teach people skills they’ve mastered
- Entertain people
- Make money through Patreon, donations, or ads
- Launch a comedy, entertainment, or acting career
- Have fun (either by themselves or with friends)
- Sell items through affiliate links
Podcasts Worth Checking Out
According to Listen Notes, over 2.6 million podcasts and 115 million podcast episodes are currently available online. Naturally, there’s a lot of podcasts to choose from — so where should you start?
If you’re a new podcast listener and you’re interested in business, web design, and ecommerce, you might like one of our top five best podcast picks.
1. Reverse Engineered
We’ll start by mentioning our own Reverse Engineered podcast. It’s a business-focused podcast hosted by Kinsta’s Chief Operating Officer, Jon Penland. In each episode, Jon sits down with successful entrepreneurs and business people and asks them about their business, successes, and any nuggets of knowledge they can share with others.
If you’re looking for a well-researched podcast full of actionable insights that will help you grow your business, you’ll love Reverse Engineered. It’s also great for people that love video podcasts, as each episode includes footage from Jon’s interview.
Here’s where you can find it:
2. How I Built This
How I Built This tells unknown stories about some of the world’s most well-known companies. Hosted by Guy Raz and produced by NPR, How I Built This covers the origins, early years, and the “thing” that made certain companies successful.
How I Built This is a fun listen for business owners, investors, and anyone interested in entrepreneurship. It has a unique style, including narrated storytelling, interviews with founders, and talk-show sections.
While How I Built This won’t teach you how to start your own business, it’ll inspire you by showing you the many ways companies find success.
Here’s where you can find it:
3. HBR IdeaCast
HBR IdeaCast is a weekly podcast that covers topical events that affect business owners and managers worldwide.
Hosted by senior Harvard Business Review editors Alison Beard and Curt Nickisch, HBR IdeaCast features interviews with leaders and experts in various fields, from pharmaceuticals to technology. As of October 2021, HBR IdeaCast has released 820 episodes.
HBR IdeaCast is an excellent podcast for people that love dense, knowledge-packed episodes.
Here’s where you can find it:
4. The Influencer Podcast
If you’ve ever considered influencer marketing, you’ll learn a lot from The Influencer Podcast.
Hosted by Julie Solomon, The Influencer Podcast covers the business side of influencing, including becoming an influencer, growing your brand through influencing, and the science of influencer marketing.
The podcast includes storytelling from Solomon, interviews with brand owners and influencers, and advice for budding influencers. Although the name may suggest it focuses on social media, Solomon covers influencers and thought leaders with influence across the web.
Here’s where you can find it:
5. Developer Tea
Developer Tea is a business and software development podcast covering web design, content creation, product design, software engineering, and professional development.
Hosted by PBSs Director of Technology Jonathan Cutrell, Developer Tea includes interviews with industry leaders, lecture-style education, and philosophical musings.
Developer Tea isn’t just for developers, as it’s full of great information that will help brand owners, marketers, and anyone who works on the backend of a digital product improve their work.
Here’s where you can find it:
How to Listen to Podcasts
Listening to podcasts is very similar to listening to music: you open your podcasting service, choose a podcast, and press “play.” Then you can pause your podcast, skip forward or backward, or download your podcast for later.
You’ll need two key things to listen to podcasts: a platform to listen to podcasts through and a podcast to enjoy.
Let’s start by discussing podcasting platforms.
Top Podcast Platforms
Podcasting platforms are an intermediary between podcasters and podcast consumers.
While there are dozens of podcasting platforms available online, 76% of podcast consumers rely on four platforms: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Pandora.
With over 2.2 million podcasts, Spotify dominates the podcasting market. You can listen to podcasts on Spotify through iOS devices, Android devices, the Spotify desktop app, and online at spotify.com.
You can download podcasts for free on Spotify.
Apple Podcasts is also a titan of the industry, as it currently hosts over 2 million podcasts and operates in over 170 countries. Apple Podcasts are available on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV. You can also access it through iTunes if you have a Windows computer.
You can use Apple Podcasts for free.
Currently, Google Podcasts are available on Android devices, iPhone, Google Nest, and Google Home.
You can use it for free.
Pandora is a music and podcast hosting service that dates back to 2004. Owned by SiriusXM Holdings, Pandora currently has 58 million users.
Pandora is currently available on iOS and Android devices, Google Home, Amazon Fire, Xbox One, and pandora.com. Pandora offers a free version and paid plans. You can listen to podcasts through the free version.
You cannot download a podcast for offline listening on Pandora.
3 Ways to Find a Podcast
Once you’ve chosen a podcasting provider, you’ll need to find a podcast to listen to before you can press “play.” Here are three ways you can find a podcast.
1. Browse Your Recommended Podcasts
If you listen to podcasts through a platform like Spotify or Apple Podcasts, you can find new shows by browsing the platform’s “recommended” podcast list.
This list is a great way to find high-quality podcasts, as platforms recommend shows that are popular with listeners, critically acclaimed, or currently trending.
To find a podcast through the “recommended” list, simply:
- Go to your podcasting platform
- Click “recommended” or “browse”
- Scroll down until you find a podcast that interests you
2. Use the Internet
As mentioned in the “Typical Format (What To Expect)” section, many podcast listeners find new podcasts through search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
To find a podcast this way, simply:
- Type in the topic you’re interested in, plus “podcast” (like “health and fitness podcast”)
- Look for podcasts hosted on Spotify, Google, and Apple Podcasts, or scroll through the list your search engine recommends
Once you’ve found a podcast you’re interested in, you can also use the internet to search for reviews. Reading reviews can help you sort good podcasts from bad podcasts.
3. Use Listen Notes
Listen Notes is a podcast search engine that lists over 115 million podcast episodes. To find podcasts on it, you simply:
- Go to the Listen Notes website
- Type in a keyword related to the kind of podcast you want
- Scroll down until you find a podcast that interests you
If you don’t see any podcasts you’re interested in, try clicking one of the tags to search for a related program.
Subscribing to A Podcast
Once you start listening to podcasts, you might notice that the podcast host asks you to “subscribe.”
When you subscribe to a podcast, you sign up to automatically receive new episodes. Subscribing to a podcast is a great way to keep up with new episodes, as your podcasting platform will notify you when a new episode is released and download it automatically.
To subscribe to a podcast, go to the show’s listing, and press the “subscribe” or “follow” button (different platforms use different terms). Once you’ve subscribed, you can find it in your “podcast subscriptions” list.
If you like curated radio shows, documentaries, or Youtube videos, you’ll love podcasts. Listening to podcasts is a great way to expand your mind, entertain yourself, learn about the world, and gain new skills, all while having fun.
And best of all, podcasts are flexible. You can listen to them both online and offline, on your computer or phone, and wherever you want. All you need is a podcast app and a podcast to listen to.
Of course, that begs an interesting question: did you agree with our favorite podcast list, and if not, what podcasts would you recommend for new podcast consumers?