IT MIGHT NOT be fair to call it the voice of the people, but podcasting, in its many current incarnations, is perhaps an unequaled megaphone for the spoken word.
The medium, earlier known as “audioblogging,” has roots to the start of the personal computing era in the 1980s, but didn’t go mainstream until around 2004, thanks to its inclusion on portable devices such as the iPod (hence the now-somewhat-confusing name).
Podcasting always has been a comparatively “democratic” medium, given its low bar to entry. It’s become even more so since breaking the bounds of the platform that helped establish it, Apple’s iTunes.
The challenge is, and always has been, finding an audience. And in recent years, podcasts focusing on addictive storytelling, such as serial crime tales, have caused listenership to soar.
While the difference between episodes well-produced and thrown together is readily apparent, the podcast-production learning curve is relatively short — especially compared to, say, a full website, or a magazine like you’re currently reading.
The required gear is broadly available (you probably already own it). And on the listening end, podcasts are available, often for free, to anyone with a computer, tablet or mobile phone, via a broad variety of aggregators.
It is, above all else, portable and accessible. And as a medium that qualifies as true home-brew radio, it has inherited the mantle of creative audio broadcasting that had nearly become extinct in the era of corporate broadcast radio.
Its main selling point: timelessness. Podcasting was streaming before streaming was cool, allowing users to play content whenever it was convenient.
The tech-wise Northwest, of course, always has been part of this bow wave. Many worthy podcasts are produced in our midst, including some from within this publication.
Given the pandemic realities of many of us — being stuck in place for long periods, and yearning for some human discourse, even if it’s digital and one-way — we opted recently to grab hold of a locally produced podcast and explore its roots, mechanics and the aspirations of its creators.
Our choice, “The Bittersweet Life,” has a solid history, a growing audience and production by a pair of Seattle-reared women: Katy Sewall, longtime KUOW producer/host, and Tiffany Parks, her childhood friend who now lives in Rome.
The show, devised in 2014 as a yearlong exploration of the expat lifestyle, is still being produced by hosts a planet apart, communicating digitally. Their long friendship, common roots and continental separation make for interesting, global perspectives on social issues, news, books, travel and other topics.
Today’s cover piece explores the genesis of their project and how it changed along the way, with some hints about how Sewall, Parks and their countless fellow podcasters have adapted to pandemic lifestyles.
(Counterintuitively, the pandemic has been both a boon, with more people finding idle time to listen, and a bust, because fewer potential listeners are commuting or sitting stuck in traffic, forming a consistent captive audience for broadcasters.)
We hope our glimpse into the creative process behind the podcast, now probably worthy of the title “long-running,” inspires curiosity about others in what’s become a rich artistic and even journalistic field, with shows from more than a million producers downloaded by, according to one estimate, an estimated 100 million U.S. listeners monthly.
For a broad view, take a look at top-rated podcasts from national magazines here and here. Locally, Sewall, who also now works as a podcast consultant, was kind enough to offer up some of her favorite listens, an eclectic list. Happy listening. And don’t wear your headphones in the car!