A little more than a decade ago, podcasting burst on the scene as part of the early wave of social media. Despite a lot of initial enthusiasm, podcasts didn’t exactly light the world on fire, enjoying steady but only slow growth.

But now podcasting is enjoying a renaissance, driven by both technological innovation and editorial experimentation. Some are even going so far as to call this the “golden age of audio” in the US.

A third of Americans have downloaded a podcast at some point, and the number of podcast downloads rose from 1.6 billion to 2.6 billion from 2012 to 2014, according to Edison Research.

On the editorial side of this resurgence, podcasts have delivered some of the biggest water cooler moments in US media over the past year. Serial, which explored a teen murder mystery, broke onto the scene in the autumn of 2014. The spin-off of successful US public radio show, This American Life, it was downloaded at least 80 million times.

Another pivotal moment in podcasting came when comedian Marc Maron played host on his WTF podcast to special guest President Barack Obama. It was the audio equivalent of the President doing an AMA on Reddit. Not bad for a podcast that is usually recorded in Maron’s garage.

Boom in podcasting ad revenue

Now, as we all know, fame in digital media does not inexorably lead to fortune, but Zenith Optomedia projects that podcasts will net $34 million in advertising in 2015, a 10 percent bump from the year before. That’s not blockbuster numbers in real terms but it is healthy growth.

Cream-of-the-crop podcasts are commanding CPMs that would be the envy of any digital media outlet, between $20 to $45, versus $1 to $20 for run-of-the-mill web ads, according to New York magazine.

With content gaining attention of both audiences and advertisers, major US media players have embraced podcasts. Last year, CBS launched its own podcast network, Play.it, and in less than a year, the network boasts 46 million listeners a month.

Sharp, smart content is obviously helping to drive the growth in podcasts, but podcasts are also hitching a ride on the rocket that is the growth in mobile content. 

Libsyn, a podcasting hosting service, found that nearly two-thirds of podcasts were downloaded by mobile devices in 2014, up from 43 percent two years before.

But this isn’t just about the meteoric rise of the smartphone. New York magazine asked top podcasters what they attribute the renewed interest in the medium, and they put it down to something truly mobile: The car.

incar.jpg

More than half of all motors sold worldwide this year will be connected cars, according to mobile industry group GSMA, and by 2025, all cars will be connected “in multiple ways”.

A few years ago, early adopters could connect their phones by USB or Bluetooth, but now cars are shipping with in-car apps that provide a drive-friendly interface for mobile apps on smartphones. 

Cars and consumers

Last year, when I moved back to the US, I bought a Mazda 3 with an optional tech package. Not only will the car read out my text messages, it also has mobile apps including Pandora for music streaming, plus the podcast app Stitcher and podcast, audiobook, social and local services directory Aha.

I’m the executive editor over three newspapers so I’m on the road a lot, and these apps are great for all kinds of audio content.

It helps that the interface is incredibly easy to use, without being distracting. An incredibly responsive touch screen rises from the middle of the dash for when I’m stopped, and a slick dial on the centre console, much like BMW’s i-Drive dial, controls things when I’m on the move. 

Of course, if I’m feeling really lazy, the system has a very good voice command service.

Regardless of whether you’re listening via your auto or your Android device, podcasting is definitely enjoying a resurgence.

The question for those who want to take advantage of this renewed interest in on-demand audio is how to cut through the overwhelming forest of content already out there.

The major players are already there – the BBC boasted that it had more than 1 billion podcast downloads in the first decade of podcasting – but there is still room for smart, niche content.

 Whereas blogging has waned because it is beset with almost endless competition, podcasting has enjoyed a resilience much as radio because it has a captive audience, the commuter in the car.


Kevin Anderson is currently a regional executive editor for Gannett Wisconsin Media, overseeing four newsrooms. He is writing here in a personel capacity. 

Before joining Gannett, he held a number of pioneering positions with news organizations such as the BBC, The Guardian and the Media Development Investment Fund. He tweets as @kevglobal.