Every week during its 12-episode run, 1.5 million people around the world listened to the podcast Serial, a real-life murder investigation that was a spinoff of the popular WBEZ Chicago radio program This American Life.
But listeners weren't letting their car batteries drain while Serial played through the speakers; they weren't huddled, fireside chat-style, around a living room radio. They downloaded Serial and listened to it on headphones while they jogged, or while they hung pictures or cleaned the garage — on their own terms, whenever and wherever they wanted.
Podcasts were born 10 years ago when Apple created the iPod. Though iPods themselves essentially are obsolete, replaced by much more useful smartphones, podcasts are more popular than ever. According to The Washington Post, Apple has reported 1 billion subscriptions to podcasts through iTunes. The number of podcast listeners, according to RawVoice, a company that tracks media files, is up by 50 million from five years ago. Video may have killed the radio star, but podcasts are on the rise.
There are dozens of podcasts produced in New Orleans, and each offers access a glimpse of the city's culture that can be accessed from all over the world. But local podcasts don't just connect New Orleans to a global audience, they also connect New Orleanians to New Orleans, through discussions of music, sports, Mardi Gras Indians, comedy or just plain banter. Entrepreneurial and personal, most podcasts don't depend on advertisers or a lot of listeners to keep them going — just the interest and passion of the people making them.
That doesn't mean a podcast is just someone talking into a mic and uploading the result to a website.
"It has to be a professionally produced piece of work," says Grant Morris, the founder of the podcast listening network and web portal It's New Orleans, which now acts as a platform for eight podcasts, including VietNOLA, Louisiana Eats, Happy Hour and Out to Lunch. "Otherwise no one's going to want to hear it. It's not like the radio where you can put it on in your car and have driven 20 miles before you realize: What the hell is this crap I'm listening to?"
Action Jackson of WWOZ's Takin' It to the Streets has the kind of voice that could make a solitary dictionary reading sound like the greatest party on earth. Fifteen years ago, as a radio personality on Q93 FM, Jackson started talking about his own Super Sunday plans, and people started calling in and asking for more information. Four years ago, he launched Takin' It to the Streets on 'OZ, a radio show and podcast dedicated to the behind-the-scenes stories of the second line, collecting tales from the presidents of the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Big Chiefs of Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
The number of podcast listeners ... is up by 50 million from five years ago. Video may have killed the radio star, but podcasts are on the rise.
"What we decided to do with the podcast was get some inside information that the normal person doesn't have, to give people insight," Jackson says. "Because everybody thinks they come out on a Sunday and dance. There's a lot more to that. I let them just tell their individual story. To my knowledge, it's not documented as far as archives and things like that. It's way deep behind the scenes."
Though people around the world listen to Takin' it to the Streets (the show recently had a call from a listener in Japan), Jackson says many people in New Orleans don't have the kind of access he does, and so he caters to locals who want to know more about this part of the city as much as he caters to listeners elsewhere.
"The New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs as well as the Mardi Gras Indians — they're not private but you can't just get that access," he says. "When I talk to these individuals, they have so much passion. ... They've been doing this stuff for over 100 years and it really provides a lot for the city and they never ask for anything from the city."
Chris Trew saw something missing from the sports talk radio scene two-and-a-half years ago. But since he's a comedian, Trew 2 the Game, the show Trew puts together weekly, never recaps game statistics or previews upcoming matches.
"I found myself having the same conversation at the bar about sports that was less, 'Who do you think is going to win this game?' and was more like, 'Which logo in the NBA is most indicative of that city's culture?' and getting into fun arguments and debates over things that aren't necessarily the outcome of the game," Trew says. "And so my podcast is kind of nerdy in that regard. But I'm also very careful to maintain that I'm a comedian, that's what my life is. So the episodes are always funny."
Trew is helping connect the city's local teams — even the smaller ones like the New Orleans Zephyrs baseball team and the New Orleans Voodoo arena football team — with people who don't necessarily follow sports. "I've had people come up to me on the street and say, 'Hey, I don't know anything about sports,'" he says. "It's an entertaining way to keep informed about an important thing in the city."
For Trew, podcasting is a low-stakes way of entertaining people, requiring minimal equipment and a low time commitment to produce a show and put it online. That democratic quality of podcasting is another reason it's caught on. If you're trying to make to a name for yourself, curating your own show is a great way to do it, even if it's slow to grab listeners.
Out to Lunch, the show that invites members of the New Orleans business community to lunch at Commander's Palace for a recorded interview about their ventures, began as a podcast before getting picked up by local NPR affiliate WWNO 89.9. Morris says that more people listen to the podcast than listen to the radio show, but host Peter Ricchiuti believes the three-month incubation period was crucial to the show's success for radio.
"It was fun then, and now doing it in both formats has really been fun," Ricchiuti says. "I think probably when we first started out we weren't ready for radio radio. We had a lot of kinks to work out. But now we've got it pretty smooth."
Ricchiuti is an economist and a professor at Tulane University, and he says the podcast gives insight into the changing world of New Orleans entrepreneurship and business. "I think the reason we started the show is because New Orleans has become this really great center for entrepreneurs ever since [Hurricane] Katrina," he says. He's pleased with the show's audience, too. "You're getting people you wouldn't ordinarily get in the traditional mediums," Ricchiuti says. "We're surprised at the kind of folks we get. We're getting an awful lot of young people, particularly a lot of people who aren't from here originally. And they're the ones who seem to be tuning into the podcast."
CJ Hunt is a local comedian who produces The Early Draft, a blog and podcast sponsored and edited by the website NolaVie (www.nolavie.com). Hunt is interested in the ways comedians become comedians, and on his show, he interviews up and coming comics about achieving success and the frustrations, failures and victories inherent in the quest for notability.
"There are so many comedy podcasts out there," Hunt says. "But the thing I have no patience for is the bantering and bullshitting. I just want to get down to business, so when I hear a guest like Amy Poehler come on, I want to hear right away when she first felt like a comedian. Or when did she do this? When did she first feel legit? And I want to know about her deepest failures, and how she found her way up. ... I want the nitty gritty and I want it fast. So even though my podcast is only an hour, I want it to do all those things."
The Early Draft is as much an opportunity for Hunt to connect audiences to the creative process of a comedian as it is to connect audiences to his own work. "I want them as invested in the guest as they are in me trying to make myself into a comedian," he says.
Morris points out that listening to a podcast is intentional rather than casual, which makes the connection between the person speaking and the person listening that much more intimate.
"People make a conscious effort to listen to something on the Internet or to listen to a podcast," he says. "They decide they want to hear it and this is the absolute strength of the medium. You know that every single person listening to you has made a conscious decision to listen to you. They're not listening to you on accident. They've clicked on this thing, they've downloaded an app or they've gone searching for the words 'New Orleans,' and they want to listen to you."
How do I listen to a podcast?
Online: If you have an Internet connection, you can stream a podcast through its website or mobile site. Just go to the website and click the 'listen' button.
Offline: Download the Podcasts app in the iTunes Store (for Apple devices) or the Stitcher app from Google Play (for Android devices). Both will offer a way to browse existing podcasts by genre, or you can search for the podcast by name. Use the app to download the podcast and listen to it at your leisure.