Given how many of them there are—and the enthusiastic fandoms they can inspire—it might surprise devoted listeners to learn that the number of Americans who regularly get their news from podcasts remains small relative to other platforms. However, overall podcast listening has increased over the past decade.
Moreover, according to a Pew Research Center report this spring, half of Americans have listened to at least one podcast in the past year. Particularly in the realm of true crime (bolstered by the success of hits like Dirty John and The Dropout), podcasts are now a significant enough part of the cultural conversation to have inspired spoofs and other references in TV and books. Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building centers on a podcast created by the show’s three primary characters, for example, while Rebecca Makkai’s suspenseful novel I Have Some Questions for You features a podcast that plays a role in investigating a decades-old killing.
These fictional depictions of podcasts may both bolster and diminish their credibility: A third of Americans say they trust podcasts more than they do news from other sources, but large numbers also say they blur reporting and opinion, Axios reported earlier this year.
The split is a significant one because podcasts are, in a great many cases, a form of journalism, with two-thirds of Americans listening to them in order to stay up to date on current events—so maintaining reporting standards is crucial.
“The content, whether it’s heavily researched, has a high production quality, and is deeply reported or is merely gossip, seems to be the same thing when you go to press ‘Play’—you can’t tell which is which,” observes Ellen Horne, director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute’s Podcasting and Audio Reportage concentration, which launches this fall. “And I think that is a challenge for the medium. It’s a reputational challenge, and I also think it's a technical challenge for distributors—to try to help audiences distinguish between the two. Which podcasts are interested in making sure that things are true and credible?”
NYU News spoke with her about podcasts’ role as a news source, what they could mean for the profession in the future, and why she appreciates both the accurate and fictional elements of Only Murders in the Building.
You’ve had a long career in audio journalism. Listeners may see no difference between traditional radio and podcasting. But, as a journalist, are there differences in how you produce content?
So let’s start with similarities. Technically, the skills are the same—particularly with radio. However, when you’re learning to write for radio, it’s all about thrift and efficiency, learning to speak incredibly clearly and with brief sentences because you might only have 90 seconds for a very complicated story. As a journalist, the medium of podcasting is a dream because you can take a story as far as your curiosity and the story itself will allow. That’s really the key distinction.
How does that play out in practice?
Radio reporters are often trying to get the shortest sound bites possible. But for podcasters and audio journalists you are really freed up to do long-form narrative journalism with a lot of depth and sensitivity. So you can do very long interviews, you can get to know your subjects, you can spend a lot of time understanding the context of something, and you can bring all of that knowledge to the audience.
I think one of the turning points in podcasting was the launch of This American Life’s Serial in 2014. This American Life and the reporters at Serial had this experiment to find out how much of their obsession would translate to something that the audience would be interested in. And they went into a lot of detail. I think the thing that really stood out to a lot of journalists at that time was the fact that audiences did want to know all of the details and get into a story with much greater depth—with details that are much closer to long-form magazine writing or long-form nonfiction writing. And so the opportunity of audio journalism is to make stories which are much more expansive and detailed than what you can do in traditional radio—and to tell those stories over many different episodes. The audience is frequently willing to listen to 15 or 20 episodes on a single story.
What does the entertainment industry get right—and wrong—in how it portrays crime-related podcasts?
What it gets right are the criticisms of these podcasts. Crime-related and true-crime podcasts pay attention to tragic stories—which are frequently very violent—as entertainment, and that can be problematic and damaging. It can be disrespectful to the victims and people who have direct involvement. I think Only Murders in the Building, a show which I'm a huge fan of, does a good job of making that critique.
On the other hand, this and other shows make invisible the labor that goes into the really well-made, deeply reported podcasts. I love the Only Murders in the Building scenes where the scoring is performed live, there’s no scripting, and the characters’ podcast emerges fully formed and is recorded live on tape. But this is never how it happens.
Some of your favorite podcasts, which sound like they are just two people talking, have been exhaustively reported and involve the work of many people, such as fact checkers and researchers. The people talking might be scripted, with an episode’s narration performed several times and edited. For instance, one moment in narration could be the result of many different recordings. I think it's very hard to convey the level of production that goes into a podcast that’s trying to seem like it’s fully natural, but frequently these are highly produced projects.
The podcast Your Own Backyard has been credited with reviving the case of a college student who went missing in the mid-1990s, resulting in a conviction earlier this year. Is this type of impact unique to podcasts or, rather, in line with advocacy journalism of the past? I’m thinking of the role Upton Sinclair had in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Journalism has always been a powerful tool to bring attention to problems that may seem insignificant, but are in fact worthy of attention and intervention. I don't think podcasting is unique in this. I think that podcasts, like many other forms of journalism, have the ability to shine a light in places where society needs to address problems.
That said, what’s unusual about that one podcast that you mention is that the journalist who started it was an audio engineer—someone without a lot of experience in journalism. And I think podcasting does have a reputation for a lot of these DIY projects—folks who are independent journalists or independent creators trying to ask questions and solve problems. That’s an opportunity for the medium, but it’s also a challenge and it’s something that listeners and news consumers need to be aware of.
Your Own Backyard seems to have been done very responsibly and with the consent and involvement of the victim’s family, and to have achieved a lot of success in terms of getting credible information out there. But that’s not always the case.
One of the opportunities of the new program that we’ve created at NYU is to provide folks who have an interest in podcasting and audio reporting with some of the tools of rigorous journalism. We offer ethical training and research training and the opportunity to study with people who have deep experience. In that context, what might be an intimidating personal project for a Lone Ranger solo journalist can become a well-supported research project for a student.
Has podcasting opened up the journalism profession to new types of skill sets—ones that may not have fit as well with traditional broadcast or print platforms? Or has it merely created more opportunities for long-standing reporting talent?
It absolutely has opened up new opportunities for journalism. Take, for example, Hrishikesh Hirway's Song Exploder, which breaks down the production of how your favorite songs are made. For music journalists to have podcasts as a way to really make their ideas embodied in sound is visceral and transformative. This is a new kind of music journalism and not possible in print. As we see podcasting grow, we will discover what other opportunities working with sound can provide.
I am fundamentally interested in the human voice and in an elevating voice. Literally giving someone the microphone is a different kind of amplifying voice than quoting someone in an article. And I think it’s that kind of journalism that traditional journalists, when they first get into working in the medium, become really attached to and overwhelmed by it and addicted to. It transforms the kind of journalism that's possible. For me, that's the most exciting part of it.