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Ctrl + play: the podcasting revolution – and radio's response

Ctrl + play: the podcasting revolution – and radio's response

Radio adapts, switching from a live experience to one you can access anywhere, anytime  – all thanks to the Internet, smartphone apps and the new audio kid on the block: podcasting.

This is adapted from Episode 6 of Who Listens to the Radio? with writing and research by Patrick McIntyre and Ute Junker. Find it on our podcast hub or wherever you get your podcasts.

This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.

By Patrick McIntyre and Ute Junker

 

For decades, one of radio’s defining features was its impermanence. You listened to it, and then it was gone. That was part of what kept you tuning in – so you didn’t miss that next magic moment – although new technology started giving us ways to re-experience this live medium.  

NFSA curator Crispian Winsor says back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the solution was a clunky cassette recorder. 'A lot of people I know my age used to get a blank cassette and tape the songs we wanted off the right off the radio', he says. 

SXSW Sydney Head of Conference Fenella Kernebone can remember experiencing the same sensation, but behind the mic, while working on a show on Radio National. 'It would go to air for half an hour, and then it would just be gone', she says. 'It might end up online so someone could go back on later and stream, but you had to have your computer. You couldn't kind of take it with you.'

Not anymore.  

Digital technology has taken us into an era of instant gratification. You can access any audio you want, any time you want it. Aside from phone calls, messaging, Instagram updates, calculators and more, smartphones have also given us the world’s most extensive audio library. The digital revolution radically reshaped our audio culture. The days of ringing up a DJ to request our favourite songs are long gone. Instead, we log on to a streaming site and let an algorithm choose our soundtrack.  

So if video didn’t kill the radio star, could the algorithm? Well, it’s complicated. 
 

PODCASTS: Radio's Great Frenemy

In the 21st century, you can still listen to the radio over the enduring AM and FM bands, but you can also stream radio over the internet, or hear your favourite drivetime stars using radio’s great frenemy: the podcast. Podcasting as we know it kicked off in the early 2000s, and its popularity was fuelled by the advent of portable MP3 players like the iPod – the great-granddaughter of the transistor radio – launched in 2004, from which podcasting took its name.  

Serial is a game-changing podcast produced by influential American media non-profit NPR that debuted in 2014. It showcased the form's on-demand, episodic, more-ishness, and helped popularise a now-dominant narrative genre: true crime. Another global true crime hit is the Australian podcast Casefile. It was first recorded by an anonymous host in their spare room and has since charted in over 100 counties, with over 500 million downloads. 

 

Excerpt fromCasefile True Crime: Episode 1, The Wanda Beach Murders. NFSA title: 1560838

Everyone – from amateurs with a mic at home to multinational conglomerates – began jumping into podcasts and releasing in a variety of genres and forms, including drama (harking back to the golden days of radio plays). Some confidently predicted podcasts would be the death of radio. Of course, they’d said the same thing when television came along. And they were wrong this time, too. 

 

A chat between friends

Podcaster and oral historian Siobhan McHugh says while podcasting has impacted radio, the two go hand-in-hand. 'In one sense, I see podcasting and radio as absolute siblings. In terms of the way that radio has responded to podcasting, if you look at it historically at the beginning, it was just a big boost for established radio because they could amplify their listenership by time-shifting their original content.' 

Many early podcasts were more or less like taping things off the radio: if you missed live broadcasts, you could download and catch up on them later at your convenience. Soon, podcasts began competing with radio, but McHugh says, in some ways, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.  

'There is an actual podcast quality with its distinguishing characteristics. Podcasts have enhanced intimacy because most people listen to podcasts one-to-one in their ears through headphones. In contrast, radio was more of a collective, in-the-home activity or in the car – an almost communal space. Podcasting is also a curated space, so there isn't that flick-on-the-switch-and-find-out-what's-on. There's an opt-in choice of "What do I want to listen to?" The host in podcasting is absolutely front and centre in the success of podcasting and their relationship with listeners.' 

Scroll through your favourite podcast app, and you’ll find plenty of well-known hosts. For some, podcasts are part of their radio gig – like Richard Fidler’s Conversations on ABC Radio. Others, like Hamish and Andy, have left broadcast behind and now just do podcasts. And some use podcasts as a break from their serious day jobs.  

Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell were best known for their writing and acting work when their BuzzFeed Australia podcast Pretty for an Aboriginal launched in September 2017. Like community radio, podcasting gives people a platform to shine a light on topics not covered by the mainstream media. Because that’s also the beauty of podcasts – anyone with a recording device can make one. You don’t need to be famous or a media professional. As long as you know how to talk to your audience, there may be a spot for you in people’s feeds.  

 

Season 1 trailer for Pretty for an Aboriginal podcast featuring Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell, 2017. NFSA title: 1560612

Many of these podcasts are what’s known as chatcasts or chumcasts. The idea is that you’re eavesdropping on a chat between friends – not unlike one of radio’s favourite formats, those banter-heavy morning and drivetime shows. As writer and commentator Benjamin Law says, there’s also long-form storytelling, with serial narratives and live investigations playing out. 

'Radio has found this interesting marriage between entertainment and education and edification. For a long time, radio needed to be very, very serious, or it was completely frivolous. And a lot of the stuff I listen to gets you in with a really good narrative hook that's fun to bring in the Trojan horse of something much more serious.'  

'Stuff that TV and writing has done for a long time, we're seeing that in radio now. So, as someone who comes from a writing and now screenwriting background, what I'm excited about radio is it pushing storytelling in general. It's not just news and music, as important as those two things are – it's about Australian stories. I'm looking forward to seeing what Australian stories are platformed next.'

And while listening to podcasts is usually solitary, charismatic hosts can inspire the audience to create their own community. Like Serial, audio becomes a cultural, collective event – listened to alone but discussed and processed with others.  

This can happen in water-cooler conversations, but McHugh says it's now more likely to happen online. 'Listeners are creating these peer-to-peer relationships via social media and building a sense of community around a podcast figure or a podcast show, which is taking it out of the hands of the production and institution that was behind, say, a radio program', she says. 

'They don't have any gatekeepers in podcasting, and that is one of the defining strengths of the medium, which, unfortunately, like all innovations, can also be abused. On the one hand, the great openness of podcasting and its accessibility to almost anyone to have a go at being a podcaster can be leveraged by people with malevolent intent from my point of view – people who want to use it to perpetrate bigotry or hate speech.' 

Kernebone says that the looseness of podcasts highlights radio’s dependability.  

'There is something to be said that national broadcasters and community radio go through stringent protocols as part of their licences to help people like myself know this is trustworthy information. I can listen to it. I can disagree with them sometimes, and I can go and find out who they are. So it's transparent, and there is an element of trust.' 

Podcasts are now one of the most pervasive forms of audio experience to spring from new digital technologies – and Australians are now among the most enthusiastic podcast listeners in the world – surpassing the Americans in 2021. But it took a while. Unlike our rapid take-up of radio in the 1920s and '30s, Australia was relatively slow to get digital. Not that we didn’t try. 

 

Audio on Demand

In the late 1990s, this new thing called the internet was opening up a world of possibilities, and there were a number of early internet pioneers in Australia, such as Net FM and Talk Australia. One of the first was BigFatRadio, cooked up by a couple of industry veterans: broadcaster Ian Rogerson and producer, executive and music industry legend Chris Gilbey. 

Their idea: to create a seamless audio experience via a dial-up modem. What could go wrong? Infrastructure – Gilbey says that’s what went wrong. 'There was virtually no broadband. There was a promise of broadband from Telstra and others. Back then, we were optimistic. We started putting together this idea in anticipation of being able to stream music', he says. But Big Fat Radio couldn’t – and didn’t – survive without adequate broadband. 

Around the same time, another short-lived start-up, Kgrind, promised video channels dedicated to everything from music to surfing to extreme sports. BigFat Radio and Kgrind are great examples of Australian innovation way ahead of their time – unfortunately, just too far ahead. Nowadays we essentially have our broadband issues sorted, and almost all media we consume is on digital platforms. Streaming is so dominant that the Top 40 sales charts now count streams as well as sales. 

And it’s not all about major music platforms like Spotify or Apple Music. Many people are discovering new tunes on video-sharing platforms like TikTok or YouTube. While still important, radio has lost its crown when it comes to making hits. In the UK in 2023, BBC1 ignored Kylie Minogue’s single, 'Padam Padam', even after it had topped the charts there. A million TikTok memes broke the song and put Kylie back on top. Targeted by outraged fans, BB1 eventually relented and added the song to its playlist. 

Nevertheless, radio has proven its resilience. A large percentage of Australians still tune into the radio – and it’s not just the oldies. More Australians aged between 12 and 34 listen to the radio each week than use TikTok. 

NFSA curators such as Johanna McMahon are busy capturing the changes in the medium for future generations. 'One of the first things we looked at as a way to preserve radio was using the podcast versions because they're more easily available. Like Hamish and Andy, for example', she says. 

'The limitation of that is that radio is a live broadcast medium, so podcasts don't cut it when it comes to preserving it. Podcasts are incredibly important and need to be preserved in their own right, but when we're thinking about preservation of radio, you need to be able to capture that live broadcast medium.' 

 

Excerpt from podcast Game Changers Episode 41: Radio. The Story of Hamish and Andy, 2017. NFSA title: 1520958

 

The Future of Radio

Throughout its 100 years in Australia, radio has both led change and adapted to it in a constant interplay of culture and technology. But the basic human urge to listen – to a story or music – has remained a constant. Whether through a big brown piece of furniture in a 1930s suburban lounge room or on your mobile phone, radio has survived. It’s there to connect you for the big moments and a quiet voice in your ear during your downtime.  

But can radio keep competing in a world addicted to images? 

Gilbey says radio’s ability to transport us guarantees its survival. 'Sound remains, in my view, a far more important and immersive aspect of our environment than vision. It's a medium that enables you to move out of your mind and into a bigger space without distracting you. That's out there', he says. 'The theatre of the mind is enabled by your ears.' 

McHugh agrees. 'Sound is the first sense we acquire in the womb and apparently the last to leave us when we die. We're often told we can hear the voice even when we can't respond. Even film people acknowledge the power of audio, the overriding power of audio. They can have all the beautiful visuals they want, but if the audio soundtrack is off, it won't work. It won't connect. Audio can still quieten a room and reach people in a place that no other medium can. That is its superpower and its secret power. And that will always endure because it's a primal connection.' 

For broadcasting icon Wendy Harmer, it’s the immediacy that’s radio’s greatest strength. 'When there's an earthquake, or when there's a fire, disaster or celebration, everyone is going to switch on the radio because they know that's where they'll find the most immediate up-to-date news', she says. 'That's where we will all gather. And I think that will happen for many years to come.' 

Law looks forward to radio becoming even more inclusive. 'It's going to be more diverse by diversity. I mean, we're going to hear from so many more people because radio has become incredibly democratic', he says. 'In the past decade alone, the podcasting revolution means that there are so many voices on air that we just wouldn't have caught otherwise: people from disability backgrounds, people from different parts of Australia. We're a unique multicultural country to an extent, but the fact that we have so many hundreds of languages spoken here and that at some part of the day, radio will broadcast in your mother tongue – that's extraordinarily important.' 

It isn’t just what we listen to that makes radio important. It’s how it makes us feel, according to Fulbright scholar Jo Palazuelos-Krukowski. 'It's what radio scholars call a "care medium". It makes us feel taken care of. Even when listening to horror radio, you feel like you’re being taken care of because the narrator’s always like, "Sit down, get comfortable, turn out your lights." The human voice is like an index of presence.' 

 

Excerpt from From the Embers, Episode 1: Radio Saves the Day, 2020. NFSA title: 1669880

So, who listens to the radio? We do. 

According to Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study, 79% of Australians listen every week – more than in the US, Canada and New Zealand.  

Why are we such a nation of audiophiles? Is it the good old tyranny of distance; the need to bridge the city/country divide? That may be a factor. Three in four Australians say that the radio is more important to them in summer: in backyards, on beaches and on the road, lazily keeping an ear on the cricket, the Hottest 100 and maybe a nearby bushfire threat.  

However, three-quarters of Australians think​​ radio and audio help build a sense of community. And it’s interesting to note that the Australian Podcast Ranker, put together by industry peak body CRA, shows nine of our top ten podcasts are Australian. This is striking when you compare it with our most popular movies at the box office and shows on TV and streaming services. 

Audio is a real-time medium. We can listen to what’s happening around us, while it's happening.  It’s a local medium – letting us tune in to neighbourhood traffic reports, supermarket specials, lovelorn neighbours, and angry voters. It’s the sound of us speaking amongst ourselves. And maybe that’s why we want that voice in our ear to talk in a familiar accent.  

And so, we keep on listening to the radio.