Podcasts: the internet’s take on radio drama

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Radio didn’t die, it evolved. The proliferation of mobile devices, especially the iPod, gave birth to the podcast (from “iPod” and “broadcast”): an audio program made available through the Internet. Like the radio shows of days past, it’s free, widely accessible and almost invariably runs in a series, gathering fans and lucrative advertising along the way. Unlike radio shows of the past, podcasts are about as unregulated as everything else on the Internet and cost virtually nothing to make, opening the door for niche subjects and styles that would have never made it in a cost-sensitive media market. Familiar subjects like news, political commentary and storytelling remain, however, making it difficult to not find a podcast to suit one’s particular interests.

Podcasts have been around for a while. The bones have existed since the 1990s when Internet radio was being brought about. But it wasn’t until 2004 that the hallmarks of the modern podcast—direct downloads and the ability to listen to individual episodes at any time—appeared with Adam Curry’s “Daily Source Code.” One could almost think of the podcast as being radio’s Netflix streaming, although the old-fashioned way of doing radio has survived through NPR and hit music stations.

But radio stations have taken notice of the new trend. NPR presents a lot of its content through podcasts, and one of their own, “Serial,” may be responsible for a recent surge in the audio-only medium. Presented by NPR veteran Sarah Koenig, “Serial” is similar to many late night true crime shows like “Dateline NBC.” A single story is told over several episodes as the mystery of it is slowly unraveled (or, as some critics assert, left ambiguous). Its first season, which of told the murder of Hae Min Lee and the now-controversial court case that followed, has been downloaded over 80 million times. By comparison, Game 7 of the 2016 World Series had 40 million Americans watching and President-elect Donald Trump received a little over 60 million votes.

Want to hop on the podcast train? As stated above, there’s a lot to choose from and it’s all free. All you need is Internet access and, in some cases, an app that provides it. Most can be found on Apple’s Podcast app or SoundCloud. If not, it may be available from the podcast’s website or a different app that the website points to. Besides “Serial,” here are a few other podcasts that are either noteworthy or on the forefront:

Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

While not technically a podcast, this NPR game show is published immediately after its weekly broadcast on several podcast apps like Podcasts, Stitcher, and the NPR app. Officially, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” is a news quiz show for callers and celebrity guests to partake in. Unofficially, it’s a hilarious riffraff hosted by Peter Sagal and a rotating panel of comedians. Topics range from American politics (“Donald Trump” was always an answer during the election) to the Indian Army mistaking planets for Chinese drones. It’s always hilarious, even after the election. While the show is broadcast by radio every Saturday morning, episodes are always available to listen to in podcast form.

How Did This Get Made?

If you’ve ever seen the FX sitcom The League, you’ll know about Dr. Andre Nowzick, the weird plastic surgeon who tries to be trendy but always ends up being awkward, and Raffi, the even weirder entrepreneur/partier with storylines that break the already fragile realism of the show. Regardless, the two actors—Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas—host a podcast along with Scheer’s wife, June Diane Raphael, about bad movies. An episode is released every two weeks, but between episodes, a “minisode” is released to preview the movie that will be discussed the following week. The podcast is almost entirely commentary and discussion of the films in question. It’s funny on its own, but the real joy of “How Did This Get Made?” comes from a shared experience with the hosts. Movies range from modern, laughable blockbusters like “Furious 7″ to ‘80s cheese like “Masters of the Universe” (which, if you aren’t aware, is about He-Man and pals getting stuck in New York).

War College

This is a must-listen for any political science/history/international relations majors and anyone remotely interested in international affairs and the military. It’s hosted by “Reuters” editor Jason Fields and Matthew Gault, a writer for the popular military politics blog War is Boring. “War College” will cover the obvious issues, like the mounting costs and issues of the F-35, but it’ll also bring on guests to pull issues out of left field like the case for disbanding the Air Force. One very memorable episode discussed how the relatively slow speed of evolution and relatively fast speed of human progress may explain why even non-combat veterans may have a hard time adjusting to the civilian world. Frequently, “War College” is controversial because it asks difficult questions and is willing to look at war and defense through as objective a lens as possible.

Welcome to the Night Vale

Radio dramas once ruled the airwaves, telling stories of fictional towns or cities through sound and sound alone. “Welcome to the Night Vale” is no different, but unlike “Gunsmoke” or “The Lone Ranger,” the story is unfolding today. Creator Joseph Fink devised a show similar to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.” Each episode features otherwise mundane news from a fictional town in the American Southwest where conspiracy theories are more than just theories. Like the legendary television drama “Law & Order,” each episode acts as a standalone story, but slow character development and an overarching plot develops for anyone who listens to every episode. The podcast itself has even spawned spinoff podcasts like “Alice Isn’t Dead“ and a novel.

Clearly, as stated above, the radio drama never died. It became a podcast.

Cover photo courtesy NPR.

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