AU­DIO KILLED THE VIDEO STAR

Are pod­casts the new me­dia goldrush and why are so many of them about crime? Philip Matthews re­ports from the wild fron­tier of the au­dio re­nais­sance.

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Some­one whis­per­ing in your ear, speak­ing qui­etly, one-on-one. How is it that the old­est form of sto­ry­telling is also, some­how, the most con­tem­po­rary? Maybe it has some­thing to do with the abun­dance of noise and stim­u­la­tion out there. A sin­gle hu­man voice is an es­cape.

“The more fre­netic life be­comes, the more peo­ple are seeking in­quis­i­tive, in­ter­est­ing, com­pelling, con­ver­sa­tions,” says Aus­tralian pod­cast pro­ducer Kel­lie Rior­dan. “As hu­mans, that’s just core to how we are.”

Rior­dan’s ti­tle at the ABC is head of Au­dio Stu­dios. Her in­for­mal ti­tle is “pod­cast wran­gler”. That means she turns large pieces of ABC ra­dio into smaller, bite-sized chunks of accessible au­dio and com­mis­sions pod­cast pro­gram­ming.

“Two peo­ple talk­ing to each other is one of the old­est forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and that isn’t go­ing any­where,” she adds.

It might seem counter-in­tu­itive that in a time of mul­ti­me­dia bells and whis­tles, pod­casts should be boom­ing. What is this re­ally but old-fash­ioned ra­dio re­newed by the con­ve­nience of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, the ubiq­uity of smart phones and head­phones, as com­muters binge on sto­ries of mur­ders or sport or even sex ad­vice?

For Tim Watkin, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of pod­casts and series at RNZ, it is about con­flu­ence. Ev­ery­one is do­ing a bit of ev­ery­thing now. Ra­dio net­works pro­duce video. We watch movies on our phones. Me­dia com­pa­nies that print news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing this one, are launch­ing pod­casts.

RNZ’S re­brand­ing two years ago, from the more cum­ber­some Ra­dio New Zealand (and you might some­times find peo­ple who still in­sist on call­ing it the Na­tional Pro­gramme), was a sig­nal that the wire­less was just one of the pub­lic broad­caster’s func­tions.

Watkin, a jour­nal­ist, was ap­pointed a year ago to pro­duce new pod­casts and other series for RNZ. The broad­caster had tested the wa­ters with a suc­cess­ful series about age­ing called A Wrin­kle in Time, pre­sented by Noelle Mccarthy.

“It’s been a very ex­per­i­men­tal year,” says Watkin. Pod­cast­ing is still in its rel­a­tive in­fancy in New Zealand but pub­lic broad­cast­ers in the US, UK and Aus­tralia have led the new wave. The US show Se­rial in 2014 has been cred­ited with kick­start­ing the suc­cess of the medium, al­though it was nearly a decade old by then.

Part of Se­rial’s luck was launch­ing soon af­ter a sys­tem up­date placed Ap­ple’s pod­casts app on the home screen of its iphones. Sud­denly, ac­cess to a pod­cast was just two clicks away. Tech­nol­ogy was in­stru­men­tal in au­dio’s rev­o­lu­tion, as it has been for ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward in en­ter­tain­ment.

A multi-episode true-crime story, Se­rial be­came as big a hit as any block­buster film or book. Host Sarah Koenig’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the jail­ing of Bal­ti­more teenager Ad­nan Syed for stran­gling his high school girl­friend fol­lowed leads and al­lowed lis­ten­ers to take part in the de­tec­tive work. That the pod­cast didn’t present a con­clu­sion barely mat­tered as dis­cussing whether or not Syed was guilty be­came part of the pop-cul­ture con­ver­sa­tion.

Se­rial’s co-cre­ator, Julie Snyder, ex­pected to see a mod­est 300,000 down­loads; the first series notched up 175 mil­lion. The show was de­vel­oped for This Amer­i­can Life, the flag­ship mag­a­zine pro­gramme of Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio (NPR) in the US. Its suc­ces­sor on NPR, S-town, be­gan as a mur­der mys­tery be­fore mor­ph­ing into an ex­plo­ration of an ec­cen­tric loner from Alabama. It has had nearly 60 mil­lion down­loads so far.

The num­bers tell the story. In 2014, Ap­ple de­vices recorded 7 bil­lion pod­cast down­loads. In 2015, it rose to 8 bil­lion and in 2016 it soared to 10 bil­lion. There are now more than 350,000 ac­tive pod­casts in the world, with con­tent in more than 100 lan­guages, ac­cord­ing to Ap­ple fig­ures.

Due to the ease of en­try into the medium – a mi­cro­phone and a smart­phone are all you need – the va­ri­ety of pod­cast per­son­al­i­ties and sub­jects of­fer a range of al­ter­na­tives. For some, they re­place read­ing as a way of div­ing deeply into se­ri­ous top­ics. Dan Car­lin’s Hard­core His­tory and Mal­colm Glad­well’s Re­vi­sion­ist His­tory bring new per­spec­tives to im­por­tant events. Some of Car­lin’s “lec­tures” stretch to five hours, while Glad­well de­liv­ers in­for­ma­tion in a more con­ver­sa­tional style.

That said, one of the most pop­u­lar re­cent pod­casts in both Aus­tralia and New Zealand is the Bri­tish hit, My Dad Wrote a Porno. In it, TV writer and di­rec­tor Jamie Mor­ton re­cites chap­ters from his fa­ther’s erotic nov­els, which are then af­fec­tion­ately parsed by his mates James Cooper and Al­ice Levine. The sim­ple set-up high­lights pod­cast­ing’s ba­sic in­ti­macy.

But why this and why now? Se­rial caught the same wave of 21st-cen­tury binge watch­ing that saw peo­ple con­sum­ing box sets of Break­ing Bad or The Wire in one sit­ting. Watkin sup­ports the com­par­i­son.

“It’s the Net­flix of au­dio. That’s why it’s pop­u­lar at the moment. It fits into the new habits of me­dia con­sump­tion. Pod­cast­ing is an ac­tiv­ity you do while you do some­thing else.”

Com­mut­ing is one of those things, and the rel­a­tively short New Zealand com­mute is why Watkin tells his pod­cast mak­ers to aim for 30 minutes of au­dio, not the hour that is more cus­tom­ary in the US. RNZ’S pod­casts page of­fers a Net­flix-like range of choices. As in other mar­kets, pol­i­tics, his­tory and true crime are pop­u­lar. One of Watkin’s hits is The 9th Floor, which gave host Guyon Espiner the chance to ease into long-form in­ter­views with five of New Zealand’s for­mer prime min­is­ters. Watkin says it has been lis­tened to more than half a mil­lion times, even be­fore he counts the down­loads on pod­cast apps.

“I take all the pod­cast app met­rics with a grain of salt at the moment,” he ad­mits. “Ev­ery­one’s a lit­tle bit wary of the num­bers.”

But still, The 9th Floor hit num­ber one for sev­eral weeks on the New Zealand pod­cast charts that Ap­ple com­piles. The whim­si­cal his­tor­i­cal series Black Sheep, the pol­i­tics pod­cast Cau­cus, which Watkin hosts with Espiner and New­shub re­porter Lisa Owen, and the sex pod­cast Bang! have also topped the charts. Great Ideas and Healthy or Hoax have reached the top five, which in­di­cates the growth ar­eas of think­ing and life­style.

The seven episodes of Bang! have ranged from teens and sex to, well, the el­derly and sex. Was it hard to get this over the line at a re­spectable pub­lic broad­caster? Watkin laughs: “It was ac­tu­ally re­ally easy.” It helps, he says, that pre­sen­ter Melody

Thomas has the re­laxed, con­ver­sa­tional man­ner he looks for in pod­cast hosts.

“It is 10-20 per cent more in­ti­mate than your av­er­age bit of ra­dio. It’s not like having the TV on in the room or the ra­dio on in the car. You’re right in their head.” A true crime pod­cast is not far away. RNZ started on one but it fiz­zled out – “Certain peo­ple were in prison” – and Watkin turned down a chance to host the Black Hands pod­cast about the Bain fam­ily mur­ders that has been a big hit for Stuff. It wasn’t “our style”, he says, but “it’s great that it did so well be­cause it helps peo­ple dis­cover how good pod­casts are”.

Black Hands’ ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ka­mala Hay­man agrees: “I think Black Hands has cre­ated an au­di­ence for pod­casts that wasn’t there be­fore.”

Christchurch jour­nal­ist Martin van Bey­nen had writ­ten a book on the Bain case but a pub­lisher got cold feet. In the wake of Se­rial’s suc­cess, for­mer Press ed­i­tor Joanna Nor­ris sug­gested he con­vert it into a pod­cast. It was an ex­per­i­ment that paid off: the 11 episodes have been down­loaded nearly 3 mil­lion times, with around 1 mil­lion down­loads com­ing from over­seas lis­ten­ers who lacked prior knowl­edge of the case. Van Bey­nen has since be­come known as the “pod­fa­ther” of NZ crime.

“There seems to be an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for crime shows,” he agrees. “True crime is es­pe­cially good for pod­casts be­cause you can do the re­search with­out having lots of peo­ple on video.”

Stuff has two more pod­cast series com­ing and fresh ideas are be­ing con­sid­ered. Other me­dia com­pa­nies are also un­der­stood to have true crime pod­casts in var­i­ous stages of pro­duc­tion. Will there be any con­tro­ver­sial New Zealand mur­ders that have not been con­sid­ered by a would-be pod­caster?

Watkin gets ap­proached at least once a week by some­one with a pod­cast idea who wants to part­ner with RNZ, as “we’re prob­a­bly the go­rilla in this space for now”. There is a sense that the goldrush will re­ally

The case of Ad­nan Syed, left, be­came world-fa­mous af­ter the suc­cess of the Se­rial pod­cast.

Jour­nal­ist Martin van Bey­nen’s pod­cast on the Bain mur­ders has been down­loaded nearly 3 mil­lion times - he’s now called the “pod­fa­ther”. RNZ pod­cast­ers Guyon Espiner, left,

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