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Podcasts Break Out: Audio Platform Goes Beyond the Headphones

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Podcasting is an immensely personal medium, with a host whispering directly in the listener's ear. Fans listen during their free moments, when folding laundry or running errands, each feeling like they're in their own private club. It's a surprise, then, that podcasting is breaking out into far larger and more social platforms.

That was the takeaway at the fourth annual Podcast Upfront, sponsored by the IAB, which took place today in New York City. Podcasts are going on tour and bringing followers together from coast-to-coast. They're evolving into TV shows. And one is joining with top music acts to create an album of songs (about our 27 constitutional amendments).

To be sure, the basics of podcasting haven't changed. News and true crime are still the dominant genres. Look for even more imitators of "The Daily" and "Serial" to debut in the near future. There will also be plenty of new health, science, history, and medical podcasts coming up. Nonfiction narrative storytelling is clearly what clicks with audiences.

But podcasting has been building an audience for over a decade, and has reached a breakout stage where the download is just the beginning. This year's Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in June set the scene for the Podcast Upfront, as Apple revealed its podcast platform has over 555,000 active programs. The HowStuffWorks podcast "Stuff You Should Know" was the first to reach 500 million downloads.

With those kinds of numbers, it's no surprise that podcasts are branching into other mediums.

"You're starting to hear in our industry that podcasts are the new script," said Conal Byrne, president of HowStuffWorks. His company's "Atlanta Monster" series about a serial killer did so well (with 30 million downloads) that the show's second season—called "Monster: The Zodiac Killer"—will premiere exclusively on the iHeartRadio broadcast network in January 2019, and then be distributed through the iHeartRadio Podcast Network..

The hosts of LGBT podcast "Nancy," created by public radio station WNYC, talked about how they expanded their show into a series of meet-ups designed to help people find a gaggle of fun friends. Also from WNYC, Jad Abumrad, host of "Radiolab" and "More Perfect," talked about "27: The Most Perfect Album" an spin-off project coming out later this month that presents one song inspired by each of the U.S. Constitution's 27 amendments. Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and  Devendra Banhart have contributing songs. To give the audience a taste, Abumrad brought out mariachi band Flor de Toloache to perform a song about the second amendment.

The "How I Built This" entrepreneurial podcast from NPR is creating ever larger community events, and recently sold out the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, where host and editorial director Guy Raz and his team will lead their first How I Built This Summit.

But while events are getting larger and fans more involved, podcasting is still a personal medium that gets its power from that one-to-one host to listener connection. That essential element can never change.

"We want to reach everybody at the gym and everybody taking a run at the morning," Raz said. Whenever he sees someone wearing headphones, he said, he wants to check if they're listening to his podcast.

Julia Turner (Editor in Chief of Slate), Chris Hayes (Host of "All in With Chris Hayes"), and Leon Neyfakh (Host of "Slow Burn") at the 2018 Podcast Upfront

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