The perfect millennial entertainment

Young people love podcasts. . . or do they?

The media loves a trend piece. I should know — I used to edit a section of a magazine which had a “trends” rubric that I used pretty much every week. Done well, such articles can be interesting and informative, especially if they are based on actual data as opposed to an editor’s unsubstantiated hunch that there is more of something than there used to be.

When it comes to podcast coverage, we see trend pieces quite often (sample trend: more people listen to podcasts now than they used to, don’t you know). Not quite as often as listicles, but there are still a fair few of them about. One of the most prevalent in the last couple of years, I feel, is the “millennials like podcasts more than everyone else” article. Here are a few variants. They’re usually based on one of the podcast listenership surveys, like Nielsen’s Podcast Insights, or similar. They are, usually, not very informative beyond what is in the research (which is often US-only, and limited in other ways that make me not super keen on it).

However, after seeing this trend repeated all over the place, I eventually got curious. I am satisfied that the available data shows that people aged 18-34 listen to more podcasts than those older than them, although I do think there are lots of explanations for this beyond “young people hate old tech and don’t feel loyal to the radio station they listened to during the war” — because if that’s true, why do we buy vinyl and donate to NPR/pay the BBC licence fee? No, what got me interested was the idea that young people like podcasts because they’re more likely to cover subjects they want to hear about, and which tend to be neglected by legacy outlets. (See last week’s letter on intimacy for some shows that do love/sex/romance in a way I’ve never heard on an established radio station.) It follows, too, that if their peers are the ones making the podcasts about the subjects they care about, millennials are more likely to tune in.

For the vast majority of today’s creative young people, the internet offers myriad opportunities for disseminating their work outside established networks. They might not always be able to get paid for it (brief pause here while the author laughs wryly), but blogs, web series, email newsletters, web comics and podcasts do give you a way distributing your work without having to convince a boss at a media company to give you permission. Over the years I’ve been interviewing people in the arts, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone 10-15 years older than me has said something like “if I was trying to do my first project now instead of back then, I definitely would have done it as a podcast rather than trying to pitch my weird quirky sitcom to anyone at BBC Radio 4 who would listen”.

Thinking about this recently reminded me of an interview I did about a year ago with Lauren Shippen, the US-based creator of the excellent fiction podcast The Bright Sessions. (The show is now being adapted into books and a TV show, and Lauren was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list this year — she is one of the smartest people I know of working on this stuff.) We were having a general “state of podcasting” chat, and she said she thought that podcasts were “the perfect millennial entertainment”.

Her reasoning? “We’re all really busy and we’re all multi-tasking constantly, and we always have our phones on us all the time. Certainly in LA, people are in their cars a lot, or people in different cities on public transportation, people are underground and they can’t watch Netflix on the train, and so they listen to podcasts. They download them before they get on the train or go on their commute or while they do their dishes, and it’s a way for this generation that’s being constantly fed media to be constantly entertained and escape into a world, a fictional world, while doing more mundane tasks like laundry or the commute, or cooking.”

I’m really attracted to this as an explanation for what we see in the age breakdown data. Podcasts, for all the contemporary buzz around them, are a relatively uncomplicated form of digital media — even I could probably code the right XML to create the feed for one if I watched enough tutorial videos — and while you can stream them, they’re really made to be downloaded and enjoyed while disconnected from the internet. They’re simultaneously a form of escapism from the constant drip of push notifications (especially shows like The Bright Sessions, which take you into a fascinating fictional world) and also a way of making sure you never have to be separated from some form of entertainment.

The way that Lauren came to create her show in the first place also I think goes a long way to explaining the popularity of the medium with her age group. She had been acting in LA for about two years, and was doing OK but it wasn’t really going the way she had hoped. “I had done the web series and the short films,” she said. “But I just kind of didn’t really have a strong next step.” The scripts she was being offered seemed stale and uninteresting to her. “A lot of what I was reading was just girl next door slash love interest for the male lead, slash something tragic happens to her to motivate the male lead into doing something type stuff,” she said.

She decided to take matters into her own hands (a very millennial response) and write something herself. The resulting scripts became the first series of The Bright Sessions — some of her friends took the other roles, and “it’s just been non stop since”. She did consider making it into a web series, but the expense involved and her lack of experience behind the camera put her off. At the same time, Lauren said, she was listening to a lot of Welcome to Night Vale and the BBC Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure, and she was convinced that a multi-actor fiction podcast could find an audience.

She was right. And I think she was right because she was making something she cared about, for people like her, without it being filtered through a studio commissioning process where focus group research about different demographics’ supposed preferences would shape the show’s direction. She was free to do what she wanted, and her listeners were too — which is why they stuck with her.

I recommend following Lauren on Twitter to keep up to date on her new projects

Send me your reckons

Do you have a podcast you’ve been listening to that you’re burning to recommend to someone? Tell me about it! I’ve set up an easy submission form here where you can do that. With your permission, I might even include your recommendation in a future edition of the newsletter.

The podcast reading list

  1. The Transgressive Appeal of the Comedy Murder PodcastNew York Times

  2. Betty Davies obituaryGuardian

  3. The Story of Combat Jack, Hip-Hop’s Flagship PodcasterVulture

  4. “Atlanta Monster”: In Pursuit of Justice and a Hit PodcastNew Yorker

  5. Listen closely: why Hollywood has become obsessed with podcastsGuardian