Illustration by: Ryan Olbrysh

The power of podcasting

A single bare bulb illuminates clothes on hangers, shoes tucked into corners and small foam panels, artfully arranged to dull the sound of traffic passing outside her Los Angeles apartment. Paola Mardo stands inside, door closed, speaking into a mic clipped to a stand. A recorder perched atop a folded stack of shirts monitors sound levels. Mardo begins reading her script from the iPhone she holds.

“I was 15 years old when I moved back to the U.S. and it was [pause] awkward,” Mardo says, introducing herself and her podcast, Long Distance, to a nascent group of listeners. 

Mardo, who earned a master’s degree in specialized journalism (the arts) in 2017, is a self-described “1.5 generation” Filipina. She was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Manila and Kuala Lumpur before moving back as a teen. In one of the early episodes of the podcast she began after she graduated, Mardo talks about what it was like coming to the United States. She remembers being in a history class and finding only a half-page dedicated to America’s occupation of the Philippines, whereas “in the Philippines, you’re taught so much about America.” According to Mardo, who was also a Sony Pictures Entertainment Fellow while at USC Annenberg, hers was a population that didn’t have a voice in mainstream media. This was her way of tapping into those stories. 

Colin Maclay, research professor of communication and co-host of the podcast How Do You Like It So Far?, believes that shows like Mardo’s demonstrate the powerful connections podcasts can form.

“Since anyone can create a podcast, it’s always possible to find your audience,” he said. “Success doesn’t mean finding 500,000 people. It could be finding 50 people. There’s this new medium and, finally, it can be meritocratic.”

USC Annenberg has always been on the front lines of teaching the theory and practice of emerging content delivery systems. Now, with podcasting cresting, the school’s faculty members are not only investigating the economic and cultural implications of podcasts, but becoming practitioners as well. Meanwhile, students and alumni are taking advantage of the storytelling, reporting and marketing skills learned in their classes to create their own podcast series. 

The early days

Maclay explains that he was working at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University when the new form emerged. 

“If you go back — way, way back — to 2003, there are two podcasts often credited with being the first ever,” he said. Maclay notes that while some believe the podcast originated with journalist Christopher Lydon at the Berkman Klein Center, others think it started with former MTV video jockey Adam Curry. But whoever pioneered the form, Maclay points out that then-Berkman Fellow Dave Winer developed the software that launched a listening revolution by transforming an RSS feed from text to an “enclosure,” which allows audio to be transmitted and received through devices capable of playing MP3 files. 

Carrie Poppy describes some of the first podcasts as “friends, usually two guys, documenting their friendship.” Poppy, who graduated with a master’s in journalism in 2015, started a podcast in 2011 with Ross Blocher called Oh No, Ross and Carrie. Today, the show garners about half a million downloads every month. Poppy still believes that podcasts, at their heart, are about friendship and familiarity. 

For the first decade or so of their existence, podcasts slowly grew in popularity. In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared “podcasting” its word of the year. In 2012, Apple added a new dedicated podcast app to the iPhone. By 2014, there were more than a billion podcast subscribers, setting the stage for what happened next.

Traditional radio shows such as This American Life started to turn out podcasts in 2014, coupling the journalistic approach of radio with the familiarity and casualness of podcasting that Poppy referenced. “Both worlds have something to offer each other,” Poppy said. “But I’d say the turning point for podcasting was Serial.”

Serial, which has been downloaded more than 300 million times, is a true-crime podcast created by This American Life, a weekly public radio show that has been around since 1995. Season one of Serial re-investigates the 1999 murder of an 18-year-old high school student by her ex-boyfriend. The boyfriend was convicted of the crime; over the 12-episode podcast, host Sarah Koenig sorts through all the documents and trial testimony, and even re-interviews people who knew the two students.

Serial made people realize that this kind of engaged storytelling could really pull them into something that they would want to keep listening to,” said Willa Seidenberg, a professor of professional practice who founded Annenberg Radio News in 2007.

George Lavender, vice president of content at Wondery, one of the largest podcast publishers in the United States, adds, “I think we’re only a fraction of the way into the exploration of this new medium. You’re seeing an explosion both in terms of content and the kinds of stories being told.”

The USC connection

By now, scores of USC Annenberg faculty and alumni have started their own podcasts. Seidenberg, who taught some of those alumni in her audio journalism class, knows that students need more than just technical aptitude to produce a podcast; they also need journalistic training.

“I think we recognize there are a lot of trends happening that we need to respond to,” Seidenberg said. “We might be sending our student out to jobs where they’re asking, ‘Hey, we want to start a podcast, you know about this?’ We want them to be able to say ‘yes.’”

Seidenberg and Lavender co-taught a new podcasting course in Spring 2019. “Telling stories in audio — where there are no visuals — encourages a certain kind of observational journalism that is a very useful strength,” Lavender said. “And I think that fundamentally is a good skill for journalists to have.” 

Poppy admits she came to journalism “sideways.” By the time she enrolled in graduate school, she had already been co-hosting and co-producing her podcast for four years. She was approached by a magazine editor who commissioned her to write a piece about her reporting adventures for their show, and realized she had “accidentally become a reporter.” In order to formalize her learning, she chose to go back to graduate school, applying only to USC. “For me, it was really just, ‘I want to be better at this.’ And I’m definitely better at it,” Poppy said.

Mardo also learned the skills necessary to craft a compelling story by taking radio journalism classes at USC Annenberg. “There is a lot of research and interviewing that goes into each podcast,” she said. “The journalism part of me always wants to make sure that I get all the points across.” 

Riding this wave of fervor for podcasting, USC Annenberg faculty partnered with USC Visions and Voices earlier this year to host a two-day conference on the “Power and Pleasure of Podcasting” to bring their podcasting expertise to the broader USC community. Henry Jenkins, University Professor of Communication and Journalism, moderated the sold-out kickoff event, likening the intimacy of listening to a podcast to someone “whispering in your ear.” 

On opening night, a diverse group of podcasters from across the country discussed their career paths and their shows. Melinna Bobadilla and Brenda Gonzalez from the podcast series Tamarindo went “live” from the event to their followers. “We like to say we are Latinx voices at the intersection of politics and pop culture,” Bobadilla announced. 

Day two was filled with workshops that covered the podcasting landscape, production basics and the business of podcasting. One of the presenters, Keri Hoffman from PRX, a leading audio media organization and early entrant into podcasting, asked the attendees to think of podcasts as audio-on-demand — wide-open and filled with possibilities. 

Listen up

These wide-open opportunities have led to broader entertainment implications for content creators and brands, who are starting to think of podcasts as a way to connect with consumers. Companies such as meal delivery service Blue Apron and beauty products retailer Sephora are now producing their own series to speak directly to potential customers. For McDonald’s, a podcast was created to help illuminate an incident that turned into a minor communication crisis.

Fred Cook, chairman of public relations firm Golin and director of the USC Center for Public Relations, offers an example of how Golin developed a three-episode podcast after a shortage of McDonald’s Szechuan sauce caused a marketing fiasco.

In the first episode of the cult cartoon series Rick and Morty’s third season, Rick ranted to his grandson Morty that his very existence depended upon the hope that he might acquire McDonald’s discontinued Szechuan sauce of the late ’90s. The joke fueled fans to create a social media campaign to convince McDonald’s to bring back the sauce. McDonald’s caught wind of the campaign, decided it was a great idea — but underestimated the crowds. The fast-food giant ran out of the sauce quickly, and people were angry, causing major disturbances at their restaurants across the country.

“Rather than sending out a press release or having a spokesperson on TV talking about why there was a shortage, we made a podcast with behind-the-scenes interviews,” Cook said. “It helped tell the story in a humorous way and was a different mechanism for delivering a message.”

While marketing firms seeking to build brand affinity are venturing into podcasting, Hollywood is taking advantage of podcasts’ reach and popularity as a trove for discovering series content. 

Both Dirty John and Homecoming, two series that are now on Bravo and Amazon, respectively, started as podcasts. Serial is now a four-part documentary on HBO. In February, two podcasting companies, Gimlet and Anchor, were purchased by Spotify for $340 million; in March, Spotify purchased crime content studio Parcast for an estimated $100 million. 

This potential for explosion worries Maclay. What if Apple, he asks, which has been “relatively benevolent” to this point, decides it wants to own podcasting? He believes these large-scale investments into the medium can alter the kinds of content and voices that will be heard. He wonders, “As big money pours in and search algorithms change, will you start seeing these novel and important voices effectively disappear?” 

However, Maclay still sees the accessibility of podcasting as having great potential in the United States and around the world — particularly in developing nations. In countries where media and journalism are centralized, censored, or both, podcasting, with its relatively low production and access costs, is a promising way to share critical narratives. 

“Amid dynamic change, we need to collectively reaffirm what we love about this medium and ensure that new entrants, technologies and business models support its long-term health, rather than crassly commercialize, claim value and otherwise undermine this powerful platform for human connection,” he said. 

In giving voice to one marginalized community, Mardo aims for a complex, nuanced approach to her storytelling.  

“A lot of the stories you hear in the mainstream media about our community are immigrant struggles or the drug trade, but I wanted to show that our community has layers,” she said.

One of the stories she produced was about a bar owned by three Filipina women; another highlights an undocumented couple who were high school sweethearts in the Philippines and then reconnected 40 years later on Facebook.

 “Right now, there’s no better time to be an independent producer in podcasting,” Mardo said. “Everyone wants to make a podcast, and if you can create something captivating enough for an audience to listen to while doing something else, whether that be driving to work, exercising, doing the laundry, then that’s a win. It’s like your podcast, the tape you’re using, the sound design, the narration, helps build the world you want to share.”


This piece was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of the USC Annenberg Magazine.