So who killed Hae Min Lee? Every Thursday, millions of people around the world find themselves asking that question. They are all following the latest programme from Sarah Koenig, the creator of This American Life, as she tries to solve the disappearance and subsequent murder of a high school student in Maryland. Tragic, gripping and very addictive Serial is the latest pop culture sensation to sweep the world and it is a podcast. In many ways Serial also epitomises the resurgence and the rising popularity of the podcast.
Podcast, as the name suggests, came into being at the turn of the century with the advent of the iPod. Described variously as on-demand radio or as verbal blogging, podcasts were usually clunky affairs that usually involved people talking about everything from news, politics and tech to sports and history. Some, like the Ricky Gervais show by the British comic went viral even as iPods grew in popularity. While at point it looked like iPod users could not get enough of podcasts, sometime in the second half of the last decade, the ardour cooled down and podcasts increasingly looked like they were going to be confined to a niche audience. This has been attributed to various factors the primary of which is the difficulty involved in downloading every weekly or daily episode into iTunes and then syncing it to the iPod via a USB cable.
Then the iPhone and the whole smartphone revolution happened. With the modern smartphones, it is easier than ever to download new episodes of any podcast. All the users need to do is search and find the podcast they are interested in, subscribe to it and the phone takes care of getting newest episodes as they appear.
This combined with increasingly longer commutes is fuelling a resurgence of the podcast. It is also helping that the podcasts are also getting better in every possible way. Over the years if makers of podcasts like This American Life have shown anything it is that one can bring quality production values to a podcast and money will follow automatically and podcasting can be a lucrative business because those production costs are very low.
Bangalore-based software engineer Ravi Shankar Katikreddi is one of those millions of fans that the Serial podcast has managed to attract over the past month and he says it is his first podcast. “I knew that there was something called a podcast but never tried it out,” says Katikreddi, adding, “It is only when my friends on Facebook started talking about Serial that I downloaded the first episode to try it out and wow, it was great.”
Not everyone is impressed. Rajya Lakshmi Gudavalli, a physics professor from Vijayawada, is one of them. “It is just like radio,” she says. But that could also be one of the biggest advantages for why podcasts are going mainstream. For one, they have the slick production values of a good radio show. But unlike radio they are available whenever and wherever you want. And the biggest appeal, podcasts about the most arcane topics that you will never find on a radio.
Like Katikreddi who is on the lookout for a podcast about ‘.NET Frameworks’ without much luck. “If I don’t find any I will make one myself,” he says. After all, all he needs is a smartphone to even make one.
Matham is a tech geek.
Follow him on Twitter @AdarshMatham