Decoding the Podaissance: Identifying Community Journalism Practices in Newsroom and Avocational Podcasts
By Marcus Funk
Scholars and journalists are fond of contrasting podcasting with terrestrial radio. The better comparison, however, is with traditional community journalism. This almost year-long qualitative analysis of newsroom and avocational podcasts adopt a predominate focus on specific niches and articulate traditional news values. This study argues that podcasters are better at articulating internal community with co-hosts and guests than external community with listeners and fans. For journalists, it offers suggestions for building community and embracing personal podcasting; for academics, it broadens the definition of community journalism and offers a more theoretical understanding of a booming medium.
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Last April, Economist writer K.S.C. declared 2016 “the year the podcast came of age.” (K.S.C., 2016). Aided by the proliferation of mobile technology, ultra-popular podcasts like Serial carved out household names alongside offbeat amateur productions like My Dad Wrote A Porno. Awareness of podcasting has more than doubled since 2006, and once-a-month listening jumped from 9% to 17% between 2008 and 2015 (Vogt, 2015). It climbed again to 21% in 2016, with 13% listening weekly. The same survey found that half of Americans older than 12 listen to some form of online radio (Research, 2016). Later, in September, the Neiman Journalism Lab made a dramatic declaration in a five-part series on the podcasting industry (Doctor, 2016): “How hot is podcasting? Stupid V.C. money hot” (para. 2).
Meanwhile, also in 2016, trust in mainstream news plunged to its lowest point in modern history (Ingram, 2016; Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel, & Shearer, 2016; Swift, 2016). So-called “fake news” became an epidemic on Facebook and Twitter (Barthel, Mitchell, & Holcomb, 2016; Borel, 2017; Isaac, 2016; Maheshwari, 2016) that weighed heavily on the presidential election and inspired at least one shooting at a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. (Sands, 2016; Siddiqui & Svrluga, 2016). Why did podcasting boom while traditional media floundered?
The answer may be in the community-based and immersive nature of podcasting. This analysis steps away from worn contrasts between podcasting and terrestrial radio (Berry, 2006; Bottomley, 2015; Cwynar, 2015; Menduni, 2007; Pérez, 2012). Instead, it argues the “relentlessly local” community newspaper (Lauterer, 2006) offers a more apt comparison and path forward. Community newspapers center their content around an immersive community and invite readers to share that community, and as a result they are faring relatively well financially.
That sense of community, of engagement and fellowship and devotion, is key to their successful brand. Podcasts may strike those same emotions—thus building immersive communities, which in turn could provide a media format which establishes trust and participation rather than alienation and disengagement.
When podcasts first debuted in 2001, they were digital audio files that could be streamed or downloaded through MP3 players and computers (K.S.C., 2016). On a technical level, podcasts have not evolved tremendously since; the biggest change is that they are now consumed primarily via smartphone applications, which enables listeners to listen during a morning commute or evening jog (Berry, 2015; K.S.C., 2016; MacDougall, 2011). Also essential is that podcasts are “timeshifted,” and can be saved or stored; live listening is never required, unlike traditional radio (McClung & Johnson, 2010).
Podcasting reached a breakout point in 2014 thanks largely to Serial, a popular true crime series from Chicago’s WBEZ public radio. It was originally a spinoff from This American Life, a flagship program of juggernaut National Public Radio; it soared to five million downloads in record time. Berry (2015) argues that Serial became a cultural phenomenon partly due to compelling journalism and engaging storytelling, but also as a confluence of circumstance: Innovations in technology, branding and social media made it relatable water cooler conversation.
What Serial did was offer a podcast that not only had mass appeal but also presented itself as a narrative in which the audience could engage with intellectually and emotionally. It did so at a time when technology made the experience simpler and where the success of podcasts such as 99% Invisible had primed the market. (Berry, 2015, p. 171)
Although there are exceptions noting the distance between conventional radio and podcasting (Pérez, 2012), the bulk of extant studies on podcasting identify overlap and incorporation with traditional terrestrial radio. One study in Canada indicates that podcasting is extending traditional radio and news media. The so-called “podcasting renaissance” sparked by Serial and other programs in 2014 were largely associated with major, mainstream media—not amateur or homemade products empowered by the democratic nature of the World Wide Web (Cwynar, 2015).
Similarly, Bottomley (2015) argued there is “little about podcasting that is truly new, when the full range of radio’s history and forms are taken into account” (p. 180). His analysis of Welcome to Night Vale, a fantasy horror program which borrows heavily from radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s, found that creative independent programming is statistically heavily outnumbered by podcasts recorded in professional newsrooms and media professionals. Even independent podcasts rely on traditional radio tropes and techniques. There is also evidence that the typically well-educated and affluent American podcast listener is not discouraged by advertising or promotions in podcasts (McClung & Johnson, 2010); they may even be inclined to support products which share their loyalty to the growing medium (K.S.C., 2016), which is a luxury rarely shared by traditional media.
Many podcasts are essentially using updated radio technology to shake off conventional restrictions and traditions. Audiences consider “podologues,” or science-focused podcasts, to be valuable sources of scientific information (Birch & Weitkamp, 2010), and comedian Paul Gilmartin used The Mental Illness Happy Hour to explore depression and anxiety on a deeply personal level (Meserko, 2014). Neither topic is particularly common on commercial radio, nor is the high degree of specificity and self-disclosure. A prolific network of African-American podcasters, known jokingly as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” draws frequent comparisons to traditional African-American social spaces like barbershops and churches. They feature language, topics and cultural tropes that would never appear on traditional radio (Florini, 2015).
On a deeper theoretical level, such podcasts contribute to research on “phenomenology,” the notion that reality is constructed through perception and consumption of mediated and real images and experiences (MacDougall, 2011; McLuhan, 1995). Podcasts cause synaesthesia, a holistic and immersive experience.
Many of the listeners of podcasted religious sermons, news magazines, political pundits, and music DJs participating in this study often described a kind of organic connection or an enveloping, even holistic, involvement as part of the experience. (MacDougall, 2011, pp. 716-717)
MacDougall (2011) implicitly raises two intriguing points. The first is troubling: The well-documented use of podcasting while driving clashes uncomfortably with the holistic experience of synaesthesia.
The second is more pertinent to this study. MacDougall’s (2011) immersive experience meshes with the well-documented informal, conversational nature of podcasts (Birch & Weitkamp, 2010; Florini, 2015; Meserko, 2014). That informality and self-disclosure reduces the distance between podcaster and audience. Could such informal immersion, such conversational dialogue, constitute a community?
Although personal and cultural connections to podcast and their topics are well documented, those associations are rarely considered extant community. Could avocational or amateur podcasts be considered journalism? And if so, could they constitute community journalism?
Answering those questions taps the core question of journalism academe: What is “news?” How do you define “news?” The simplest explanation has deep scholarly roots (Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Gans, 1979; Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1973): News is deviance, or items or events which clash with the standard routines of average readers and thus threaten their physical safety or societal status quo (Arpan & Tuzunkan, 2011; Funk, 2016; Jong Hyuk, 2008; Shoemaker, Chang, & Brendlinger, 1987; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). The concept is not dissimilar from popular discussions of anxiety and worrying (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010), and is anchored in a primitive biological need to be informed of potential threats (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009).
People routinely survey their environments for things that are deviant or unusual because they pose potential threats. These can be as common as a car darting in front of someone on a busy street to less frequent threats like invading armies. … Journalists fulfill people’s innate desire to detect threats in the environment, keep informed about the world, and devise methods of dealing with those threats, whether real or potential. (Shoemaker, 1996, p. 32)
That deviance is typically articulated through news factors, which stem from a pivotal study of Norwegian newspaper coverage of foreign conflict. Galtung and Ruge (1965) identified 12 “news factors” that served as catalysts for coverage: frequency, threshold, unambiguity, meaningfulness, consonance, unexpectedness, continuity, composition, reference to elite nations, reference to elite people, reference to persons, and reference to something negative. The more such factors were extant, the more likely an event or idea would achieve news coverage.
Although the particular factors vary a bit, that basic thesis has been replicated many times: News can be boiled down to discreet factors, and the presence of such factors motivates and accelerates coverage (Bridges & Bridges, 1997; Harcup & O’Neill, 2001; Joye, 2010; Kepplinger & Ehmig, 2006; Lewis & Cushion, 2009; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). The simplest expression of such factors emphasizes diverse conflict and prominence, also known as celebrity (Funk, 2016); this study adopts that focus.
Traditional research into community journalism has focused on small, hyper-local, rural and suburban American newspapers. Such newspapers are famous for covering community happenings and garden club events, particularly when they involve “oddly shaped vegetables” (Lauterer, 2006, p. 3). Readers have a ritualistic attachment to them based upon the newspapers’ physical and emotional presence in the community (Wotanis, 2012). Community newspapers are willing and able to cover logistical worries and essential concerns after a natural disaster (Dill & Wu, 2009; Hansen & Hansen, 2012), and a community-oriented approach may offer a blueprint for the future of journalism in the United States (Terry, 2011) and China (Lauterer, 2012). Immersion in local communities is so ingrained in community newspapers that female newspaper editors in traditionally underdeveloped West Virginia found that earning “insider” status in isolated and entrenched communities was more difficult than overcoming sexist stereotypes about women in the workplace (Nelson, Britten, & Troilo, 2015). Local terrestrial radio in Honduras and Armenian newspapers in Lebanon also serve clear community journalism and community building functions (Reader et al., 2015), as does an English-language newspaper for American expatriates in Costa Rica (Spencer, 2013).
However, conventional wisdom oversimplifies “community” as a specific physical place. In truth, community has little to do with physical location and everything to do with imagined emotional bonds and connections. Anderson (2006) argued that media construct community through ideological and linguistic repetition. By emphasizing particular ideas and identities, and their connections to a specific physical location, the media effectively fuse them together. He went further: Outside of nuclear family ties, very few of our identities and connections are organic. Most of our identities are shaped by modern media, as are our perceptions of physical places and the ruling elite (Anderson, 2006).
Physical location is not a requirement for community, particularly in the digital age. Online communities have evolved around national anthems posted to YouTube (White, 2015), news-oriented media in digital worlds like Second Life (Brennen & dela Cerna, 2010), and traditional community newspapers have embraced the web to reach young professionals who moved away after high school (Hansen, 2007). Interpretive communities emerged on Twitter surrounding professional coverage of the 2012 American presidential elections (Mourão, 2015); Twitter also supports Cymraeg communities, primarily of young bilingual Welsh reading and writing an old and vulnerable language (Jones, Cunliffe, & Honeycutt, 2013).
This study investigates potential overlap between podcasting and community journalism. It also studies community journalism conventions among both newsroom and avocational podcasts.
RQ1: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a narrow, niche focus on their subject matter?
RQ2: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate community with listeners or supporters?
RQ3: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate community with hosts, co-hosts and guests?
RQ4: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a focus on timeliness?
RQ5: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a focus on conflict?
RQ6: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a focus on celebrity?
This study explores potential overlap between podcasting and traditional community journalism principles. It also compares newsroom and avocational podcasts on a variety of subjects.
From February 2016 to January 2017, 12 podcasts were analyzed. (In one instance, a 2015 episode was mentioned in 2016 and added to the analysis.) All were secured through the Stitcher application on an android smartphone. Most were heard during the researcher’s commute to and from work, but a few were studied during jogs or airplane travel. The researcher kept a notebook in his car to log reflections and recorded a series of audio notes on a smartphone while driving; this kept the discourse fresh and secure, and empowered an almost year-long analysis.
Three criteria (in no particular order) were used to determine eligibility. First, the researcher wanted a balance between podcasts by professional journalists and those recorded by hobbyists and enthusiasts. Half the podcasts were hosted by conventional journalists, including FiveThirtyEight’s Elections podcast, WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money, and Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode. The others were hosted by individuals with no affiliation to a newsroom or journalism environment. Level of professionalism was not considered. An amateur podcaster discussing movies in his home is no more a professional journalist than Dan Savage, a relationship guru with a national following; although the term “hobbyist” seems appropriate for the former and belittling to the latter, they are grouped together because neither are conventional journalists. The term “avocational” seemed the best fit.
Second, an attempt was made to study a range of podcasting genres and subjects. The 12 podcasts for this analysis, therefore, covered a range of subjects from technology news, dating and relationships, video games, mortality and personal finance.
Third, gender balance was a priority. Half the podcasts in this study are hosted by women, and a few others include female co-hosts.
The researcher rotated between podcasts throughout the analysis, partly to space out the episodes of individual podcasts and partly to prevent burnout. Typically, the most recent episode of one podcast was analyzed before moving on to the next podcast, and so on, until all 12 had been studied and the cycle reset. The analysis was holistic and qualitative.
Once a particular podcast began repeating answers to the research questions, study of that podcast was considered complete. Typically, that occurred after between three and eight episodes. This strategy originated with qualitative interview scholarship, which argues that interviews should be conducted until new participants cease providing new information (Coleman, 2007; Fontana & Frey, 2005; Roulston, 2010; Stewart & William B. Cash, 2000); that precedent seemed applicable to podcasting, and preferable to improvisation.
The full list of podcasts and associated links can be found in Appendix 1.
Generally, all podcasts maintained a predominate focus on their niche topics. Both journalist and avocational podcasters were better at building internal community than external community; additionally, avocational podcasters curated external community better than most journalists, and developed internal community better than most journalists. All podcasts utilized traditional news factors of timeliness, conflict and celebrity.
RQ1: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a narrow, niche focus on their subject matter?
In response to RQ1, for both newsroom and avocational podcasts, the answer is a resounding yes. Journalists retained an overwhelming focus on their topics of choice and rarely strayed; so, too, did avocational podcasters discussing topics other than journalism and the news.
The only real exceptions were deviations into the pasts and personal lives of the podcast hosts, guests, callers or audience members. Sometimes those detours meshed with the topic at hand; sometimes, the hosts became completely sidetracked.
The central pillar of community journalism is a “relentless” focus on the local community (Lauterer, 2006). As Anderson (2006) noted, though, community is imagined and not necessarily rooted in physical place. For an online social media like podcasting, community and niche are effectively the same concept.
RQ2: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate community with listeners or supporters?
In response to RQ2, podcasters articulated community with listeners and supporters in three general ways. They read feedback on the air, typically from emails or tweets; they broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to their audience, often encouraging them to contact them with feedback or ideas; or, they spoke directly with an audience member who either called in to the show or was invited for a sit-down interview with the hosts.
Those conversations can be considered external community: Community built between podcast hosts and external listeners.
Communicating directly with ordinary audience members was a lukewarm priority for most journalist podcasters. Often, listener feedback was mostly absent; Recode Decode, Voice of San Diego and Houston Sports Talk infrequently included listener feedback. When audiences were given a voice, it was typically broadcast at the tail end of the show; FiveThirtyEight’s Elections Podcast and Stuff Mom Never Told You read questions and feedback in the closing moments of a podcast. Most journalist podcasters did not outright avoid direct communication with listeners, but they also did not embrace the practice.
The lone exception among the newsroom podcasts was Death, Sex & Money, which offered tremendous personal interaction with audience members. The most vivid example was the episode entitled “Why you’re not having sex,” which included a large collection of testimonials from ordinary listeners describing voluntary or circumstantial abstinence (Bishop, 2015). Other episodes used the same format.
Journalist podcasters were better about acknowledging dialogue with audiences. The Elections Podcast struggled with a term for “clickers,” or online-only polls with extremely low reliability favored by Donald Trump following the presidential debates; they encouraged their audience to submit better terms for the concept (Druke, 2016a). The hosts of Stuff Mom Never Told You mentioned publishing the cover of the book “Feminist Fight Club” on their social media platforms, mentioning listeners may be familiar with the book thanks to the earlier social media conversation (Conger & Ervin, 2016a). Discussion of Twitter and social media is particularly common on Recode Decode, and its host and guests frequently referenced technology titans like Mark (Zuckerberg) or Peter (Theil) by their first names, which helps craft familiarity and community between listeners, host and entrepreneurs.
It’s certainly plausible that encouraging social media use goes hand-in-hand with encouraging social media conversation; however, even providing social media contact information during a podcast was surprisingly uncommon among journalists.
Journalists were much better about inviting discussion from guests and interview subjects. In most cases, however, those guests and interviews could hardly be considered average listeners. Death, Sex & Money and Recode Decode both predominately favor interview formats, but the guests were often famous actors or writers (for the former) and tech entrepreneurs (for the latter). On the one hand, that does constitute interaction with a listener; on the other, journalists exert tremendous authority over who receives an invitation, and they are never chosen simply because they are an interested listener. Houston Sports Talk also interviews a rotating cast of guests—but they are almost always other sports journalists in the Houston area, effectively helping the host broadcast journalism rather than conduct sincere communication with the audience.
Avocational podcasters, on the whole, were better at facilitating communication with audiences. The most vibrant example is the Savage Lovecast, which anchors the bulk of its show around questions from, and conversations with, ordinary listeners and sex or relationship topics of their choosing. Ask Me Another, an NPR game show, centers itself around dialogue and participation from enthused audience members. The Video Games Show acknowledges social media conversations more openly than many podcasts, even when letters or feedback are not read explicitly; one episode even featured a shout out to “Josh, who is a listener,” and a personal story about a clumsy father spilling tequila on a PlayStation 3 (Bergin, Gurley & Friedel, 2016).
Invited guests on some podcasts follow a similar pattern: While those guests were pulled from the audience, podcast hosts control who receives an invitation. Typically guests on Words and Money and Your Stupid Minds were introduced thanks to their relationship with either the subject matter under discussion or their relationship with the routine hosts; their status as an ordinary audience member was rarely, if ever, a factor.
Too, avocational podcasters mentioned their social media presence periodically, but not as routinely as expected.
RQ3: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate community with hosts, co-hosts and guests?
In response to RQ3, newsroom and avocational podcasters were both much better at establishing rapport and familiarity, and thus community, with co-hosts and guests. Typically, that familiarity was established two ways: Through chipper and sincere conversation, which occurred throughout, and through disclosure of personal thoughts, feelings, anecdotes and narratives.
Such conversations can be called internal community: Community built internally among podcasts hosts, co-hosts and guests.
Across the board, journalists did not adopt objective or sober attitudes during podcasts. Although objectivity is considered paramount in news writing, that standard would likely feel stilted and robotic during a podcast; it would involve scrubbing emotion and pitch from every word, which would be exhausting and unnatural. Every journalist studied here reflected clear personality and obvious moods during every episode. Even when their language and word choice were objective, their tone was personable and distinct—which contributes to podcasting synaesthesia, even if the words themselves met traditional standards of objectivity.
Personal disclosures were not tremendously common among journalist podcasters. They were extant, however, particularly when they deviated from the topic at hand. Journalists were willing to “go there” about their personal lives, or topics unrelated to their news or careers; they were considerably less willing to show their opinions, histories or personalities concerning the news or primary subject matter. It was almost like an on/off switch—journalists could be people when they switched off the news for a moment or two, but reverted back to opinion-less professionals when the news switch was again flipped on.
Strong examples include the Elections hosts playfully debating who was the more “pathetic” weekend workaholic (Druke, 2016b) or Nate Silver admitting he wrongly pronounced it “Kayne West” instead of “Kanye,” (Druke, 2016a); Kara Swisher acknowledging that she tweeted a great deal about Donald Trump, and arguing it fit her niche as a tech journalist (Swisher, 2016); a co-host on Stuff Mom Never Told You gleefully celebrating having seen a movie that her co-host had not watched, which she said was a rare occurrence (Conger & Ervin, 2016b); and the Houston Sports Talk host and a guest getting totally distracted by movies, particularly Sully and Hell or High Water, after discussing the Houston Rockets professionally and at length (Land & Seal, 2016).
Rarely did a journalist podcaster “go there” in regards to their journalistic subject matter; when they did, however, the disclosure was often deeply personal. The strongest example came on Death, Sex & Money, when the producer stepped in mid-podcast to declare that host Anna Sale was home in Wyoming after delivering a “brand new baby girl.” Sale was glowing, audibly and obviously, when discussing her daughter. Admittedly, the subject matter for Death, Sex & Money is deliberately broad and emotional, but even so, the host’s deeply personal disclosures and discussions fit the journalism. Too, they together explained how many episodes had been pre-recorded in the spring in anticipation of her maternity leave (Bishop 2016).
Another strong example was during a Stuff Mom Never Told You discussion of the “sharing economy,” or applications which allow people to outsource tasks like driving or housekeeping. (Uber is a good example.) One co-host admitted that she’d discussed sharing and outsourcing in therapy, including related emotions of trust and guilt surrounding housekeeping (Conger & Ervin, 2016c). Too, the hosts of Voice of San Diego Podcast half-jokingly confessed to originally coining the much maligned term “convadium” regarding the San Diego Chargers’ controversial plans for a combination convention center and stadium (Lewis & Keatts, 2016).
Avocational podcasters also maintained deeply personable and personalized tones and attitudes throughout each recording. Their tones and attitudes were intrinsically linked to the conversations at hand, both on-topic and off; this contributes powerfully to synaesthesia, just as it does with newsroom podcasts.
Avocational podcasters were generally more willing to embrace personal disclosures and anecdotes than journalists—particularly concerning the subject matter and discussion at hand. Although avocational hosts did periodically get distracted by personal sidebars, just as journalists did, there was no reluctance to express personal feelings or opinions about hosts, guests or the podcast’s central subject. Many of those feelings were deeply personal; others were topical, but still personal and informative.
On Your Stupid Minds, regular hosts excitedly trumpeted the arrival of guest host “Kaitlyn ‘Nick’s sister’ Nobel, a devoted fan of the podcast and resident Toyota Previa expert” (Dobson & Nobel, 2016). The Savage Lovecast was riddled with personal disclosures, including topical confessions like Dan Savage’s dislike of eggplant (Savage, 2016) or frequent and deep discussions of his own marriage and sexuality. Other vibrantly personal discussions included a conversation about millennial women embracing money as an empowering tool to “lead the life you want to live;” the episode of Words + Money also included the not-so-emotional revelation that host Tess Wicks is a “spa girl” (Wicks, 2016). A remarkably candid and personal discussion about bathing suits and reconstructed breasts, as well as personal confessions about an “adult summer camp,” populated The Shepod (King & Tenenbein, 2016).
Generally, there was little distance between the avocational host’s personal disclosures and the subject matter at hand. Avocational podcasters were unhesitant about “going there,” so to speak, and covered a great deal of personal ground.
RQ4: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a focus on timeliness?
In response to RQ4, the FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast remained judiciously current concerning polling and political events, just as Houston Sports Talk and Voice of San Diego discussed current events, upcoming elections and games, and recent happenings in Houston and San Diego. Not every podcast episode was directly fused with a recent happening, but each was clearly cognizant of current events.
Generally, avocational podcasters retained a similar focus on current events. Even when discussing old and atrocious movies, Your Stupid Minds mentioned recent movie screening and the Shepod regularly centered around lengthy discussions of what co-hosts were watching, eating and wearing that particular week. Such discussion was not journalistic and occasionally incidental, but that focus on the here and now did ground the podcast in a particular time and place.
RQ5: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a focus on conflict?
In response to RQ5, conflict is a critical part of all journalism (Funk, 2016; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009) and these podcasts were no exception. The presidential election was an omnipresent subject on the Elections Podcast, a regular topic on Voice of San Diego and an occasional subject on Stuff Mom Never Told You and Recode Decode. Other topics included heroin abuse in rural America and sexuality biases in romantic comedies on Stuff Mom Never Told You, the omnipresent challenges facing the Houston Texans on Houston Sports Talk and diverse personal challenges with mortality, sexuality, frugality and honesty on Death, Sex & Money. Conflict was never absent from newsroom podcasts, although it was not confined to elections or other traditional front-page subjects.
Conflict was a driving force for avocational podcasts, too. The Video Games Show discussed new releases and competing ideas in the retro gaming world, Words and Money centered on financial empowerment and achievement, and Your Stupid Minds savaged lousy movies from the 1980s and 1990s. Other avocational podcasts followed suit in their own niches.
RQ6: How do newsroom and avocational podcasters articulate a focus on celebrity?
In response to RQ6, celebrity, also known as prominence, is relative to a media outlet’s subject matter. It can apply to individuals, institutions, or events (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). Newsroom podcasts included celebrity in every episode. The most salient examples were tech executives like Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg in Recode Decode; Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the Elections Podcast; local elections, particularly a controversial ballot measure surrounding a new venue for the Chargers, in Voice of San Diego; and discussions on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and “mansplaining” in Stuff Mom Never Told You.
Avocational podcasters, too, focused on celebrity. The Savage Lovecast discussed presidential politics and candidates at length, along with other hot-button relationship topics like open relationships and domestic abuse; Ask Me Another routinely included “very important puzzlers” in its lineup, typically actors and entertainment figures promoting new shows or films; and The Video Games Show covered prominent big-budget video games and platforms, including Destiny and the Nintendo 3DS.
Podcasting sits at an odd crossroads in 2017. On the one hand, popular faith in mainstream media is in stark decline, and social media have become highways for fake news and hyperbole. On the other hand, podcasts are becoming more popular by leaps and bounds; much of that boost is due to mobile technology and the accessible combination of podcasts, smartphones and workplace commutes. That intersection is not a coincidence.
Journalist and avocational podcasts follow the same principles as traditional community journalism. They are rooted in a particular niche, they articulate multiple forms of community and are focused on traditional news values of timeliness, conflict and celebrity. Those values, particularly the focus on community building, define podcasting’s ascent and offer a blueprint for rebuilding trust in mainstream media.
Too, the notion of synaesthesia implies that audiences may be more willing to trust a journalist’s voice than their writing. In turn, they are more likely to build a common community around an audio recording than a written article, or a tweet or Facebook post.
First, it is noteworthy that journalism and avocational podcasters were generally better at building internal community (with co-hosts and guests) than external community (with listeners and average audience members). It’s also worth noting that avocational podcasters were more willing than journalists to develop external community, and more thoroughly embraced self-disclosure and internal community. Reading listener emails or responding directly to audience members was not necessarily avoided, but priority was clearly given to routine journalism coverage and internal conversations among hosts.
Opening new avenues for external community seems a clear and direct method of building larger communities and growing audiences. Renovating existing podcast formats to increase audience feedback, though, risks watering down the discussion that attracts listeners in the first place.
The solution may be to introduce a second episode format devoted solely to audience feedback and engagement. Leave current podcasts unchanged, but once a week or once a month assemble podcast hosts to dive in to listener emails, Tweets and Facebook posts. Episode formats could be labelled to avoid confusion between the regular show and question and answer sessions, and the formats could be customized to reflect the podcast’s particular niche. This would help audiences feel invested in the podcast, thus further building community, without forcing hosts to choose between their content and audience feedback.
It would also likely not require tremendous preparation—simply show up and respond to feedback, professionally and personally.
Second, while an abstract concept, synaesthesia offers a great deal to traditional journalists. Ultimately, the majority of social media posts and circulated news relies upon the written word. If trust in written journalism is in decline, then why not invest heartily in audio journalism? Too, if audiences subconsciously trust spoken words more than written ones, why not exploit that bias? Even a modest podcast could build faith in a particular product, or journalism in general, among increasingly jaded audiences.
Third, a reconsideration of personal disclosure in newsroom podcasts seems warranted. Hesitation is reasonable; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and traditional objectivity is a cornerstone of American journalism. However, personal disclosures and personable discussion seem an important part of modern podcasting, and journalists are already peppering them into their broadcasts. Journalists could take them farther, and use them more frequently, without jeopardizing their professionalism.
There is certainly a limit to appropriate personal conversation in a newsroom podcast; however, that limit is farther from current practice than most journalists believe. Journalists have more permission to be personable than they realize—more opportunities to be people on their news podcasts, and fewer expectations that they be strictly journalists.
This article speaks to distinctions between media form and media function. A frequent academic temptation is to compare media vertically by format; podcasting is frequently compared to traditional terrestrial radio, for example. This tendency, while valuable, can overlook more pertinent horizontal similarities between mediums. This study argues that podcast’s niche focus and highly personal content more closely resemble community newspapers than terrestrial radio. That comparison is academically valuable for several reasons.
It speaks holistically to the nature of podcasting, which is intrinsically rooted in community building. This analysis also furthers the growth of community journalism scholarship into niche areas beyond traditional rural and suburban newspapers.
Podcasts also cannot be easily separated by topic. Journalist and avocational podcast hosts both routinely emphasized primary news factors: Timeliness, conflict and celebrity were centerpieces of every recording, as was a specialized focus on each particular topic. This helps answer the $64,000 questions of the journalism academe: What is “news?” How do you define “news?” If avocational podcasters follow the same tropes and practices as hardened journalists, then the definition of journalism merits re-exploration. Ultimately these findings demonstrate the breadth and ubiquitousness of those news values, which helps the academy understand their importance to the journalism industry and communication in general.
This study argues that the growth in podcasts is due to their community journalism-esque approach to building a community of listeners; it also argues that the audio nature of podcasts contributes to synaesthesia, which may amplify feelings of immersion and community.
Audiences and podcasters both deserve a role in this conversation. Qualitative analysis can construct the paradigm for that discussion, but surveys or interviews with journalist and avocational podcasters would be ideal for exploring how those hosts feel about community creation and audience loyalty. Determining how podcasts value listener feedback or community engagement, and how much those concerns influence podcast content, could be illuminating.
This study also recommends journalists double down on podcasting to increase trust and faith in traditional media, which has been in noted decline (Ingram, 2016; Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel, & Shearer, 2016; Swift, 2016). Surveys and interviews of audiences could reinforce or break this argument. Assessing podcast listener faith in journalism and traditional media, along with podcast and other new media forms of journalism, could have tremendous value for the field and academy, as would documenting an extant or absent sense of community among listeners.
Most importantly: Would jaded Americans who avoid traditional news media be willing to listen to podcasts? If so, would that lead to increased faith in news media over time, or not? A reasonable assumption can be made affirming that argument. Listeners who feel a personal affinity for a podcast likely trust the podcast host, recognize their personality and traits and may be more likely to develop trust for journalists and the news media. Surveys and interviews could confirm or disconfirm that hypothesis.
Podcasts also seem ripe for a feminist and gender-based analysis. Establishing if, and how, male-hosted and female-hosted podcasts differ in terms of self-disclosure and generated community could be fruitful. This study initially considered gender, but the subject deserves independent and thorough analysis.
Finally, journalists and academics should further contemplate self-disclosure on podcasts. Avocational podcasts were especially willing to “go there,” so to speak, and include personal anecdotes, perspectives and feelings. Those disclosures reflect a great deal about those journalists and avocational hosts as people—perhaps more that the journalists themselves realize—and contribute greatly to building communities and audiences around these podcasts. Journalists should embrace those conversations, and share a bit more of themselves and their personalities.
Blending personality and journalism on podcasts opens the door for another important question. Internal community and personal sharing are key elements of podcasting, which is growing remarkably; traditional reporting abhors personal sharing, however, and is greeted with increasing skepticism and hostility among the American public. There are two possibilities: Either podcasts are a unique media format, or they invite review of traditional journalistic notions of bias and personality. Further research is merited.
Marcus Funk, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of mass communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He studies imagined community, digital journalism and traditional community newspapers. He earned his Ph.D. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin in 2013. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.marcusjfunk.com.
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Appendix 1: Full List of Podcasts
Male-Hosted Newsroom Podcasts:
FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Podcast, formerly called the Elections Podcast. http://fivethirtyeight.com/tag/politics-podcast/
Houston Sports Talk, http://houstonsportstalkpod.podomatic.com/
Voice of San Diego, http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/category/audio/
Female-Hosted Newsroom Podcasts:
Death, Sex & Money, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/deathsexmoney
Recode Decode, http://www.recode.net/recode-decode-podcast-kara-swisher
Stuff Mom Never Told You, http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/
Male-Hosted Avocational Podcasts:
The Savage Lovecast, http://www.savagelovecast.com/
The Video Games Show, http://videogamesshow.libsyn.com/
Your Stupid Minds, http://www.yourstupidminds.com/
Female-Hosted Avocational Podcasts:
Ask Me Another, http://www.npr.org/programs/ask-me-another/
The Shepod, http://shepod.com/
Words and Money, https://www.tesswicks.com/podcast/