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What is a Podcast: Definition, Examples, and How They Work

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What is a Podcast: Definition, Examples, and How They Work

Maybe you’ve been living under a rock. Or maybe you want to learn all about your favorite hobby. Either way, if you’ve ever wondered what a podcast is and how it works, this article is for you. 

Below, we’ll cover everything you need to know about podcasts: what they are, who they’re for, and examples of the different popular podcast formats. Then, we’ll answer several frequently asked questions about 2021’s favorite audio medium.

What Is a Podcast?

A podcast is the streaming age’s answer to radio. It’s a form of media content that was developed in 2004, when former MTV video jockey Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer coded the “iPodder.” The iPodder was a program that let a user download internet radio broadcasts to their Apple iPod. 

Today, podcasts are an extremely popular form of audio entertainment. Each podcast is a series created by a host and then published episode-by-episode online, where subscribers can then download and listen to each episode when it’s released.

Unlike traditional methods of content production like TV and radio shows, podcasts are an accessible way for content creators to connect with an audience. They’re not even currently regulated, meaning you don’t need a broadcasting license to publish podcast content. Anyone with basic podcast equipment like a microphone, recording software, and a membership to a hosting platform can create their own show.

Monetizing a podcast is also becoming a reliable way to make either a side or a full-time income, thanks to brand sponsorships, affiliate marketing, subscriptions, and paid content.

Are Podcasts Audio or Video?

Podcasts started out as a completely audio medium. However, with the growing popularity of podcasts, many podcasters have embraced video podcasting as a way to stand out and reach an even bigger audience. 

Video is extremely popular—in fact, users averaged 6 hours and 48 minutes per week watching online videos in 2019, up 59% from 2016. So podcast creators who want their show to see the most growth and appeal to wider audiences are adding video elements to their podcasts.

What Is the Purpose of a Podcast?

A podcast can have many purposes, but the main one is to entertain its audience. Podcast listeners might have one of several reasons to subscribe to a podcast, such as to:

  • Hear updates and breakdowns of current events
  • Learn about a new topic or industry
  • Laugh at cohosts’ riffing and jokes
  • Listen in on interviews with popular or famous guests
  • Experience an audio drama or narrative storytelling 

But behind each of these reasons is the desire to be entertained. Whether listeners want to learn something new or simply have something to take their minds off of a mundane task, they want to enjoy the experience of listening to a podcast. 

If they don’t enjoy it, they probably wouldn’t keep coming back.

Different Types of Podcasts with Examples

Podcasts are as varied as people’s imaginations can make them, and there are about as many genres as you can think of; news and education, health and fitness, comedy, and even fiction podcasts are just a few of the most popular kinds. 

While the podcasting world is wide and varying—and limited only by creators’ imaginations—the vast majority of podcasts can be broken down into one of four formats: conversational, narrative nonfiction, scripted fiction, and repurposed content. Of course, these are loose categories, and some podcasts are mixes or hybrids of multiple formats. We’ll take a closer look at each main category, along with popular examples, below.

There are also many genres of podcasts within these formats. According to Statista, the most popular podcast genres in October 2021 were comedy, news, true crime, and sports.

Conversational Podcasts

The most common podcast format is the conversational one. These are generally the most informal style, with anywhere from solo hosts to a roundtable discussion. Many of these shows are interview podcasts, which are discussions between one or more hosts and their guests, usually diving deep into the guests’ personal history or expert knowledge on a topic.

Stuff You Should Know is a very popular example of a conversational podcast. Hosts Chuck and Josh spend each episode educating each other (and the audience) about a topic of general interest. Their style is extremely informal, and listening to SYSK feels like listening in on a chill conversation between two friends.

The NPR Politics Podcast is made up of a roundtable of National Public Radio journalists. They discuss daily developments in U.S. politics with a friendly efficiency in episodes about 15 minutes long.

Another show from NPR, Guy Raz’s How I Built This, is an extremely popular example of an interview podcast. Raz’s guests are all the founders of some of the U.S.’s best-known and successful companies to learn their secrets to success.

Note: How I Built This is recorded with Riverside.fm.

Narrative Nonfiction 

Another structure that fits podcasting well is long-form storytelling. Narrative nonfiction covers anything that covers a true event or topic in a narrative style. 

These podcasts run the gambit from lyrical, topic-based human stories like This American Life, to deep dives into obscure mysteries like Wind of Change, to the ever-popular true-crime podcast like S-Town.

Scripted Fiction

When most people think of fictional entertainment, they think of TV or movies—but scripted podcasts are growing in popularity as well. 

Just as the episodic nature of podcasts works well for long-form nonfiction storytelling, fiction also does well in podcast form. Subscribers can tune in each week for a new installment of anything from experimental sci-fi fantasies like Girl in Space to historical fiction comedies like Edith!

Repurposed Content

Many content creators, from brands to bloggers to TV shows, repackage their content into podcasts. Listeners can catch highlights from their favorite late-night comedy central program on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: Ears Edition

Or those who like to learn can tune into TED Talks Daily, which compiles TED Talks from around the globe into an easily digestible podcast for the commute.

How Podcasts Work and How to Listen to Podcasts

For podcasters, the process of creating and publishing a podcast is relatively easy. Once they’ve recorded and edited a few episodes, they need to upload them to their podcast host of choice. 

Then, podcasters submit their show’s RSS feed to podcast directories like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Stitcher. These directories are the place where podcasts and listeners connect; users can find, subscribe to, and listen to podcasts using their favorite podcast directory.

If you want to listen to podcasts, you’ll need to choose a directory first. There are many options available, but some of the most popular include:

  • Apple Podcasts
  • Google Podcasts
  • Spotify
  • Stitcher
  • Overcast
  • Podcast Addict

Some podcast directories have advanced customization functions, like multiple playlists, sleep timers, smart playlists, and suggestions for new shows based on your interests.

Whichever directory you choose, start by downloading the app from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Use the app’s search function to look for shows you might be interested in. You can listen to a single episode immediately, download it for later, or subscribe to shows so that each new episode is added to your playlist.

Now you’re ready to listen! Which show will you try first?

Podcast FAQS

What is a podcast vs. a podcast episode?

The word “podcast” refers to the show in its entirety, while a podcast episode is a single chapter of that show. 

What's the difference between a podcast and an audio file?

An audio file is what stores a segment of sound. Podcasters record their episode and store it in an audio file on their computer or on the cloud. A podcast is a show that distributes audio (and video) files to users over the internet.

What is a podcast and how does it work?

A podcast is an audio (and sometimes video) medium for creative content. Podcast creators upload podcast episodes, which are downloaded by listeners and listened to on their mobile devices or computers.

Are podcasts for free?

Mostly, yes. Most podcast apps are free, and while there are some exclusive or private podcasts that are not free, most podcasters distribute their shows free of charge. 

What is the best podcast app?

If you want an app with the largest number of shows, use Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. If you want to combine podcast listening with music, try Spotify. If you’d rather combine podcasts and audiobooks, Audible is a great choice. And if you prefer granular customization options, try Overcast.

How do you get paid for podcasts?

Podcasters can get paid in several ways. The most common is to land podcast sponsorships, in which brands pay them to read advertisements during their show. Other methods include affiliate marketing, premium content, and asking listeners to pay them directly.

Who is listening to podcasts?

More than half of the U.S. population has listened to a podcast in the last month, according to Statista, and the largest age group is listeners between 12 and 34 years old.

And listeners are increasing in diversity, as well. 43% of U.S. men and 39% of U.S. women listen to podcasts—and the racial and ethnic makeup of podcast listeners in the U.S. closely reflects the overall diversity of the population.

What is a podcast in simple words?

In simple terms, a podcast is a series of audio episodes. It’s like the radio, but on-demand, and you usually listen on your iPhone, Android, or another mobile device.

What is a podcast used for?

Podcasts are used for entertainment, education, and connection with like-minded communities.

What is a podcast app?

A podcast app (or podcast player) is another word for a podcast directory like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Overcast. It lets you find, subscribe to, and listen to your favorite podcasts.

What is a podcast video?

A video podcast is an emerging format for podcasts. Audio is still the main medium for podcasts, but many podcasters are adding video elements to appeal to wider audiences and make their content even more engaging.

What is a podcast network?

A podcast network is a collection of shows that are produced and created by the same company. Prominent podcast networks include Crooked Media, Gimlet Media, and Earwolf.

What is a podcast RSS feed?

An RSS feed is what links listeners to a podcast’s content. By subscribing to the RSS feed, listeners automatically receive new episodes as soon as they’re published on the podcast host.

What is a podcast host?

A podcast host is a place where podcast content is stored. RSS feeds are a listener’s link to the audio and video files stored on the hosting platform.

What is a podcast download?

Podcast episodes can be downloaded by listeners to listen to offline. Many podcasters and their sponsors use total “downloads” as a metric to determine the success of the show.

What is a podcast producer?

A podcast producer is a person who supervises the podcast’s production, sometimes including conducting research, overseeing the recording process, and handling edits. 

What is a podcast script?

A podcast script can be anything from a loose outline to a word-for-word transcript of a show. It’s the written guideline and plan for a podcast episode.

What is a podcast interview?

Many podcasters interview guests about their lives, experiences, or subjects of expertise. A podcast interview is the recording of such an interaction.

What is a live podcast?

While regular podcasts are recorded, edited, and published after the fact, live podcasts are streamed to audiences in real-time. Recording software like Riverside.fm allows podcasters to live stream directly to Facebook, Twitch, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

What is a podcast mixer?

A mixer is a piece of recording equipment that lets podcasters fine-tune the recording process. If podcasters want to record multiple guests or have granular control over their audio editing, they’ll likely want to use a mixer.

What is a podcast website?

Most podcasters who are serious about building an audience need a website for their show. These sites give background information about the show and its hosts, promote the podcast, and act as a central hub for the show. Many podcast websites also contain links to past episodes, and listeners can usually listen to episodes directly from the site if they choose.

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