What Does the Success of ‘Serial’ Mean for the Future of Traditional Radio?

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By Nicole Martineau, Publicist


Podcasts have been around for years, but none in recent memory have been able to generate as much buzz as Serial, a record-breaking nonfiction crime drama created and brilliantly hosted by This American Life producer Sarah Koenig. This addicting multi-episode podcast re-examines the 1999 murder of a Maryland teenager and the eventual conviction of her ex-boyfriend.

In a recent New York Times piece, columnist David Carr reports that since its debut in October, Serial has been streamed or downloaded for free on iTunes more than five million times and averages over 1.5 million listeners per episode, a number This American Life took four years to reach.

While Serial’s success should be seen as a huge victory for public radio and the original programming it produces, some radio industry veterans say there may be cause for concern. In an interview with Carr, Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR, explains that he is both “excited and worried” over the popularity of Serial and other podcasts offered through public radio stations:

“‘When you talk to young people, they will tell you that they are listening to a lot of public radio, but when you probe more, you find out that they are listening to podcasts,’ [Kravetz] said. ‘Public radio audience, after years of steady growth, is off slightly, probably in part because people are listening to on-demand programming on podcasts.'”

Popularity among Millennials isn’t the only threat to public radio growth. In an interview with NPR, veteran technology writer and No Agenda podcast host John C. Dvorak explains the negative effect the mobility of podcasting will eventually have on broadcast radio: 

“Eventually, when we have real-time Internet availability in a moving car, it’s going to be very difficult for conventional radio to compete with this model. I just don’t think it’s possible.”

However, David Pierce of The Verge reassures radio listeners that the wild success of Serial and the surge in podcast popularity will not necessarily lead to a complete wipeout of broadcast radio in the near future, even though it may seem like a major threat right now:

Podcasts won’t kill AM and FM as we know it, at least not anytime soon, but they’re on the precipice of becoming totally and utterly mainstream. They offer what we want, when we want, wherever we want. They’re our own personalized radio, with every topic, every show, and every host you love on exactly your own schedule.”

In addition to becoming “utterly mainstream”, podcasts are also gaining the attention of advertisers, aka, the traditional moneymaker of commercial radio stations. Whether or not you believe that the new found popularity of podcasting will help or hinder the growth of radio, it’s safe to say this digital medium is certainly shaking things up.



Related: The Power of Radio


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