TIME You Asked

You Asked: What Are Podcasts?

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Woman listening to a podcast. Michael Hitoshi—Getty Images

You’ve heard how addictive Serial is — but do you actually know what it is?

By now, no doubt, you’ve heard the chatter around the watercooler or seen the posts on Facebook. Did Adnan really do it? Do you really believe Jay’s story? And what’s the deal with this reporter — does she really not know how this will all end? These friends and co-workers aren’t talking about the latest HBO series — They’re fans of Serial, weekly podcast that launched a couple months ago, skyrocketed in popularity and just announced a second season is in store.

“Serial is the equivalent of a non-fiction book told in a narrative style but using the best parts of high-end public-radio production,” says Glenn Fleishman, host of The New Disruptors, a podcast about how creative people connect with audiences, and a regular guest on The Incomparable, a weekly podcast that turns a geeky eye towards pop culture. “It’s like a shorter version of The Orchid Thief from the standpoint of research and narrative depth, but absolutely native to audio storytelling.”

But as popular as Serial has become, it’s just one of thousands of great, downloadable shows produced every week. According to a 2014 study by Edison Research, 39 million Americans listen to podcasts every month, enjoying six shows per week, on average. So, if you’ve been ignoring podcasts, you’re not just missing out on Serial, you’ve been shunning an entire medium full of great content. And if that makes you feel dumb, this part will really embarrass you: almost every podcast available is completely and totally free to you, the listener.

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

So what, exactly, are podcasts?

While podcasts can technically be videos, they are mostly audio files, much like music MP3s. (In fact, many podcasts actually are saved as MP3 files, but casual listeners don’t need to worry about technical details like these.) In terms of content, they cover everything from music to comedy, though typically the programs sound like talk radio shows.

As varied as reports from inside the locker room (NFL Podcasts), snappy self-improvement ideas (Quick and Dirty Tips), and off-beat analysis of historical events (Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History), the medium offers something for every listener, whether you’re into cooking (Good Food) or cars (NPR’s Car Talk).

Who makes them?

“Because in a smartphone and earbud era, everyone has ready access to a halfway decent mic, everybody is making podcasts,” says Fleishman. For instance, he says, churches post podcasts of sermons, clubs can put discussions online, and people just obsessed by things like pens or cameras are making programs for other people who share their interests. And since there’s no professional or financial barrier producing these shows, everyone from kids who used to record audio with tape decks in 1980s (like Fleishman) to the public radio professionals behind shows like Serial are making them.

Podcasts have also helped aspiring creatives become stars. For instance, stand-up comedian Marc Maron was a relative unknown for years before his WTF podcast became a success. Each week, as he held intimate conversations with other comedians in a studio in his garage, his popularity grew. Now he has his own television show, and his podcast is one of the most popular downloads on the web.

But not every podcast comes from obscurity. The public radio show This American Life (which helped launch Serial) had a large over-the-air following before it hit the web as a podcast way back in 1998, though its continued success is absolutely due to its ability to be accessed online. Meanwhile, shows like Freakonomics were born out of the runaway success of a book by the same name. So, just as no two shows are the same, no two podcasts trod the same path to popularity.

How to find and listen to them

Any Internet-connected computer can play podcast files, though they are best (and most easily) listened to on mobile devices. In fact, the term “podcast” evolved from the success of Apple’s iPod, so it’s most natural to think of these programs as ideally enjoyed on-the-go.

On computers, listening to a podcast is as simple as clicking on the file in a web browser and letting it play. There are many ways to get podcasts on your mobile device, and if you don’t have a smartphone (or iPod Touch), the easiest way to do that is through iTunes. Just navigate to the Podcast tab of the iTunes Store, browse, download, and put them onto your audio player.

But the easiest way to find and listen to podcasts is with a smartphone. Apple iPhones have a Podcasts app that come standard on the current iOS. This app lets you explore, subscribe to, download, and listen to programs, all in one place. Of course, with Apple’s app-for-everything mentality, there are plenty of alternatives to try out.

Android users also have many options for finding and enjoying podcasts. For instance, Stitcher uses podcasts to create a radio station-like experience that’s fully customizable to your interests. TuneIn Radio specializes in streaming radio stations over the web, and DoggCatcher is a powerful podcast manager that does a great job of automatically cleaning up files after you’ve listened to them.

And along those lines, here’s our parting advice when it comes to podcasts: These files are much larger than typical music files because they tend to be several times longer. So be sure to tidy up after yourself as you enjoy exploring all the podcasts out there. If you don’t, your mobile device will be stuffed full of files in no time.

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