By Jim Russell

Podcasting has arrived as a major content delivery medium. No longer a sideline, podcast companies like Spotify and Wondery are becoming serious players, with Wondery’s founder and chief executive estimating advertising revenue across the industry exceeding $500 million last year. For its part, NPR has announced that next year, it will earn more advertising revenue from podcasting ($50 million) than from its usual underwriting on broadcast radio. ABC Radio which has been around since 1943 has just changed its name to ABC Audio. The ABC Radio Network – once consisting of 6 separate format streams – is now recognizing that its principal product is audio, not just radio. As the publication Radio Ink reported, “ABC Audio will house everything on offer: ABC News Radio; the new on-demand content team; the Affiliate Solutions group; the growing business development department; the sales integration operation; and the FM entertainment team.”

Why is this happening? Well, the growth of the podcast on-demand market has grown from its feeble beginnings just a few short years ago (2004) to an economic force to be reckoned with. Just this past February, music company Spotify acquired the podcast company Gimlet for more than $200-million dollars. Gimlet’s co-founder Max Lieber explained the sale this way: “it’s just a way for our storytelling and our work to have a lot more impact.”

The key word in that explanation is “storytelling.” In an era filled with political charges of “fake news” hurled at almost all news media, it has now become apparent that the only type of information content that is immune from such slings and arrows is … storytelling. Because newscasting and news reporting is about “facts,” and we can all legitimately disagree about what the facts are and what they mean. Facts require the objectifying of our perceptions, the translation into data from human vision and hearing. Since we all see and hear differently and translate these sight-and-sound bits of data differently — since we bring to the process our own prior perceptions and prejudices — how can anything that human beings perceive and report ever be agreed upon as “the truth.” Painful as it is to journalists to hear their work described as “fake news,” how could it be truly objective news? Even to strive for a measure of “objectivity” is, while a noble pursuit, also a fool’s errand.

But storytelling is another matter. It starts from a subjective base, the human experience. It validates the significance of human experience, of feelings and emotions. Storytelling narratives are deeply personal and create immediate empathy: none of us could be so callous as to deny the validity of another human’s experience.

To hear a story is not to agree with the story or the perceptions it is based upon; rather, it is merely to respect another person’s experience and feelings that experience evokes. For example, one could easily have favored or opposed America’s participation in the Vietnam War; but, one could not easily deny the human story of the suffering that occurred on all sides of that conflict. (Indeed, in my view, politics did not end the war nor did American’s political or military systems. Instead, a single picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack and other photos like it captured the country’s attention. A nationwide movement of mothers of soldiers and young men … cried for their lost sons for enough years and raised their voices loud enough to put an end to what politics and military had wrought.)

I discovered the power of storytelling as a young reporter. Based in Washington D.C., I found myself a covering an endless string of stories about politics and government. Stories that often began with “The White House said today …” or “The Defense Department reported that …” But, I knew that these were inanimate objects: “The White House” and “The Defense Department” were not human and did not themselves … speak! In using this conventional news jargon, I felt I was concealing the truth rather than revealing it. This discomfort led me to invent and focus on a type of reporting I called “Human Affairs” about real people, not merely inanimate institutions that populated “Public Affairs” journalism.

My bosses were not thrilled, considering such human-based stories less important — like “man bites dog” vignettes that the newspaper feature pages were filled with. “When are you going to cover ‘real news’ again,” they asked me. I understood their discomfort, but I was stubborn enough to continue down the path I had started.

  • When I was assigned to go talk with three academics about the worsening economy, rather than fill the airwaves with boring economists, I chose to go out and interview an elderly black lady shopping for groceries. In describing her purchases, she revealed the real economics of living while poor and old in the nation’s capital.
  • I talked to honorable Green Berets who came home from Vietnam in disgrace, tarred by the actions of a few the My Lai Massacre.
  • I went to a suburban pet shelter where I talked about and heard the sounds of unwanted pets being euthanized. I saw and described “seeing death in a needle.”
  • I did a week of stories about a jetliner that crashed because the pilots were so preoccupied with replacing a 25-cent light bulb that they literally forgot to fly the plane!

All of these stories created listener empathy and compassion for another human being. Nobody accused them of being “fake news.” Indeed, hard-nosed reporters who heard them … cried while listening.

Clearly this approach had overcome boredom and disinterest by our fellow men and women. This approach had real power. Years later, NPR continued to do these stories, calling them “driveway moments” to describe how such stories could be so powerful as to make listeners remain in their cars, in their home driveways, to hear the end of the human story.

Storytelling has always been the most important and lasting form of human communication. Stories of monumental human import have always stood out, demanded attention, and survived way beyond the time that so-called “hard news” has faded into dust. Now, electronic media such as podcasting have recognized the impact and duration of human stories as a way of capturing what is really important to humanity.

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