Is print dead or is it merely being revitalized? It's a question that everyone in the media industry has been trying to figure out for some time now. There's no question about how the digital realm has significantly impacted the way we consume our news and entertainment, but it doesn't mean that we are consuming less media — in fact, we're arguably consuming even more. The podcast has recently experienced a renaissance, with many now tuning in to their favorite subscription while taking a long drive or cleaning the house. Even print publications are branching out into the medium; is it possible that magazines can use podcasts to give new life to their content?
As print subscriptions have generally decreased over the years, podcast popularity has steadily increased. As of 2016, 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older say they have listened to a podcast over the past month, which is a big increase from the 12 percent in 2013, according to a report posted by Journalism.org. That same report also states that by last year, about one-third of Americans had listened to a podcast at some point.
Sarah Mirk, a veteran to the podcasting world, has been hosting Bitch Media's podcast "Popaganda" since 2013. "Honestly, people love the podcast," she says. "In my experience, people have a stronger and more personal connection to the podcast than they do to anything I write online or in print. I think it's because listening to audio is such an intimate experience — the voices are right there in your ears, telling powerful stories."
Mirk says the mission of "Popaganda" is the same as the mission of Bitch Media as a whole: to provide and encourage engaged, thoughtful, feminist responses to mainstream media and pop culture. "Always at the core of my goal for the show is to tell stories that aren't being told elsewhere — to share intimate perspectives on pop culture that make listeners think about the world in a new way," she says. A big part of the podcast's goal is also to highlight and celebrate the work and ideas of people who often don't get enough attention, talking about things that center on the ideas of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. Sometimes, it's more impactful for these stories to be told with the actual voices on audio.
There are many magazines, like Bitch, that have had a podcast (or multiple podcasts) for years now, including TIME, Vogue, Slate, The New Yorker, Forbes, Men's Health and Glamour. Print publications are constantly working to make their content more easily consumable and engaging for their readers (or listeners). "We want to reach people wherever they're getting their news," Mirk says. "So, if people are reading more and more on their phones, we want to make Bitch mobile-friendly. If people are reading their news on Facebook, we want to make sure they can see our headlines on Facebook. And since lots of people get their media via podcasts, we should make sure we're reaching people with podcasts. It's another essential platform for getting our stories out to people who want to hear and read them." With about 10,000 listeners per episode, Mirk says she gets more regular, positive, powerful feedback on the podcast than she does on anything else she makes.
Some magazines have been experimenting with podcasts more recently, like Essence and Bust. Essence's weekly podcast "Yes, Girl" began in early March and is hosted by Cori Murray, Yolanda Sangweni, and Charli Penn. "The idea came about because we're a super lively, engaged bunch over here at Essence and we're always discussing all kinds of opinions about things; we recognize that sometimes those opinions just can't live in the written word," says Sangweni, the digital content director at Essence. "We're living in the podcast heyday right now, so we thought a podcast would be the perfect way to [help] Essence readers to get to know our editors and also get to know black celebrities in a way that they may not be getting elsewhere."
In addition to helping its readers get to know the editors and celebrities on a different level, "Yes, Girl" also helps to gives its audience a new perspective of the Essence brand. With the magazine's 46-year history, readers have often thought of it as the "moral compass" of black America, Sangweni explains, and sometimes that can be isolating. "We want to break off of those ideas of what Essence should be," she says. "Essence can be your super respectful auntie, but at the same time it can be your best girlfriend."
Bust's podcast "Poptarts" was also created earlier this year by Bust staff members Emily Rems and Callie Watts. "We're both the biggest pop culture consumers here in the office and it's the prime topic of conversation between us," Rems says. "Both of us have worked together for over 10 years and basically what our listeners hear on our podcasts are what people in the Bust office hear us talking about all the time."
They hope their new podcast will add a dimension to the experience that they give readers who have been reading Bust for years, but they're also hoping to introduce the brand to people who may have never heard of the magazine before. "I am a consumer of both print media and podcasts, and I feel like they're very complementary mediums," Rems says. "I'll read something and then I'll hear something spoken about on a podcast, and those interests fuel each other."
With podcasts being an additional way for readers to get compelling stories from their favorite print publications, it can also help magazines build themselves as a full-on brand experience, as opposed to just something you pick up to read. Long before creating "Yes, Girl," Essence also branched off into another realm of entertainment by creating the Essence Festival, an annual music festival. "It's a challenge for all print publications to stretch themselves because your brand these days cannot just live between the pages," Sangweni says. "Our brand comes to life at the Essence Festival and now there is this new medium so we are challenging ourselves to get into this new medium – which is podcasting – and it's definitely something that is encouraged by every brand."
However, Rems doesn't necessarily believe that podcasting will save the print industry so much as it will just keep media consumers engaged. "I think saying that podcasting could revitalize print is maybe somewhat of an overstatement. But, it could be a great compliment," she says. Mirk also makes a point that podcast can be a good supplement to print because it's actually easier for some people to focus on the story when listening to it. "Whether I'm listening during my commute or while cooking dinner, I'm much more singularly focused on the story than I am when scrolling through a website," she says. "Usually when I'm browsing the news, I have a dozen tabs open; I'm switching back and forth between The Guardian and my email and my Twitter feed. But when I'm listening to a podcast, it's just me and the episode."
On the other side of things, Mirk also feels that as a storyteller she can connect with people better through her podcast. "It's always my goal as a journalist to tell stories that resonate with people — stories that they remember and that actually change the way they think about the world. Podcasts are a way for telling exactly those kinds of stories, the ones people really think about and take to heart. I think more and more journalists are realizing that podcasts are a profoundly intimate way to tell stories."
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