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Podcasts, once a niche listening medium for fans of radio shows like This American Life, have become an enormous industry. More than half of all US consumers over the age of 12 listen to podcasts, and 37% of Americans listen to podcasts at least monthly.
But what drives people to listen to podcasts? Why is listening to strangers speak about true crime, music, historical events, money, fitness and more so captivating? In this article, we'll delve into the science of what listening to podcasts does to your brain and whether or not there are benefits of listening to podcasts.
Though it seems like a modern format, podcasting began in the 1990s, when it was called “audioblogging.” Early versions of podcasts included Carl Malamud’s Internet Talk Show and The Dan and Scott Show, which was available to AOL.com users.
As internet speeds increased and file sharing became prominent, these internet talk shows became more popular. In 2001, Applian Technologies even created a tool called Replay Radio, which scanned the internet for radio shows and recorded them so users could listen to them later.
Podcasts as we know them first became possible in 2000, when Dave Winner authored the RSS format. RSS allowed the automatic detection, downloading, and storage of serialized content, including blogs and these radio talk shows. In August of 2000, the New England Patriots launched PFW in Progress, a live audio show that was streamed to Patriots.com.
Despite RSS technology launching in 2000, developers largely ignored implementing RSS feeds. RSS slowly gained some traction among bloggers, and eventually Ben Hammersley of The Guardian penned the name “podcasting” in 2004.
In 2005, iTunes added a directory for podcasts, allowing podcast fans to listen and organize their podcasts in the same place they listened to their music. Shortly after, the White House added their Weekly Address as a podcast, and suddenly podcasting was a legitimate medium.
Many peoples’ first podcast experience was either The Ricky Gervais Show, which held the record for most-downloaded podcast at 4.5 million in 2006, or This American Life, an NPR show that offered its weekly public radio show as a podcast. Since then, podcasts have entered millions of households worldwide.
People often listen to podcasts while commuting and traveling.
There’s no singular reason people listen to podcasts. Everyone who presses play on You’re Wrong About or Song Exploder has different reasons for tuning into a podcast vs. turning on talk radio or the television.
Sometimes, the reason for tuning into a podcast depends on the content. Folks might be interested in expanding their knowledge with an investing podcast or exploring their interests with music podcasts. Edison Research found that 74% of monthly podcast listeners listen to learn new things.
They might also just be looking for entertainment, like many do with true crime or comedy podcasts like My Favorite Murder or Why Won’t You Date Me. According to Edison Research, 71% of podcast listeners say they listen for fun. After all, listening to a podcast is a great way to break up the monotony of certain tasks, like cleaning the house.
Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that people are increasingly finding themselves captivated by podcasts.
Now we know a little about why people listen to podcasts and a few facts about who listens to them, but that doesn’t explain why podcasts are so popular.
In 2014, eight years after This American Life started publishing its show as a podcast, New York Magazine asked the same question. After all, listenership of new podcasts began to wane in 2010, only to come back with a vengeance years later when shows like Serial by Sarah Koenig became weekly water cooler fodder. So, what happened?
New York Magazine poses a few theories. The first is that podcast quality simply improved. There were still plenty of podcasts featuring two unorganized friends in their garage talking about their days, but more serious journalists like Koenig were exploring the medium.
There’s also the matter of economics, or cost. A podcast is famously affordable to produce. You really just need a microphone or two and a free audio editing software to get started. That cost, compared to video or radio shows, makes podcasting a compelling opportunity for freelancers and major media companies alike.
But the biggest reason for the rise in popularity, according to New York Magazine, is cars. Specifically, connected cars. Now, commuters can listen to whatever they want when they’re driving. Instead of listening to the radio because it’s there or fishing around the back seat for a CD they’ve already listened to 100 times, drivers have endless audio possibilities. And a lot of them choose to listen to podcasts on their commute. Remember, just above, we mentioned that over half of monthly podcast listeners tune into a podcast while driving.
Plus—podcasts are free, there are podcasts out there for any interest, and publishing networks with big marketing budgets have started making and promoting their podcasts. Add it all together, and you’ve created something that appeals to a wide swath of Americans.
Listening to podcasts stimulates the brain, releasing chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin.
We could ask every podcast listener in the world why they like podcasts, and we’d get a lot of different answers. But part of what keeps listeners coming back week after week (or day after day) has to do with the psychology of podcasts.
At their cores, podcasts are stories, and they’re going to trigger the same brain activity as other types of person-to-person storytelling.
When you hear people talk about something, it forces you to imagine it. When you hear the word “dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a dog. When you do this, your brain “lights up,” as indicated in a study by the scientific journal Nature, which a research team from the University of California, Berkeley, subsequently covered in an article for The New York Times.
In other words, listening to a podcast results in a lot of brain activity.
Tense stories add another layer to the psychology of podcasts. Much like eating spicy food tricks your brain into producing endorphins that make you happy, listening to a story with tension makes your body release the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin. That chemical reaction triggers an empathetic response, which is that feeling of being “transported” into a story.
But podcasting isn’t just about storytelling. As we mentioned above, 75% of monthly podcast listeners tune into podcasts to learn new things, and science shows that learning new things can make us happy.
The podcast Dope Labs, hosted by scientists Titi Shodiya and Zakiya Whatley, discussed this with Good Housekeeping in 2020. Shodiya explained that learning new things activates your mesolimbic pathway, which releases the “feel good” chemical dopamine throughout your brain. Did you get a little rush of joy learning that? We did!
The science is in—listening to podcasts makes your brain excited. But is that a good thing? Would you be better off listening to stone cold silence during your commute or chores?
Physiologically, silence has numerous benefits for people. Silence can lower blood pressure, boost your immune system, prevent plaque from forming in your arteries and promote hormone regulation. A study in 2013 found that two hours of silence per day helps your brain grow cells in the areas related to learning, remembering and emotions.
But that need for silence doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t benefits to listening to podcasts. That Edison Research survey we talked about earlier shows that 49% of monthly podcast listeners play podcasts while they’re walking around, and 43% listen to podcasts at the gym. 90% listen at home—many when they’re doing chores or other active work.
So, if a podcast inspires you to move around and be active rather than sitting around watching TV, that’s a positive health benefit to listening to podcasts. It’s indirect, but still a benefit.
Another possible benefit depends more upon the listener than the podcast. In 2012, The University of British Columbia published a study showing that background noise can increase productivity and creativity. This has to do with a mind trick called “processing fluency,” which means that the hyper-focus you think you’re getting in a quiet office might cause you to get caught up in minutia rather than seeing the whole picture. It’s the same reason walking away from a problem for a while can give you clarity when you come back to that same issue.
Listening to podcasts is just one way to get a taste of the same background noise you get in a coffee shop without shelling out for the overpriced oat milk latte and pain au chocolat. Of course, not everyone prefers to work with background noise, and those who work better in abject silence probably won’t find listening to podcasts while they work very helpful.
Anecdotally, there’s also a potential positive social aspect of listening to popular podcasts. It’s the same as the water cooler effect. If you’re not familiar with the water cooler effect, it’s the phenomenon of people who work in the same office gathering around the water cooler to take a break, discuss current events, and bond.
When a major podcast like Serial becomes popular, people talk about it with each other. When they talk to each other, they build bonds and increase group cohesion. If everyone in an office is listening to the same podcasts—and discussing them with each other—it can increase office productivity by more than 10%.
Of course, the water cooler effect isn’t limited to podcasts, and neither are most of the psychological or physiological responses we have when we listen to podcasts. A podcast is just another way to absorb information, experience storytelling, help pass the time during mundane work or share a cultural phenomenon with your coworkers. But just because podcasts don’t produce a fully unique experience in our brains and bodies don’t make them any less compelling.
Anyone can start a podcast with a few USB microphones and a free audio recording program! Read our guide about how to start a podcast.