Roman Roman Mars, discussing the business of podcasting in Chicago during the 2013 Third Coast Audio Filmless Festival. (Walljasper/MEDILL)

The evolution of audio storytelling

Either you listen to podcasts religiously, or you've never heard of them. No matter which camp you fall into, the audio entertainment you hear everyday, even the sound coming from your AM/FM dial, is changing due to the rise of online audio production.

The advent of the iPod and other mp3 players in the early 21st century has changed the way people consume audio content, as well as the way audio producers tell stories. Roman Mars, the host and creator of the podcast 99% Invisible has been producing terrestrial radio on National Public Radio stations like KALW in San Francisco and WBEZ in Chicago since 2001. He identifies several ways in which audio storytelling has changes in that time.

On Community – One of the things that makes podcast audiences unique from other types of media consumers is the sense of community. Listeners take ownership of their media because they are no longer dropping into a show while in the car.“With them choosing you, there's a stronger connection,”Mars sees this intense connection as a double edged sword, explaining that“I have a greater responsibility to be good.”

On the personal connection – Listeners feel like they know the hosts of their favorite podcasts on an intimate level. Online personalities often share stories about their lives, kids, pets or work, which endears them to their audience. Combine these intimations with the ability of a listener to binge-listen to dozens of episodes in a compact period of time and you'll get an audience that develops hyper-personal relationships with their audio idols. “My grandma has a story like that,”Mars says, as an example of the feeling listeners get when they hear successful storytelling podcasts. He feels that he can relate to people because what he produces is analogous to the stories that we all tell.“It's so close to the storytelling that people do every day.”

On DIY radio – “In the past ten years in particular, there was this real renaissance in doing this yourself.”Mars explains that shows like This American Life have inspired more people to create audio documentaries and make them available via podcast.“Everything gotten cheaper. This is a way I can do documentary without having a gigantic crew.”One person with a microphone can create visceral, powerful radio stories with little barrier to entry. This has lead to a greater number of podcasts to choose from, but it has also made the playing field much less clear. Katie Mingle, producer at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, explains that “Podcasting has really opened the world up”for entry by anyone who has a story to tell.

On Narrowcasting – “There is something about the way people interact with a podcast – they choose it, they go for it, they are already on your side. Whereas in radio, you're winning people over every moment. On a podcast, I would take time to do things you would never do on the radio.”Mars sees the ability of consumers to stop, rewind and relisten as an opportunity for producers to dig deeper into content, rather than focusing broadly in order to appeal to the masses.“I produce it in a more intimate tone,”Mars says of his work. “I want my pieces to work like a piece of music.”

When Mars thinks about why audio works as a storytelling form, he explains,“I think peoples voices are just really fantastic and that when you only focus on them, you recognize the character of peoples voices quite well.”When listening to 99% Invisible, it is clear why Roman Mars is one of the heavy hitters of the podcasting world. He captures that sense of character with distinct clarity and honesty.

-Christopher Walljasper