Why are podcasts and newsletters so popular?

Although digital media feels like a field that’s evolving far too quickly for any of us to get a handle on (let alone pay attention to anything for any sustained period), the growth of podcasts and newsletters over the last couple of years suggests that users are turning their backs on fast-paced and highly personalized forms of media consumption - or at least seeking respite from it.

Both formats feel almost old-fashioned in digital terms. Email is one of the oldest forms of digital communication available, while podcasts are identical to broadcast radio (in terms of content at least - they do differ in terms of consumption and distribution). It’s almost as if users want to go back to a world before news feeds and algorithmically served content to one in which they have agency over the content they consume.

Of course, it’s hard to escape the algorithm. But podcasts and newsletters both carve out a kind of private space within our digital lives - newsletters inside the inbox, and podcasts away from our screens completely.

This is important - both formats isolate us from the wild west of the rest of the web. While you might well find sponsored content in a newsletter, or hear podcast presenters give a shout out to a corporate backer, the way that content is delivered to you feels less intrusive. You, after all, have made the decision to enter your email address in a signup box or to press play on your podcast of choice. You don’t have to contend with digital capitalism’s detritus of personalized ads and popups that pollute our experience of the modern web.

How do podcasts and newsletters allow us to approach content?

Insofar as podcasts and newsletters respect the reader or listener’s space, they also offer up a different relationship to content.

Typically, whether we discover content through social media or on our news site of choice, our relationship with the content in these environments can feel like our relationship to objects in a shop - one of many with plenty of other options. This means that however much we like a piece of content, we still approach it from the perspective of consumers. Or, to put it another way, we’re embedded in the marketplace of The Discourse.

But podcasts and newsletters allow us to get out of that marketplace. Addictive it may be, but podcasts and newsletters at least allow us to (briefly) get away from The Discourse.

This isn’t to say that podcasts and the content that features in newsletters can’t be part of this bigger marketplace of content and ideas. Instead it just provides a subtle frame allowing us to approach it more deliberately as readers. Perhaps they even allow us to better employ our critical faculties.

The future of podcasts and newsletters

Although I like the similarities between podcasts and newsletters, I do sense that the two things are going in very different directions.

Newsletters appear to be moving towards greater independence and fragmentation, thanks to platforms like Substack. Podcasts, meanwhile, are looking like a big target for major players in the adtech world. It would be a shame if this were to happen - one of the great advantages of podcasts is that they respect the users private space and how they want to interact with the format.

However, on the other hand, perhaps the affinity between podcasts and newsletters will continue. The fact that Spotify and Apple have both announced that they are planning to make huge investments in the podcast space could almost be seen as mirroring the way that The New York Times continues to lean into newsletters as a way to build and engage audiences around a specific niche.

I think there’s a lot more to the ways in which content delivery and consumption has changed in digital media. Perhaps even more importantly - and something I’ll explore another time - we also need to focus on the ways in which digital media has changed the way people can create and disseminate information and ideas.