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The year I (re)discovered podcasts

2020 has become the year of podcasts for me.

I know what you’re about to say: dude, they’ve been around for a while. Indeed they have. And of course I’ve listened to many since the time they entered the popular culture. But 2020 is the year podcasts popped for me.

Why? Pandemic, naturally.

I read a lot (50 books per year minimum, remember), but reading alone is not sufficient for deep learning. For much of my life, listening in on (and sometimes participating in) intelligent conversations has been a profound source of illumination and edification. There is no better way to understand a topic of discourse than to hear those you respect toss it around, push and pull at it, probe the nuances. 

In a normal year I would be able to be present in many of those conversations myself, live and in-person. Well, a certain virus put paid to a lot of that. Opportunities to interact with bright and smart folks have not been manifold.

In tandem, the year of the pandemic brought another prerogative in its wake: the need to stay fit and healthy. Not just the mind, but the body needed to maintain its wellbeing. I doubled my daily exercise routine.

Put the two needs together, and boom.

Podcasts have come of age. There are more than a million shows out there now, regularly churning out their fare. As with all things internet, severe discernment is the key – and I found a small but eminent group to subscribe to. As I clocked up the kilometres this year I also fortified the brain, by listening to the whip-smart and the quick-witted talk about things that matter to me.

I subscribed to the utterances of professors and provocateurs, raconteurs and connoisseurs; podcasting from slick studios or repurposed basements. I sharpened the saw on my regular preoccupations: strategy, leadership, innovation, the future of work, the meaning of meaning. I even learned a great deal about viruses themselves; the history of pandemics in humankind; and the psychology of isolation and solitude.

Why am I telling you this? Well, just like last week’s column wasn’t really about chilli sauces, this one isn’t really about podcasts. It’s about business success, actually. And here’s the point, in a sentence: the best business thinkers track the changing lives of their current and future customers.

Podcasts are booming primarily because of the problem of time in the world. Most people with decent disposable income have simply got too much going on – and not all of it is engaging, or requires their full attention. Podcasts can be heard while doing something else – exercising, commuting, cooking, cleaning and the like – without needing the gaze of the listener.

Wait, I just described radio, you say? Nope, this is time-shifted radio, radio on demand, radio for all tastes. This is Netflix for the ears. You choose what to listen to, when to listen to it. Missed a bit? Tap to go back 30 seconds. Bored? Tap to fast forward, swipe to delete. Heard something that made you think deeply? Tap to pause, while you ruminate. All done on your podcasting app or platform of choice. Most of this content is free of charge; much of it involves brief adverts, easily skipped; some of it is worth actually paying for.

The hardware has also come of age. The podcast listening device of choice is the smartphone, hands down, coupled with wireless earbuds that allow you to keep your hands free for other things. The intelligent home speaker is also an increasingly ubiquitous gadget.

So then: busy-busy lives; ever-evolving hardware and software; social distancing. Boom.

The deeper point is to track this stuff. How does the constantly morphing smartphone affect your business? What new software platforms and apps are emerging that are changing the way we live and interact? What does more time spent in the home mean for entertainment, education, erudition? How will human nature evolve in this epoch of physical distancing combined with digital togetherness?

The people who do this tracking well are ruling the waves right now. Look at the world’s most valuable companies and you will see the folks who, years ago, saw all this coming and positioned themselves for it. Now, they own the rails and the trains and the stations. You buy their devices, you use their programs, you live on their platforms.

A decade ago I wrote that the smartphone would become the central hub of our lives, right here on this page. That was not prophecy; it was extrapolation. If you didn’t pay attention, please catch up now. The way we live, learn, interact and grow is all wrapped up in connected clouds and portable, wearable screens.

(Sunday Nation, 20 September 2020)

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