How Irish podcasting hit the mainstream
There’s been a surge in the number of home-produced podcasts over the past number of years – and there’s no sign of it slowing
The Blindboy Podcast: Flick through the Apple podcast charts on any given day and you will see that Irish podcasts are among the most popular in the country. Photograph: Alan Place
In September, former Irish rugby international Jamie Heaslip posed a question on Twitter: “Should I start a podcast?” He asked his followers to vote yes or no. Unfortunately for Heaslip, the poll was hijacked by voters with less than sincere intentions and the result was a resounding no. However, the whole exercise demonstrated one incontrovertible truth: podcasting has hit the mainstream in Ireland and anyone who is anyone has a podcast.
It wasn’t always this way. When the medium first started to take off in Ireland, the charts were still dominated by prestige podcasts like Serial or This American Life. But as more Irish listeners have incorporated podcasts into their media diets, there has been a surge in the number of home-produced podcasts.
Flick through the Apple podcast charts on any given day and you will see that Irish podcasts are among the most popular in the country. The Good Glow, The Blindboy Podcast, The 2 Johnnies Podcast, The David McWilliams Podcast, The Laughs of Your Life, and The Stand with Eamon Dunphy are regular fixtures in the top 10.
Ireland is home to a number of podcasting studios and networks. There is Headstuff Podcast Network, Tall Tales, The Warren, Castaway Media, and Collaborative Studios, to name but a few. Likewise, Irish media organisations are investing heavily in original podcast series – and with good reason. Earlier this year, a Reuters report showed that 37 per cent of Irish people had listened to a podcast in the last month, suggesting that podcasts are stealing a march on traditional media.
Ireland’s newfound love affair with podcasts comes as no surprise to Alan Bennett, founder of the Headstuff Podcast Network. “If you look at it in hindsight, it seems like it was always going to be big here,” says Bennett. “People always talk about the whole storytelling thing and how Irish people love to talk. We’re always fairly high up on the radio listenership. It was always going to happen here.”
Bennett founded the Headstuff Podcast Network in 2014. It has since grown to be one of the largest networks in the country with about 20 active podcasts on its slate, including The Alison Spittle Show and Motherfoclóir. When I speak to him, Bennett and his team are in the midst of opening a new intimate live venue for podcast recordings. That such a venue is needed speaks to the ever growing popularity of podcasts.
A few years ago, Bennett came up with the idea of the Dublin Podcast Festival, a showcase for the best in both Irish and international podcasts. Not only did he want to curate an event for fellow podcast fans, but he wanted to increase awareness of the form.
“Part of my idea with starting the festival was to have the word ‘podcast’ all over the city and to have people who didn’t know what a podcast was see the word and ask what it was,” he recalls. “It was partially educational and to get the idea out there.”
He joined forces with Aiken Promotions and brought over the creators of mega podcasts like S-Town, Welcome to Night Vale, and My Dad Wrote a Porno for live recordings and interviews. The festival was a success and is now heading into its third year. In that short space of time, it has become a far easier sell. “There’s much less, ‘What’s a podcast?’ or ‘How would you do a podcast festival?’” says Bennett.
Among the guests at this year’s festival is Jarlath Regan. The comedian is the host of An Irishman Abroad, the long-running series in which he interviews a well-known Irish person about their life, career, and everything in between. Previous guests have included Dara Ó Briain, Brian O’Driscoll and Sharon Horgan.
An Irishman Abroad has been on the go since 2013, meaning Regan was ahead of the curve when it came to embracing the medium. “It wasn’t as barren as people like to think it was when I started out but it was dominated by the national broadcasters,” he recalls. “Like so many things, the barriers and cost of entry into the field dropped and suddenly those of us that were looking for a platform grabbed this one.”
Six years on and he says that Irish listeners are still getting to grips with podcasting.
“The Irish podcast producing community is still growing in tandem with the audience,” he says. “As more people realise that on-demand listening is as easy to consume as on-demand TV, the listenership grows. From what I can see, that’s allowing the variety of podcasts to expand and trust of the listeners to be built. People will take a chance now that they know an indie Irish podcast can be better than a Guardian or NPR production.”
Podcasts offer more flexibility and creative freedom than traditional radio. There are no ads, no time slots, and no broadcasting regulations to contend with, meaning a podcast can take the form of a meandering stream of consciousness or a longform, in-depth interview. “Podcasting… gives the listener the deep, deep dive or niche content that a channel can’t gamble on,” says Regan.
Fionnuala Jones is a freelance writer and podcaster. Along with Bríd Browne, she is the co-host of Bandwagons, a podcast in which they break down everything from the Wagatha Christie debacle to Lizzo’s breakout year. “We wanted to talk about the things that other people were talking about,” she explains. “That’s our tagline.”
Jones says the recent explosion in Irish podcasting can be partially attributed to a general fatigue with Irish media.
“I know a common complaint about the Irish media landscape is that it’s the same five people being asked to contribute to a panel or helm a show,” says Jones. “I think people are just a bit tired of it. People are creating their own spaces of content where they can share their own voice or else they’re actively seeking out other people’s voices.”
This point of view is particularly prevalent among younger Irish audiences, she says. They are craving content and voices that Irish media simply isn’t offering. And so they’re moving the proverbial dial.
“I think for a lot of people my age and for my generation, there was huge dissatisfaction with how certain figures were being platformed who maybe had discriminatory views and seemed to be constantly getting airtime,” she says. “For them, I think it was a case of, ‘I still want to consume media and enjoy media but what is popular and what is mainstream isn’t speaking to me and doesn’t align with my views’. So they went and got it elsewhere or they made it elsewhere.
“I don’t want to say that all young people aren’t listening to radio but I don’t think it’s their first port of call when it comes to news or pop culture,” she adds. “I think they are more likely to turn to the internet or a podcast.”
Between podcast newsletters, podcast festivals and podcast tents at Electric Picnic, it’s safe to say that we are not going to witness a slowdown in growth anytime soon. For would-be podcasters, what is the key to getting it right and ensuring a long lifespan?
“Every podcast is different but for me the key to longevity has been consistency, taking risks and trying to raise the bar week to week,” says Jarlath Regan. “The Irishman Abroad and all our podcast series tries not to shy away from difficult topics and people. We try to improve the quality of the episodes with every release and never let the listeners down – both in terms of content and just simply always releasing an episode on time.
“We haven’t missed a single week in six years. People have very inconsistent lives and being something they can rely upon counts for something.”
Dublin Podcast Festival highlights
A Gay and a Non-Gay: November 10th, The Sugar Club
Fronted by pals James Barr and Dan Hudson, A Gay and a Non-Gay is the UK’s number one LGBTQ+ podcast. Hailed by the Radio Times as “the most fundamentally kind and funny podcast in Britain”, their live show promises to be a balm for the soul.
Words To That Effect + Shedunnit: November 15th, Podcast Studios
Hosted by Caroline Crampton, Shedunnit explores the mysteries behind classic detective stories. Words To That Effect, meanwhile, sees Conor Reid examine the intersection between fiction and popular culture. The two podcasts join forces for a live show at this year’s festival. A must-see for bookworms.
Motherfocloir + The Irish Passport: November 17th, The Button Factory
Two podcasts that explore the essentials of Irish culture. Motherfocloir delves deep into the Irish language while The Irish Passport presents Irish current affairs and history for an international audience. A double header not to be missed.
The Dollop: November 21st, Liberty Hall
The Dollop is one of America’s leading comedy podcasts. The premise is simple: each episode is centred around an obscure or peculiar event in US history. Comedian Dave Anthony relates the details to his co-host Gareth Reynolds and hilarity ensues.
My Favourite Murder: November 24th, 25th, Bord Gais Energy Theatre
The uber-popular true crime comedy podcast is in Dublin for two shows featuring comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discuss – what else? – some of their favourite murders. Murderinos assemble!