The field of podcasting has experienced rapid growth. Since its coinage in 2004, hundreds of millions have listened to podcasts—digital audio files available on the Internet, which are usually part of a themed series. As of 2019, over 64% of Americans were familiar with podcasts, a dramatic increase from 22% in 2006. In 2018, Google had indexed at least two million podcasts created around the world. According to Edison Research, over 700,000 active podcasts and more than 29 million podcast episodes were available on the Internet in 2019, rising from an estimated 550,000 active podcasts and 18.5 million episodes in 2018. In the United States alone, 51% of the population aged 12 and above have listened to podcasts. Internationally, a 2019 Reuters digital survey reported that 36% of international respondents recently listened to podcasts.
The proliferation of podcasts has acutely impacted the sports media industry. Networks like ESPN and Fox Sports offer menus of podcasts hosted by noted media anchors and former athletes. Current and former athletes are using podcasts to present their unique perspectives and tell stories of inspiration and female athletic empowerment. At the same time, the popular website Barstool Sports produces multiple lucrative podcasts that cater to the 18-34 year old male demographic through misogynistic conversations and the sexualization of female athletes, female podcast hosts, and podcast content. A simple Google search yields multiple lists of the “best” and “top ranking” sports podcasts available on the Internet, with such lists indicating that the current landscape of sports podcasting is dominated by content focused on a narrow set of professional sports, produced and hosted almost exclusively by men, with little perspective through a critical lens.
However, there are prominent sports podcasts on national platforms that critically examine issues in the sports world. Only a Game, produced by National Public Radio, devotes episodes to complex topics like the role of power, corruption and race in the NCAA’s enforcement of amateurism and the U.S. women’s national soccer’s team fight for gender equity. BackStory, another public radio podcast, devoted their July 26, 2019 episode to “the issue of sports and equality in American history.” Celebrity comedian Rhea Butcher’s Three Swings “reinvents” baseball history and culture, with one recent episode on “the hidden queer history” of the All American Girls’ Professional Baseball League. The Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin, meanwhile, discusses pressing issues in contemporary sports on his Edge of Sports podcast, with episodes featuring interviews with former athletes, journalists, and other prominent figures in the sports world. Further, individual episodes about sports have been produced by nationally-recognized podcasts like Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.
The feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down is a critically-focused sports podcast that unites contemporaneous discussion with scholarly analysis. Hosted by a group of feminist academics, activists and journalists, each episode gives an intersectional take on the latest news and events in sports. According to statistics available on their SoundCloud page (which does not take into account statistics from other podcast platforms like Apple or Google), hundreds of listeners follow the podcast, with each episode receiving roughly 4,000-6,000 plays. The hosts put their scholarly and interpretive tools into practice as they focus on the experiences of women athletes and fans as well as marginalized communities. With thousands of listeners streaming each episode, their continued success demonstrates the existence of listener appetite for critically-focused sports podcasts that present narratives and analyses alternative to mainstream media outlets.
Most of the podcasts outlined above involve similar approaches, with episodes generally geared toward offering critical analysis and reactions to the contemporary news and events in sporting culture. Others, like Australian media and sport academic Brett Hutchins, have created podcasts to highlight the important work of scholars researching sport. Through his MediaSport Podcast Series, Hutchins has interviewed numerous scholars conducting cutting edge research on the “key social, cultural, economic and political issues” in sporting contexts. By relying on the interview format, MediaSport mirrors the New Books in Sports podcast of the New Books Network, as both promote and increase the accessibility of the latest research related to sport. Aaron Lakoff’s hockey-focused podcast Changing on the Fly takes a similar approach, interviewing scholars, activists and artists as each episode speaks to critical issues in Canadian hockey culture, such as racism and gender equity. MediaSport, Changing on the Fly and Burn It All Down demonstrate that scholars of sport are using the podcast to discuss important issues through a critical lens as well as promote the latest research on sports.
The overall growth of podcasting has also created opportunities for scholars to explore its range of uses. Consider popular storytelling podcasts like This American Life and Serial. These acclaimed podcasts draw on a literary tradition of radio storytelling stretching to the early 20th century, when modernist artists and journalists used the radio’s emerging popularity to broadcast avant-garde, cutting-edge programs. Additionally, in taking a different direction, Radiolab, under the lead production of Jad Abumrad, has experimented with a wide array of sound production techniques. The drama and emotional intensity of sporting experiences make them ideal topics for exploring storytelling, sound production, and a range of other elements unique to audio as a medium. This is partly why I have been collaborating with colleagues in developing a podcast series, called Somatic, for the expressed purpose of experimenting with the podcast as a mode for telling evocative stories concerning our bodies in motion through the production of rich sound experiences.
In short, there are a number of podcasts focused on critically analyzing sports news, history and culture. Sport scholars are also being impacted by the podcast boom and are increasingly engaging with the digital audio format in innovative ways. Combined with the increasing audience for podcasts like Burn It All Down, the future is bright for the critical sports podcast.
Oliver Rick is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sport and Recreation Management at Springfield College. This article was written in collaboration with Samuel M. Clevenger, who teaches sport history at Towson University. Their digital audio project can be found at somaticpodcast.com or you can connect with them on twitter @SomaticPodcast