Politics, mindfulness and sex: Flemings tune into podcasts big and small


As the mainstream media’s programming becomes less and less reflective of their lives, increasingly more Flemings turn to podcasts as their primary source of information

On-demand and online

For Leen Boersma, the incentive to start listening to podcasts was a six-month mission to a war-torn country in southern Asia as a midwife for a humanitarian NGO. Many of the other staffers would rave to Boersma about the podcasts they devoured during their downtime in the compound for the personnel, a place that offered few distractions.

“They were very positive about it, and many of them listened to podcasts because it was an easy way to relax,” she says. When she returned to Brussels, the 28-year-old downloaded the Podcast Addict app, and she’s been hooked ever since, now a regular listener of such podcasts as Mindfulness, Touché and Interne Keuken.

“What I really enjoy about it is that you don’t have to make any effort to learn about things that fall outside your line of work. It’s just really nice to sit in other people’s worlds,” she says, adding that she doesn’t own a radio and appreciates the convenience of being able to listen at her leisure. “I’m really glad that I have discovered this. This is really, I think, an added value in your free time.”

Boersma is one of a growing number of people who are embracing podcasts as both an alternative and complement to traditional radio. Think of podcasts as episodes of a radio show that can be downloaded to a smartphone, computer or tablet.

A recipe for success

Although many podcasts also exist as conventional shows on channels such as Radio 1, some of the most popular are independently produced. They are accessible through such platforms as iTunes and SoundCloud, or podcasting apps like Stitcher.

As a format, podcasts have been around since 2004, but recent stateside and local developments have firmly pushed the genre into the spotlight. Experts attribute the increased popularity of the format in Flanders to the breakout success of the US podcast Serial, which also drew many Flemish fans. Public broadcaster VRT’s has also done its part to acquaint Flemings with the genre by launching several podcasts of its own.

With podcasts, you can dig into any subject without having to worry that you need to reach as many listeners as possible

- Pieter Blomme

“Podcast are enjoying increased attention and have been gaining popularity among consumers, who are starting to listen to them more and more,” confirms Pieter Blomme, education co-ordinator at the Ghent-based training centre REC, which offers two postgraduate programmes in digital storytelling. He attributes the surge in popularity to many factors, including faster mobile internet, the on-demand availability and the growing attention from the media.

“A well-made podcast begins with a skilfully executed and captivating story that is professionally made and follows the guidelines of audio storytelling,” he explains. “It must also be able to reach, appeal to and engage a wide audience online.”

Blomme was one of the leading forces behind Flanders’ first-ever podcast festival. As part of the event, which took place in June, podcast hosts big and small were invited to broadcast their shows live at the Kerk community space in Ghent.

All about the fun

The aim, Blomme explains, was to introduce more Flemings to the genre. “We wanted to show podcasts as something very simple and normal – namely, someone telling an interesting story on stage.”

Even if growing, the number Flemings listening to podcasts is still just a fraction of the general population. A 2014 media survey from the Centre for Information on the Media, for instance, put the number of Flemings who listen to digital radio – which includes podcasts as well as on-demand online radio – at just 5.5% of the population.

But the subset of the population that does listen to podcasts, says Blomme, is made up of hard-core devotees. “They are often very avid listeners who have sworn off radio and have completely switched to on-demand podcasts.”

Podcasts made in Flanders can be placed into three categories – shows by people from the creative sector, like independent radio producers, who typically strive for high production values; by companies or brands; and by young digital natives who dive deep into a niche subject.

For the latter group, attracting listeners is typically just an afterthought. All the fun is in the podcasting itself, Blomme explains, much like in the heyday of blogging in the 2000s, when most websites were read by just a handful of people – typically family and friends.

Breaking taboos

Because podcasts can be uploaded to a variety of online platforms and applications, it is next to impossible to arrive at an estimate of how many podcasts are made in Flanders. Blomme says between 50 to 100 podcasts have regular weekly updates and a solid, active following of about 1,000 listeners. But he stresses these number are a guess.

The podcast format, in any case, has made it possible for voices and opinions less often heard in the media to also get airtime. Vuile Lakens (Dirty Laundry), a show led by Heleen Debruyne and Anaïs Van Ertvelde, offers candid discussions about sex, the human body and R-rated topics, with past episodes delving into pubic shaving trends, female ejaculation and the inanity of menstrual product ads.

My target audience is the 10 people who want to listen to a two-hour interview rather than the 10,000 people who want the quick, three-sentence summary

- Kobe van Reppelen of Kapitein Kobe

In addition, podcasts boldly do what traditional radio shows try to stay clear of. As a producer, Blomme says, “you can dig into any subject without having to worry that you need to reach as many listeners as possible”.

The surge of podcasts, he adds, has also allowed a number of “forgotten genres” such as documentaries, radio plays and soundscapes to be revived. That’s a sentiment echoed by Kobe van Reppelen, the host of Kapitein Kobe, a weekly podcast in which the 24-year-old from Genk conducts long interviews with people he finds interesting (in a delectable Limburg accent).

His past guests have included filmmaker Adil El Arbi (Black) and federal telecommunications minister Alexander De Croo, but also food blogger Karolien Olaerts and Eefje Depoortere, a former sports reporter with a huge online following.

Make your voice heard

Van Reppelen spends some 20 hours on a typical episode – contacting people, travelling, editing recordings. He has no formal audio training, but the past year, he says, has been a rewarding experience.

“People show such gratitude when you contact them, when you interview them and when you make the show available,” van Reppelen says, explaining that he never imagined it would be such a joy ride. “The gratitude you get both from your guests and listeners is incredible.”

Since launching his podcast at the end of last year, van Reppelen has also been surprised to find how willing the people he contacts are to open up to someone with no backing from a mainstream media outlet. “I thought I would need a blog or that I needed to be a famous person before people would take me seriously. But that absolutely wasn’t the case.”

His listening figures, van Reppelen admits, were never his biggest concern. “My target audience is the 10 people who want to listen to a two-hour interview, rather than the 10,000 people who want the quick, three-sentence summary.”

He does, however, frequently check the statistics to see how many people tune in to his show. “But I try to take them into account as little as possible. For me, they’re not a measure of the quality of my work.”

Photo: Sergey Galyonkin/Flickr