The Internet has changed the way that society consumes media in all forms, and perhaps no medium has grown more exponentially than that of the podcast.
What is a podcast? It’s been described as “audio blogging.” However, since the World Wide Web also gave us Wikipedia, it’s much easier to provide its definition, which is “a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.”
Conversational Radio Open Source debuted in 2003 and is considered by most as the world’s first podcast, although the actual term “podcast” wouldn’t be coined until a year later by The Guardian. Podcasts went mainstream in 2004 when Apple added an iTunes app devoted to the genre, and by 2005 the New Oxford American Dictionary had named “Podcast” its Word of the Year, while President George W. Bush was also delivering his weekly address in the format.
Medium.com reports that its review of the iTunes podcast directory revealed that more than 150,000 podcasts had existed in 2015, although the list of those still actively churning out new episodes is slightly less. Music, comedy and religion top the category charts for having the most podcasts, but there were nearly 7,000 sports podcasts in 2015, a genre that garners some of the highest download rates.
Many of the most popular sports podcasts are extensions of popular television shows (ESPN’s First Take or PTI) and sports personalities (Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd), but high school sports is a growing topic in the podcast universe, to which the state of Illinois can attest.
“Podcasts work for just about any subject, but they are a great avenue for preps, said Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star sports editor Kirk Wessler. “There is a huge appetite for content among the high school sports crowd. If you go up and down and ask people if they are interested in high school sports, most have at least some interest because they know someone who plays on a local team or who played.”
The Journal Star sports department covers a litany of local interests, from roughly 60 high schools to Bradley University, to the St. Louis Cardinals Class A Peoria Chiefs. The staff writers took to the airwaves for more than 12 years beginning in the 1990s on a local radio station to discuss those topics outside of print, but the show eventually ran its course.
Wessler was looking to recapture some of that radio feel when he broached the idea of a weekly podcast with his staff last year. Encouraged by their response and the relative ease and lack of expense in starting the venture, the group set up an in-house studio and a rotation for weekly hosting duties. They debuted the Journal Star Sportswriters Podcast in conjunction with the Illinois High School Association Boys Basketball tournament, spending the episode recapping recent games and looking ahead to other matchups.
“In a newspaper, you would never write 4,000 words on a subject, even if you could,” said Wessler. “The podcast allows an unfiltered discussion for a broader audience. If a newspaper article has a feature on a player from Morton High School or Richwoods High School, the story can have limited appeal to that fan base. However, if you bring in three coaches to talk about the new pitch-count rules, everyone who likes high school baseball is interested.”
Michael O’Brien lets fans know exactly what they are getting with his podcast. Working for the Chicago Sun-Times, O’Brien has been one of the most well-known voices covering high school basketball in the Windy City for nearly two decades. The “No Shot Clock” podcast debuted in 2015 and has more than 15,000 weekly listeners and growing.
“I spend a lot of time stuck in traffic listening to podcasts, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner,” said O’Brien. “I found a blog that taught me how to do a podcast. It turned out to be not very difficult and not very expensive. My co-host Joe Henricksen calls in each week and we talk for an hour and that’s the show. Aside from adding music at the beginning and the end, we don’t do any production. Very low tech, no edits and no takes.”
With coverage space for preps having diminished in the Sun Times print edition, the podcast allows him to touch on teams and players he may not get to in the paper.
“Joe and I realize that we talk a lot about the really good teams on the podcast,” said O’Brien. “But the podcast helps fill the void in print coverage. This week, we had a show where we only talked about schools that hadn’t been ranked in the Super 25 all year long.”
That hasn’t been the best benefit of the podcast for O’Brien.
“It humanizes you,” said O’Brien. “People get to hear you and hear you explain things. They realize that you really care. I used to go to gyms and fans were angry at me about rankings or all-area teams. Now people come up and want to talk about the podcast. They may disagree with the rankings, but its friendly, there is no bone to pick.”
O’Brien says that No Shot Clock is here to stay, but he doesn’t see a No Play Clock, or any other high school sports podcasts, in his future.
“I thought about doing a high school football podcast in the fall,” said O’Brien. “But It’s not like I get paid any extra to do the podcast, so it’s really got to be something you love to do. I love and enjoy it, it’s a lot fun.”
Brian Chimino can relate to O’Brien’s love for high school sports. Chimino spent more than a decade covering and calling high school sports in Chicagoland on radio, television and the web. After taking a new job outside of sports in 2016, Chimino “still had that creative itch and still loved following high school sports.” That led him to launch his Preps 312 Podcast in the fall of 2016, a weekly show initially geared around high school football.
“Working in radio for 10 years it came easy, so I thought I’d give it a shot in my free time,” said Chimino. “It kind of became a puzzle: Record an open and close. Book a guest and record that interview.
Copy and paste that interview between the open and close before I uploaded it. It was pretty organized and easy to produce. I gained a good audience pretty quick.”
Keeping in mind that it was a pure side project, he also found new challenges as the seasons changed.
“Football was easy because of the scheduling with games every Friday and Saturday,” said Chimino. “I tried to keep it going during basketball, but it’s a lot more difficult with games every night of the week.”
Still, Chimino says the Preps 312 Podcast will be back every week next fall and believes that the conditions are right for a continued influx of high school sports podcasts.
“First off, it’s free content that provides a lot of information in a little bit of time. People are hungry for content that informs and entertains them, especially when you factor that with the dissolving prep coverage in other mediums. It’s the right time for podcasts and high school sports.”
Matt Troha is assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.