Ears to Hear: Catholics and the Podcast Revolution

The medium of the moment calls the faithful to listen and engage.

Father Mike Schmitz is the host of the podcast "the Bible in a Year," produced by Ascension.
Father Mike Schmitz is the host of the podcast "the Bible in a Year," produced by Ascension. (photo: Courtesy photo / Ascension Press)

The podcast revolution continues to advance.  

The latest research from Edison Research and Triton Digital and its 2021 edition of “The Infinite Dial,” America’s longest-running study of consumer media habits, indicates that the endless upward trajectory of podcast-listening received a significant boost from the pandemic. 

How this media landscape is shifting can be seen in how people consume news. The New York Times’ The Daily podcast has approximately four million downloads — that’s listeners — per day. This is impressive by any yardstick, especially as this listenership is greater than the most popular U.S. television daily news. As well as listening on smart speakers at home, people seem to be comfortable consuming news on the go: walking, driving or at the gym. This is corroborated by the figures for NPR’s audience across a number of their news podcasts. This now exceeds seven million listeners per week. No weekly television broadcast or cable show comes close to this type of audience share.

So podcasts are an increasingly prominent media. That alone should cause Catholics to want to become involved in this contemporary media revolution. But there is another reason, and it is one more pressing still. 

Podcasts are an audible companion — while we are walking, running, cooking, driving, etc.; in short, podcasts have permeated all areas of modern living. Podcasts pop into our feeds, are downloaded and listened to with ease. 

And what are these podcasts talking about? Unlike other media, podcasts are an excellent medium for discussing ideas. Cerebral, intellectual, philosophical, the more complex the idea the better for the podcast format. Also, there are no time constraints imposed by radio or television producers. Not constrained by broadcast schedules in the same way as television or radio productions, podcasts are as long as their creators wish them to be.   

Podcasts are exploring complex ideas. And they do so more frequently, and — since most are listened to on headsets — with a greater intimacy than any other mass media. This gives podcasts a power that needs to be recognized. But many podcasts are created solely for entertainment, whether focused on sports or hobbies — and some are pushing a worldview far from the Gospel. 

The sheer breadth of podcast choice is incredible. The last estimate from April 2021 was that there were more than two million podcasts: In total these comprised approximately 48 million episodes. It is self-evident that any Catholic podcast needs to be as good as any “non-Catholic podcast” if it is to stand a chance of finding an audience such is the competition.

So, what makes a good podcast? 

First off, the ear will notice straightaway the sound quality of any podcast. 

No matter how good your podcast sounds, however, if the content is not engaging it will struggle to find an audience. Most podcasts are presenter-led. They are also, for the most part, created by a producer who is also the presenter. Today, it has never been easier to make a podcast — you could record an interview on a phone and upload it seconds later to a potential audience of one billion souls. But if it lacks editorial rigor, or if the classic producer role in shaping the show and restraining the host’s enthusiasms is absent, then this will be all too evident.

In addition, “Catholic podcasts” must be faithful to the magisterium as well as be professionally produced and have clearly targeted audio for a potential audience that is growing year on year. 

As part of EWTN News, the Register has two podcasts worth checking out: Register Radio (also available on Apple Podcasts) and Religious Freedom Matters, now in its third season. 

Some other Catholic podcasts that tick the requisite boxes of good quality content and production, with engaging hosts, include The Bible in a Year, The Road to Emmaus; Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World; and CNA Newsroom. 

Father Mike Schmitz’s The Bible in a Year podcast proved to be an unexpected hit in 2021. By November of that year, the podcast had seen 142 million downloads from all over the world. One suspects that it was the words “Bible” and “in a year” that caught the attention of its audience. Everyone likes a challenge, and many Christians have a desire to read the Bible in a structured way. The actual podcast was akin to training for a long-distance run, which takes stamina, perseverance and a lot of determination. It is not surprising that many have commented to me on how they have fallen “behind” with this particular podcast series. 

The last in the aforementioned list, also from EWTN News, uses the classic soundscape of a podcast, great voice-over upon a well-chosen musical sound bed. CNA Newsroom is a Catholic equivalent of This American Life, which was for years the most downloaded podcast in the world and remains a gold standard in journalistic storytelling. Advertising, “This podcast will give you the people behind the headlines,” CNA Newsroom does just that: oral storytelling utilizing the voice of the original news source. With excellent production and editing, CNA Newsroom is one of the best in the field of audio reportage. 

Road to Emmaus is a genuinely engaging scriptural study from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. This professionally produced podcast benefits from having a host who is uniquely gifted: Scott Hahn is one of today’s foremost Catholic biblical scholars who has written scores of best-selling books and spoken to thousands around the world. In short, he is an expert on his subject and has a gift for communicating his love of the Bible. The fact that he speaks of the sacred Scriptures makes this podcast, in branding terms at least, immediately recognizable. When downloading an episode of Road to Emmaus, there is a clear expectation of what the podcast will be, namely, an interesting Catholic take on the Bible presented in an inspiring way by Hahn. And it rarely disappoints. 

Whereas Road to Emmaus is on subject matter one might expect: Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World deals with what might loosely be described as “the paranormal.” It’s as if Art Bell — the late, legendary host of the all-night Coast-to-Coast AM, which treated similar subject matter — was broadcasting today on a Catholic media network. One suspects it is the element of the unexpected that attracts and retains audiences. Produced by StarQuest (SQPN) Mysterious World is a Top-20 documentary podcast on the U.S. Apple Podcasts charts, currently running at 80,000 downloads per episode. The podcast has two purposes: evangelization and to teach critical thinking skills. The audience may be made up of both believers and nonbelievers, but the discussion in each episode is firmly from the perspective of the Catholic faith. And the listener is going to be exposed to the logic of the show’s co-host, Akin, applied to each episode’s “mystery” — no matter how outlandish that mystery may be. This host-led making sense of the world around us makes for interesting listening, especially so as the element of surprise — both in content and conclusion — is never far away in this podcast’s mysterious universe.