The noise in the background of the “Birdchick” podcast is almost as intriguing as the conversation — the caw of a cockatiel, the clink of ice cubes.

“Listeners appreciate the bird news, but they say they keep coming back for the marital banter and the fact that we swear,” said Sharon Stiteler, 42, a professional birder who hosts the show with husband, “Non-birding Bill,” as her foil. “There’s this image that birders are uptight, but we keep it loose, bouncing between the scientific and the humorous,” she said.

Sharing a microphone and tumblers of Irish whiskey, they’ve produced almost 200 digital audio programs, which can be downloaded for free.

“We have quite a few listeners in the U.K.,” said Stiteler, who leads bird-watching trips. “Everywhere I go, I meet listeners who say, ‘I feel like I know you,’ and then offer to buy me a Jameson.”

The Stitelers are part of a new wave of empowered podcasters who are sharing their passions with the world. Armed with inexpensive microphones and no shortage of stories and opinions, these hobbyists are changing what, where and how we listen.

“No longer are people simply media consumers, now more of them want to be media makers,” said Prof. Laura Gurak, who researches the democratization of the internet as chair of the writing studies department at the University of Minnesota. “They don’t want to be talked to, they want to talk back.”

In 2005, Apple announced the podcasting concept. In a news release, CEO Steve Jobs declared podcasting “the next generation of radio,” citing more than 3,000 free podcasts to choose from.

That number has since soared to more than a million, including professionally produced original programs, repackaged radio shows and celebrities and comedians who create original audio content to expand their brand; earlier this week Hillary Clinton chatted through her first personal podcast.

“Trends follow hardware,” said Gurak. “I suspect the expansion of podcasts has to do with the ubiquity of the mobile device. When podcasting began, not everyone had an iPod or another MP3 player, and downloading and syncing was complicated. With smartphones comes ease of use. More people can play podcasts in their cars, and that’s replacing radio on their commutes.”

Barrier-free communication

Once a week, Andrew Nielsen plugs his mic into a laptop to record his half of the “Geek to Geek” podcast, an hourlong conversation about gaming, movies and technology.

“I’ve been listening to podcasts for years, so it was just a matter of time before I got the itch to create one,” said Nielsen, 29, a freelance web designer who lives in Maple Grove.

Nielsen’s podcasting partner is a science fiction author and English professor who records his part of the show from his home in Alabama. Their show, which debuted in April, has about 900 subscribers.

“It’s been awesome for me as a creator to find an audience,” Nielsen said. “No one had to green-light us, there were no barriers to entry.”

Like many podcasters, Nielsen relies on word-of-mouth to promote his program. That, and the fact that many podcasts focus on niche topics, limits potential commercial sponsorship. Amateur producers tend to regard podcasting as a hobby rather than an income stream.

“There are many more platforms now, and those who create quality content can gain a following,” said Carol Grothem, in-house media buyer for Medifast who has so far declined pitches from podcasters looking for commercial support.

“The numbers aren’t there,” she said. “The bottom line is, to have value to a sponsor, a program has to generate results and leads.”

That’s a tall order for a form that’s not yet mainstream. Despite the growth of podcasting, Edison Research’s 2016 consumer trends survey found that only 55 percent of Americans knew what a podcast was. Only 37 percent had listened to one in the past year.

Soapbox community

But newbie podcasters like Maddy Love are satisfied with reaching a microaudience.

Love, 39, of Eagan created the “Minnesota TransAtheist” podcast in 2013 after a fruitless search for content about gender transition. Her podcast, about “the trans, queer and nonbinary communities, along with atheism, science, music, underwear and anything else I find interesting,” begins with updates about her transition followed by an interview on a topic that interests her.

“My podcast is my soapbox to say to everyone in the transgender community that there’s no one right way to live,” said Love.

Levi Weinhagen wasn’t looking to create community when he started podcasting. It was the intimacy he was interested in. “As a listener, you feel so close to someone who’s talking in your ear,” he said.

An improv performer and father, Weinhagen’s original podcast, “Pratfalls of Parenting,” featured fellow comedy writers who also were knee deep in child rearing.

“I burned through the comedians and started hearing from people who told me they didn’t have kids but they listened,” said Weinhagen, 38, of Minneapolis. So he rebranded as “The Pratfalls Podcast” and started interviewing creatives. “It’s a way to have deep conversations with people I barely know,” he said. “I can ask questions that would otherwise be socially unacceptable.”

Weinhagen, a communications specialist with the Minnesota Council on Foundations, also produces a podcast for the state’s philanthropic community, and predicts that more businesses and nonprofits will use podcasting as “cost-effective storytelling” to spread their message.

“With podcasting, there’s no gatekeeper, which can be both good and bad,” he added. “Even though it’s been around for a while, it’s still the Wild West.”

Weinhagen has proof of the ease of production under his own roof. His 10-year-old daughter is working on “Podcast Junior,” with a child’s take on the world.

“I want more people to make podcasts,” Weinhagen said. “The more who make them, the more listeners there will be.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.