Why you should care
Podcasts for South Koreans aren’t just about being entertained.
The creators of the now-famous South Korean podcast Naneun Ggomsuda (“I’m a Sneaky Trickster”) couldn’t have known what they were setting into motion back when they began broadcasting their smash-hit political satire in 2011. Sure, the four-man comedic commentary team attracted 6 million downloads within months by taking potshots — mixed with serious political reporting — at the country’s conservative and allegedly corrupt ruling class.
But what started as a joke grew into a national trend that some say has helped transform the country’s media landscape. These days:
Nearly 2 out of 3 South Koreans listen to podcasts — the highest in the world.
That’s according to the 2018 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which found that 58 percent of South Koreans said they tuned in to a podcast within the last month — around 25 percentage points higher than both Americans (33 percent) and the global average (34 percent). Hong Kong and Taiwan came in second and third, respectively, with 55 and 47 percent.
Most casual observers might point to South Korea’s robust electronics and technology sector, driven by world-renowned giants like LG and Samsung, and figure it’s no surprise that a new age media platform would take off there. The fact that the country boasts some of the world’s fastest internet speeds certainly helps. And commutes, especially in the sprawling capital, Seoul — home to around one-fifth of the national population — are also long. A 2017 study found that South Koreans spend an average of 74 minutes per day commuting, compared to an average of 39 minutes in Japan.
But most media analysts point to Naneun Ggomsuda, or NaGomSu for short, as the true catalyst. For the 1 1/2 years it was on the air, it harnessed liberal Koreans’ frustration with conservative ex-President Lee Myung-bak and the stodgy media landscape that often toed his party’s line. It engaged droves of previously inactive citizens and sparked widespread political participation — in addition to a nascent interest in podcasts. “People were suddenly attracted to this new media form,” says Nakho Kim, an assistant professor at Penn State Harrisburg. He describes NaGomSu as a mix between ProPublica and Saturday Night Live.
Fast-forward several years: Following a turbulent political scandal in 2016 that led to the downfall of ex-President Park Geun-hye, and eventually, her conservative Grand National Party, South Korean politics took a leftward turn under President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party. Meanwhile, former President Lee, NaGomSu’s top target, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bribery.
But conventional media, a significant portion of which is public broadcasting, has been slow to adapt to a more progressive-minded public, experts say. “They are looking for alternative media channels because broadcast is pretentious and the content is difficult to trust,” says Sungkyu Lee, a Seoul-based media expert and entrepreneur. That’s probably why political or news-oriented shows, often produced by citizen journalists, dominate the podcast scene. In fact, Lee points out, two of the three most popular podcasts currently on Podbbang, South Korea’s largest podcast platform, are hosted by former NaGomSu participants. The phenomenon has also been colored by what scholars call “carnivalism,” or the use of humor and comedic techniques to subvert the mainstream political discourse.
Still, though, Lee’s careful about pegging South Korea as the world’s podcast capital. He points to a more recent poll by local research firm Embrain that found that only one-fifth of the population considers podcasts to be an everyday staple in their lives, though that’s higher than the estimated 12 percent of American households surveyed by Nielsen in 2017 that reported being “avid podcast fans.”
Yet there’s evidence the new media is playing an increasingly central role for those who are keen listeners: According to Kim, of Penn State Harrisburg, the average listener in South Korea spends a whopping 2 1/2 hours a day tuned in to their favorite shows — not because they’re simply being entertained, but because they’re being informed. “To put it bluntly,” he says, “the fear of missing out — the FOMO — in Korea is just massive.”
But now that podcasts are established as a go-to information source, especially for liberal Koreans, other experts say the political and information battle lines are shifting to another platform: YouTube. According to Youngju Ryu, a Korea expert at the University of Michigan, the popular video-hosting site has seen a proliferation of right-leaning content — often radical — from disgruntled conservative Koreans pining for the days of impeached ex-President Park. “In a very surprising way,” she says, “YouTube has been very, very good for the right.”
The question is, how many Koreans will stop listening — and start watching?