It's hard to believe but just a decade ago podcasts were lonely places where comedians tried out their jokes or entrepreneurs shared their tips. But now thanks to wildly popular shows like "Serial" and "Radiotopia," the podcasting medium has exploded in size and depth. Like the radio shows of long ago, podcasts offer speakers an intimate way to connect with their audience. In return, podcast listeners receive a huge variety of high-quality shows to consume -—all for little to no cost. Is this the golden age of podcasting? And how long will it last?

Podcasts — or audioblogs as they were once called — have been around since 2004. Back in those days, if you were tech-savvy enough to know that podcasts existed, you could search through the few selections on iTunes and download them to your iPod. A few years later, smartphones put that technology into the pockets of hundreds of millions of users around the world.

"Smartphones have made it easier to subscribe to and download podcasts," said John Luckenbaugh, owner and chief engineer of Q’d Up Audio Services. "Podcasts are widely available, free or low-cost, and can be played on whichever portable device you're already carrying in your pocket or purse."

With the release of Apple's iOS 8 in 2014, smartphone owners had the Podcast app right on their home screens and no longer had to go out of their way to find and download podcasts.

'Why doesn't everyone do it? They do'

In 2016, 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older listened to a podcast within the previous month. That's up from 12 percent in 2013. This explosion in podcast listeners has resulted in an equally impressive explosion in podcast content. As Heather Brooker, the podcaster behind "Motherhood in Hollywood" explained:

"[T]here's virtually no overhead and low start up fees. For around $200 you can launch your podcast with a couple of mics and some free audio editing equipment. How much or how little you want to spend from there is up to each podcaster. So basically, it's a lot of fun, you're in control, and you're not losing any money. Why doesn't everyone do it? They do."

While the proliferation of new shows has been great for listeners, it's also made it more difficult to find really good shows. Remember when there were just a few blogs to choose from and then suddenly it seemed like every Tom, Dick and Harry had their own blog and Twitter handle? That's what's happening with podcasting right now.

"The addition of celebrities and traditional media outlets has changed the game as they come in with high level production, large following already in place, and advertising budgets," said Thom Singer, the podcaster behind "Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do." "This makes it more difficult for the small podcaster to be discovered."

Suzy Moore first dipped her toe into the podcasting waters 10 years ago with a show about organization in business. At the time, she saw her podcast as a means to an end. "[M]ore business clients, speaking engagements, credibility, etc." Any money that Moore made from her show was secondary as she was able to parlay her podcast into a radio show and speaking engagements.

Recently, Moore launched a new podcast, "So Suzy," which focuses on stamping and the craft industry, and she's been blown away by the new potential to make a profit directly via her podcast. "[W]e are talking sponsors, advertisers, pushing product, affiliate links with the passive income of creating online classes, book deals, speaking engagements as well as having it segue into consulting. You can make some serious income from creating a value-added podcast with a very specific niche market," Moore said.

Coffee and a podcast Podcasting listening grew by almost 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. (Photo: jarabee123/Shutterstock)

A captive audience

Why are podcasts attracting such lucrative advertising dollars? "Unlike other forms of media, listeners tend to give podcasts exclusive attention and time," Luckenbaugh told MNN. And while most podcasting shows are still 100 percent free for listeners, the popularity of shows like "Serial" have proven that loyal listeners are willing to pay for high-quality content they can count on. Toward the end of the show's 12-episode season, "Serial" host Sarah Koenig made a public pitch for donations to produce a second season of the show. It was fully funded within a week.

So where is the podcasting industry headed? Can we as listeners expect to ride this wave of high-quality, free programming indefinitely? Caitlin Thompson, director of content for Acast, a podcasting platform, summed it up this way: "I see a proliferation of better shows, with more varied formats, topics and hosts, getting to new listeners through better tech integrations, sharing and recommendations."

Just as most blog platforms have remained relatively free, higher-quality blogs have risen to the top thanks to word of mouth, which in turn translates into sponsor support. Similarly, listener support will help the good podcasts float to the top where advertising dollars and paid premium content will help keep those shows on the air.

This may be the golden age of podcasting, but it looks like things are only going to get better.