August 17, 2020

How podcast learned to speak – The once useless medium that became essential

When you first heard about podcasts, do you remember how excited you weren’t? Do you recall the first person who said, “Did you know you can now download audio files of people talking?” To which you might have replied, “Talking about … what?” To which they might have replied, “About … anything!” — at which point you realised that podcasts seemed like radio but more amateurish, which wasn’t the most compelling sales pitch.

I’m going to guess you’ve listened to a podcast since then, maybe even a few. And I’m going to guess that you’ve even become obsessed with one or two. There are now an estimated 660,000 podcasts in production (that’s a real number, not some comically inflated figure I invented to communicate “a lot”), offering up roughly 28 million individual episodes for your listening enjoyment (again, a real number; yes, someone counted).

On hindsight, the elements that made the podcast revolution inevitable (they’re cheap to make and easy to distribute) are the exact ones that made them seem the opposite of revolutionary when they first appeared. The portmanteau podcast, a mash-up of iPod and broadcast coined by the journalist Ben Hammersley in The Guardian in 2004, suggests that podcasts rode in on the coattails of the digital-music revolution. Their development since has been a case study in sheer, unfettered experimentation — the gleeful result of the kind of widespread, wiki-sourced evolution that can happen only when no one is paying attention or, at least, no one with enormous bags of money is paying attention.

Podcasts have one very obvious progenitor — radio, to a surprising degree the public-radio program This American Life — while being the brainchildren of thousands of disparate inventors. There are no editors to convince, no producers to pitch, no green lights to be green-lit. To make a podcast, all you have to do is buy a mic, install a recording program on your laptop, and start talking.

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