Podcasts: 1 Million Little Genres

This week our theme has been to break away from what we typically write about which is anything social media, 360° video, or virtual reality related. To keep up with this theme we will be discussing a media channel that is often overlooked in regards to its popularity, diversity, and its ability to connect with people to keep them coming back for more. Have you ever listen to a podcast? At least if you haven’t listened to one there is almost a 100% certainty that you have heard of the term. If you’re deep into the podcast world of 2017 there seems to be a podcast for everything and a genre for everyone. Political, environmental, fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, horror, and the list could go on. Today, it seems like more people listen to podcasts than the actual radio. Is this fact true, and what exactly is podcast and how has it impacted the way people connect with one another? Let’s find out.


A Brief History of Podcasts


So before we delve into why podcasts are so popular and why they have such an ability to connect with people we should take a look at where podcasts started. First, podcasting could not be made possible without the internet. Up until the mid-1990’s when the internet really began to evolve there was no dedicated platform for the concept of podcasting to stand on. Shortly after the arrival of the internet weblogs started to appear (known today simple as a “blog”). Blogging became a quick and easy way for people to share their thoughts and ideas to large amounts of people over the internet rather quickly. Blogs allowed anyone to be a social commentator, a journalist, on anything that they had a passion for or an interest in. As more and more blogs began to populate the internet it started to become challenging to keep up with all of the blogs that people wanted to follow. This all changed when the first newsfeed technology was introduced in 2003 known as “RSS” or an “RSS Feed”. Dave Winer is known for inventing this technology that allowed people to follow their favorite blogs and get notified every time a new post was made. A program called an aggregator would regularly check for updates and download them to your personal computer.

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Next came audio blogging. As internet streaming speeds began to increase people started experimenting with voice based blogs. Instead of writing many bloggers began to record audio files and uploaded them to their blog where people could download the file and place it on an MP3 player. The problem with this was the the process had to be done manually with the file having to be physically downloaded and transferred to a compatible MP3 player…..not the most convenient method for on-the-go listening. Thus entered Adam Curry who wanted to simplify this process to make downloading a podcast as simple as subscribing to an RSS Feed. Adam approached Dave Winer who invented RSS and posed the idea of updating the software to allow audio files to be pushed to people’s computers so they could access audio blogs the same way regular blogs could be accessed. Dave then added the “File Enclosure” feature to RSS which told the computer where the audio file was located so it could be automatically downloaded as new audio files were released by the blogger. To bring all of this together Adam developed “Podcatcher” which was the first podcast aggregator which would check for updates, read the file enclosure to see where it should download the file, and transfer the file seamlessly to an MP3 player or iPod.


Are podcasts more popular than the radio?


The short answer is no. Although podcasting has increased in popularity by leaps and bounds over the past few years the Pew Research Center has publicized that only 2% of all audio listening in the U.S is through podcasts where 54% is AM/FM radio. At the end of the day the reason that many people still listen to AM/FM radio more so than podcasts is due to the nature of how the mediums are delivered to the listener. Although downloading and streaming podcasts has become easier over the last few years, podcasts still require the listener to have some type of MP3 player or computer that has to be connected to the internet. Radio does not and will never encounter this problem as most audio listening takes place in vehicles where it is much easier to turn on the car’s built-in radio as opposed to hooking up an MP3 player or iPod to listen to a podcast. Many AM/FM radio shows are also designed to be short and lack any type of depth because the listener is statistically only in their car for a short-period of time. Podcasts on the other hand tend to have more depth, episodes typically last 45-minutes to an hour, and many podcasts are broken up into seasons that require the listener to have heard previous episodes. Even though AM/FM holds a majority of the total audio listening market that is not to say that the rapid expansion of the internet will start to impact the mediums market share. Many new cars are internet enabled and allow passengers to seamlessly connect to the internet while driving. Who is to say that in the near future podcasts cannot be automatically downloaded to individual vehicles making podcast listening just as easy as turning on AM/FM radio?


Connections made through audio
Even though AM/FM radio remains the key force in audio listening it still lacks something special that only podcasts seem to be able to offer; diversity. Like a blog a podcast can be about anything and anyone can make a podcast. Have an interest in fine french cooking? There’s a podcast for it! Do you like old english horror stories with a modern twist? There’s a podcast for it! Are you a truck driver who has a fascination in ancient egyptian artifacts? There is podcast for it! It seems hard to believe that their could be a podcast for so many diverse interests, but the reality is that there is. People also tend to connect more with topics and things that interest them as opposed to generalized politics, news, and music. Companies are starting to pick-up on this as many podcasts now include brief advertisements featuring products or services that the podcaster can integrate directly into the theme of their podcast. This is something that AM/FM radio still cannot do as stations are required to set aside airtime for advertisements that companies pay for well in advance. Many podcasts such as “This American Life”, “NPR Now”, and even the “Joe Rogan Experience” have become so popular they are giving rival local television and radio stations a run for their money in terms of total engagement and subscriber – ship. Podcasts may still be a relatively young channel of audio entertainment in comparison to radio, but as the internet grows and more and more people begin to access content that actually matters to them pod-casting very well may become even bigger than AM/FM radio as we know it.


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