August 13 of this year marked the fifth anniversary of podcasting. On that date in 2004 former MTV VJ Adam Curry began his Daily Source Code podcast, ushering the term into the popular consciousness.
Like so many innovative ideas, podcasting is quite simple. It’s not like there weren’t online radio programs prior to 2004. The A-Infos Radio Project has been providing free hosting for independent and grassroots radio programs since 1996. Live365 made live webcasting broadly available back in 1999. But what podcasting brought to the party was a way to make finding and downloading online programs easy and automatic.
Prior to 2005 if there was a online radio program you wanted to listen to you had to check its website on a regular basis to see if a new program was available. Or if it was a live program you had to make sure to tune in to the stream at the right time, just like conventional radio. If you didn’t check in with your program’s website, then you wouldn’t know if there was a new episode.
At its essence podcasting is just an extension to an earlier innovation known as RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on who you ask. Developed in the late 1990s and finding popularity with the emergence of blogs in the early 2000s, RSS provides a site summary to a “feed reader” which allows you to know when blogs and other sites are updated, rather than having to check back.
Podcasting resulted from the simple addition of the “enclosure” tag which tells a feed reader or “podcatcher” to download an audio or video file. This little addition to the RSS specification meant that you could now use a piece of software to periodically check your favorite radio sites and download new programs as soon as they became available.
What really caused podcasting to take off was when Apple added podcatching functionality to its iTunes application. When that happened iPod users no longer needed to manage separate programs to find and download podcasts. Using iTunes they could do it all using the same application they used to sync and manage their iPods. But make no mistake, podcasting existed before Apple’s embrace. In fact many early adopters chafed against the obvious iPod reference inherent in the podcasting name. Nevertheless, the name stuck.
It’s fair to say that the emergence of podcasting revitalized online radio, and even audio programs in general. In the same way that TiVo and PVRs breathed new life into television, podcasting suddenly gave listeners the ability to mold their intake of audio programming to their own schedule. At the same time, RSS podcasts feeds made it much easier to index podcasts and create easily searchable online directories organized by genre and keyword. It’s that innovation which stimulated an onslaught of podcast production.
And thus did thousands of podcasts bloom. Of course, they varied in quality from the brilliant to the moronic to the mundane. But any radio lover cannot discount the importance of thousands of people suddenly embracing the production of audio programming at the same time the commercial broadcast radio industry was busy gutting itself. Producing your own podcast became so popular that within a couple of years a score of new USB microphones and podcast production kits became available to give the budding podcaster better tools than a $9 headset microphone.
Flashing forward to the end of the decade podcasting is now something we take for granted. It’s also largely been robbed of its counter-cultural “pirate” cred. Like blogs before it, podcasting has largely been co-opted by the mainstream media giants. Looking at the iTunes Music Store’s top 20 podcasts, the vast majority are produced by major broadcasters–including NPR–or other big media companies. Only two out of 20 might be considered independent by comparison: The Onion’s Radio News and Mondo Media’s Happy Tree Friends. This mainstream corporate dominance doesn’t mean that there aren’t still plenty of radically independent podcasts out there. There are also quite a few successful and not-so-radical podcast enterprises built outside the mainstream media. It’s just that when it comes to popularity they’re no match for the promotional power of Sony Pictures, or even National Public Radio.
Still, I contend that podcasting gave a shot in the arm to the art of audio programming, and therefore, also radio. Note that while public radio programs like This American Life are also some of the most popular podcasts, you don’t see any major commercial radio programs quite so high on the list. Good audio programming transcends medium, whether it’s on your radio or your iPod. Even if they couldn’t reach Car Talk-sized audiences, podcasting gave independent producers an opportunity to reach a bigger audience than before podcasting. That alone is a valuable, lasting legacy.
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