PODCASTING: A Primer

There is no question that the proliferation of the Internet has rapidly revolutionized the way that we, as a society, think about and consume media. In the very recent past, a number of media devices would be required of someone who wished to experience television, film, music, and radio to the fullest. Now, in a very short period of time, a computer with access to the Internet has replaced the television set, radio, record player, and VHS, allowing a user to access any sort of media they wish with a single device. While the rise of the Internet has not necessarily created a fundamental shift in the type or content of the media we consume, it has dramatically altered the way that that media is distributed to and accessed by the audience.

The podcast is a new form of media that, while completely unique to the Internet, has its roots in traditional radio programming. Definitions of the word podcast vary from source to source, but a podcast is generally agreed to be an audio or video file that is downloaded directly onto a computer’s hard drive, and that can be played directly on the computer or transferred to a portable mp3 device. A podcast, once downloaded, can be played an unlimited number of times, whenever and wherever the listener wishes, obviously differentiating it from a radio broadcast, which is only available to listen to once, and only at the time that it is being aired. A podcast is also distinctly different from a webcast or Internet radio, but in a less apparent manner. Unlike a podcast, which is downloaded permanently to a hard drive, a webcast is streamed, or played directly in your web browser via your Internet connection.

Given that podcasts did not really come into prevalence until recent years, it may be odd to think that their history goes back nearly two decades, with early attempts at sharing digital radio and talk media limited by the more primitive technology of that time. The development of the MP3 format in 1991 allowed for high quality audio to be compressed into small files, innovating digital file sharing and setting the stage for the developments to come. One such development was the introduction of Apple’s iPod, which allowed users to download MP3 files from their computer onto the portable device, but despite what the name “podcast” might imply, it would be several more years until Apple introduced podcast support to the iTunes store. The primary driving force behind the podcast was not Apple, but the refining of RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed technology in 2003, which enabled users to subscribe to their desired content and have it delivered directly to their hard drive through their Internet connection at regular intervals, as the content makers post it.

The word podcast, a portmanteau of the words iPod and broadcast, was coined shortly after, in 2004, in an article that Ben Hammersley published in The Guardian. He wrote, “With the benefit of hindsight, it all seems quite obvious. MP3 players, like Apple’s iPod, in many pockets, audio production software cheap or free, and weblogging an established part of the internet; all the ingredients are there for a new boom in amateur radio.” And a boom there was. Hammersley’s article appeared in February and in September of that same year, Google’s search engine produced a mere 526 results for the word podcast. Less than a month later, the same search returned over 100,000 hits. The following year, Apple integrated podcast software directly into their iTunes store, and the New Oxford American Dictionary dubbed podcast “Word of the Year.”

Since 2006, the general public’s awareness of podcasts has grown two-fold. As of 2013, there were approximately 250,000 unique podcasts in existence and around 100 million Americans had heard a podcast. Podcast topics cover everything from politics and economics to comedy to history to health to education. Podcasts are not only free to download, but they are cheap to produce, and many traditional radio stations, such as NPR, have embraced the podcast as a means to reach audiences outside their scheduled broadcast times. Podcast listeners are still in the minority, and most are of a younger generation that relies more on the Internet than the older media formats of the past. While initially skeptical, advertisers are increasingly turning to podcasts as a platform to pitch their products.

As podcast content creation gets cheaper and more accessible, the number and variety of programs available will continue to grow. We are already living in an age where there is a very good possibility that with a simple search, anyone can find a podcast that relates to any one of their hobbies or areas of interest, allowing users to personally cater their listening experience depending on their wants and needs. I predict that as more people turn away from traditional media forms and towards the Internet for the majority of their entertainment needs, podcasts will only continue to grow in number, diversity, listenership and quality.

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