The week of September 13, 2015

The evolution of a new medium

By Jesse Hicks

In some ways it’s hard to believe the word “podcasting” has been around for more than a decade, coined by Ben Hammersley in a 2004 Guardian article detailing how then-still-novel portable mp3 players, inexpensive audio production software, and weblogging (that’s what it was called back then) had converged to produce a new kind of “online radio.”

Like most tech journalism more than six months old, Hammersley’s story is a quaint artifact, but what strikes me as most insightful within it is a quote from Christopher Lydon, a former NPR and New York Times journalist. “It’s an experiment, really,” he says, listing all the tools that have made this new opportunity possible. He goes on: “Everyone has been saying anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster. Let’s see if that works.”

Today, more than 11 years later, that still feels like a fair summation of the state of podcasting. As a medium (if we can call it that; perhaps it’s really just a means of distribution), it’s still young; it still feels experimental. In 2004, would anyone have thought to record a series of episode-by-episode discussions of classic TV programs? Likely not—first of all, watching many of those series would have been difficult, given the spotty nature of TV-on-DVD releases. Even if you did produce such a show, how would you distribute it? There’d be no market on traditional advertiser-supported radio, which needs to reach a large audience to be economically viable. And who would listen to it? The same people who’d have trouble finding not only your show, but the TV series it was about?

Of course, as Gabe Bergado shows in this issue, podcasting has not only made such shows possible, but created a small army of them. From The West Wing to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and from Saved by the Bell to The Gilmore Girls, these re-watch shows have become, as they say, “a thing.” They wouldn’t exist without the podcasting distribution model—or without the streaming video services  that put such a smorgasbord of classic television in front of us.

“Everyone has been saying anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster. Let’s see if that works.”

Ditto Science Mike, a former fundamentalist Christian who turned atheist, only to find himself on a beach in California peering through the scrim of reality and seeing the glory of God behind it. His journey, as told by Dylan Love, took him from faith to disbelief and back again, finally leaving him as a “spiritual skeptic,” eager to wed his belief with the facts of the world as he knows it. He’s been able to turn that unique worldview into a paying audience: Science Mike is now a full-time podcaster. And he’s a perfect example of a future no one could have seen in 2004, at the beginning of the podcasting “experiment.”

The Austin, Texas, comedy scene has also evolved to include podcasting—a development showing that, as Audra Schroeder recounts, even when global distribution is cheap and easy, there remains something essential about local scenes. In Austin, that means both camaraderie and competition as comics carry each other to greater heights. It’s a great example of a specific, local scene with its own style and sensibility. The difference now is that, thanks to podcasting, anyone can listen in.

And listen they do. As Serial has shown even the most mainstream listener, podcasts really can offer something new and unexpected, the thing you don’t know you’ll love until you hear it. Stephen Mack didn’t know he’d love podcasts until five years ago, when on a whim he started asking friends for recommendations. Now he subscribes to nearly 50 shows, and listens to almost all of them. They’ve become almost the entirety of his media diet.

So, a decade on, does that mean podcasts have gone mainstream? Not exactly, argues Patrick Caldwell. Serial may have opened some eyes to the potential of podcasting, but Caldwell wants to see more shows like it. Not copycats, but more boldly experimental shows. That’s tricky, he says, because even with increased recognition, it can be hard to fund a truly groundbreaking podcast. (Serial, remember, had serious This American Life support.) As always, it comes down to money, but Caldwell sees in Howl, a new podcast subscription service, the opportunity for a company to fund even more experimentation among podcasters.

And so we’re back to 2004, a decade later: anyone can be a podcaster. Let’s see if that works.

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via Lee Jordan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)