If you have any spare time on your hands, kick back and ask a group of friends or colleagues, “what’s your favourite podcast?” You won’t be disappointed. In under twenty years, podcasting has grown from ‘slightly niche internet radio broadcasts’ to a genuine phenomenon. It’s a testament to how vast the podcasting world has become when the best estimates of available shows are routinely reported as ‘over two million’ and streaming platforms are striking eye-watering deals for hit shows. But just how has podcasting found itself a place in people’s hearts? And why does this matter? After all, the world is certainly not short of entertainment. Ultimately, it seems that the podcast simply arrived in the right place at the right time for a global culture that was about to change beyond all recognition.
It’s funny how circumstances collide, isn’t it? For example, public access broadcasting has been around in America for what feels like forever and Cable TV providers are obliged to keep channels available, free of charge, for the public to use. In the nineties, the concept of Public Access Cable started to be used as the subject for movies, such as Wayne’s World, and at almost precisely the same time ‘confessional media’ hit the Internet in the form of the first ever ‘personal blog’ – Carolyn’s Diary. These set the scene nicely for a world that wanted a taste of something away from the mainstream. Audiences weren’t looking for polish, but purity. The authenticity of something unfiltered that was the very hallmark of the earliest online experiences in chatrooms and blogs.
Then something happened in 2001 that was the beginning of everything we know today. A little white digital audio player with matching headphones that could hold “a thousand songs,” as Steve Jobs announced when he launched it in a special Apple event. This is obviously enough to elicit a huge LOL today but look at the choice of word: songs. Even Steve’s legendary crystal ball didn’t predict that his company would be the catalyst for a new form of media entirely. Even the name, coined by journalist Ben Hammersley in February 2004, is a portmanteau of ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcasting’. When the article was released, the iPod was on its 4th Generation, with a snazzy new look and new ‘mini’ range. Sales boomed, reaching 10 million by December of that year. And again, in happy coincidence, as sales of the iPod rose, the price of audio recording equipment dropped. As veteran writer and broadcaster Christopher Lydon says in the piece, “Everything is inexpensive. The tools are available. Everyone has been saying anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster." How right he was. By the time 2005 rolled around, the Oxford American Dictionary named ‘podcast’ their ‘Word of the Year.’