What’s Happening:

When podcasts first came out in 2004, when MTV VJ Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer distributed their shows Daily Source Code and Morning Coffee Notes via RSS feed, the form was anything but popular. Most people viewed them as an amateur form of radio, and wondered why they would want to download and listen to audio files of people talking.

Since then, however, podcasts have soared in both quality and popularity. Today there are roughly 660,000 podcasts in production, offering approximately 28 million individual episodes to eager listeners. The most popular of all time, Serial, has seen its first two seasons downloaded some 340 million times. How did the podcast evolve from its humble beginnings to the powerhouse it is today?

Why It Matters:

With its generally more intimate and informal presentation, these targeted nuggets of audio on demand might well be the future of media, according to Vulture.com. Even the most skeptical observers had to acknowledge their importance when music-streaming company Spotify bought the podcast-production company Gimlet Media for a reported $230 million in February 2019. That’s a long way from the beginnings of the format, when there was little money to be made in podcasting.

Podcasts are emerging as one of the most significant and exciting cultural innovations of the new century, and this may well be because of their intimacy. It’s a style that prizes authenticity over authority. Perhaps people really do crave the companionship of another human voice talking to them, over distant, mechanical tech toys and artificial intelligence. In addition to being informative or delivering news, podcasts also entertain, enlighten and offer emotional engagement.

Digging Deeper:

Certain elements of the podcast seemed less than revolutionary when the format emerged: it used basic technology, was cheap to make and easy to distribute. All a podcast producer needs is a microphone, internet connection and recording software or app. However, these very traits are the exact things that made the rise of the podcast inevitable.

Their development has been a case study in experimentation, echoing other hugely popular trends such as serial radio shows in the first half of the 20th century, the digital music revolution, and even modern talk radio shows such as NPR’s This American Life. They also borrow from formats such as the written essay and film. Podcast topics range the gamut from political discourse, industry expert information and fiction or nonfiction narratives to celebrity gossip, gaming, niche interests such as organic farming, true crime, and pop-culture topics such as television shows with large fan bases.

Other podcasts are harder to define or classify, and many are entirely unscripted. There are performance art podcasts, and those such as Jon Mooallem’s Walking, which simply consists of hour-long recordings of his walks through the woods. For a more in-depth look into the evolution of the podcast, its distinct sound and medium, and examples of important players in the industry, read the Vulture article here.

The Bottom Line:

As a medium, podcasts have thrived because they intrinsically deliver one thing that the internet and modern technology haven’t been very good at: intimacy. Podcasts are particularly well-suited to cater to listeners’ personal preferences, and are increasingly learning to do things no medium has done before. The form, which once seemed like it might not be particularly good at anything, now seems to be good at nearly everything.

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