The concept behind podcasting is simple: combine the best qualities of what we love about a radio show with the immense capabilities offered by the digital revolution.
And with this simplicity, comes great diversity. Podcasts come in all shapes and sizes, across languages and borders, dealing with an enormous variety of topics and speaking to the hearts of an ever-growing global audience.
It is no wonder that they have become one of the most beloved and popular media in the 21st century. But how did it all start – and where are we now?
A simple idea: a brief history of how podcasts came to be The advent of the internet and new digital tech has naturally played the biggest part in establishing the podcast industry.
While the concept of audio blogging and on-demand listening to audio and video files has been around since the 1980s, primarily in the context of education and research, podcasting as we know it didn’t really exist until the 2000s. Its existence was in big part thanks to the iPod device launched by Apple in late 2001, which inspired a whole new way of listening to music and audio files.
MTV VJ Adam Curry and developer Dave Winner are widely considered to be the pioneers of the podcast revolution, when they teamed up to develop a software dubbed iPodder in 2004 – and the rest is history.
The new iPodder program allowed users to download radio programs broadcasted over the internet on their iPods. That same year, Ben Hammersley penned an article for The Guardian that used the now-famous word for the first time in an official context.
What to call the new “audible revolution”, wondered Hammersley – perhaps “podcasting”? The word was a play between “broadcast” and “iPod”, as Apple is credited with being a catalyst for the new medium. The company was also the first to understand the power of the rising podcast market that it had helped grow with its signature iPod, and tailored iTunes in 2005 to support podcasts. It all moved very quickly after that, as 2005 was also the year that the Oxford Dictionary chose “podcast” as its US Word of the Year.
The development of online streaming technology also played a big part in propelling the podcast industry forward, taking it on another level than the humble iPod.
Streaming tech has been used across a range of online entertainment sectors over the years. After the success of Netflix and Hulu, traditional TV stations like CBS have harnessed its power to stream series and movies. Online casinos have also tapped into live streaming to provide live casino games, including live blackjack and live roulette, that are broadly popular with players appreciating the “authentic” twist of interacting with a live dealer. Furthermore, the online gaming industry has used streaming tech to connect gamers with their fans on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
The UK has had its own part in contributing to the success of podcasting, through services such as BBC Sounds. Just in 2019, BBC Sounds announced a record number of listeners for BBC podcasts. No less than 3 million users listened to podcasts per week, up from 1.3 million the previous June, while they saw a 74% surge from February to November 2019. Popular radio programs also experienced a podcast listening approach twist, as more and more users opted for listening on- demand, with The Archers getting 49 million downloads and In Our Time a whopping 34 million downloads. The British podcast industry has also proven to be a venue for underrepresented voices to find an amplifying platform and speak out about current sociopolitical issues.
There is no denying that the rise of the medium has been meteoric – and according to research, there are several reasons why podcasts are so popular. For one, they are perfect for multitasking: most people will listen to a podcast not only at home, but also while walking or working out, as well as when driving or commuting in a car. Research has shown that usually listening to a podcast is combined with cooking, baking, driving, or doing chores around the house. Only 52% will actually finish an entire podcast, with 41% of the audience listening to most of it. It is also a convenient and time-saving way to keep up with the latest news – which is why most people only take 24 to 48 hours after downloading a podcast to actually listen to it.
As Oberlo highlights, roughly 75% of US podcast enthusiasts listen to podcasts to learn things they did not know – and 32% of Americans will tune in at least once a month. The podcast market is also taking off. As the same source suggests, 54% of podcast listeners are more inclined to buy a brand after hearing an advertisement on a podcast, which explains why the industry’s ad revenues are set to grow over $1 billion by 2021, up from roughly $479 million in 2018. There is a lot of competition going on: there are currently 850,000 active podcasts vying for our attention and a compiled number of episodes of more than 30 million.
This growth is in part thanks to the rise of smartphones, as 65% of the podcast audience use a mobile device to tune in.
For a revolution that started with an iPod, it seems fitting that podcasting is gradually growing into the favourite medium of younger, more tech-savvy generations. In a way, podcasting seems to tap into what we loved about radio and what we love about the brave new digital world – how could you go wrong with that?