Podcasting: A Brief History

In 1999, developers at Netscape had an idea for aggregating content from a variety of sites, so that readers would not have to visit their favorite sites individually to manually monitor the latest updates – instead, the content would appear simply, i They launched a prototype and called it RDF Site Summary.1 Today, this technology is known as RSS (Real Simple Syndication).

In its original iteration, the RSS feed could only syndicate text. However, in 2000, developer and media personality, Adam Curry, approached software developer Dave Winer with an idea to adapt the feed so it could include larger media objects, such as mp3s. Winer developed just such a software – and then another that could aggregate feeds from different sources. In early 2001, he used the nascent technology to aggregate songs by The Grateful Dead.2

In September 2003, while at Harvard University’s Berkman Center, Winer showed the software to a fellow colleague, Christopher Lydon, a journalist who had been conducting in-depth audio interviews and inserting them as mp3s into his blog posts (Winer called it “A weblog for the ears”3). Once Lydon incorporated Winer’s technology, readers could subscribe to Lydon’s blog and access the audio content automatically. One month later, a blogger named Harold Gilchrist referenced the blog when he hosted a session on “audioblogging” at the first ever BloggerCon, an annual conference that brought many central figures in the nascent blogosphere together.4

Galvanized by Lydon’s success, Adam Curry developed the prototype of software that allowed audio to be downloaded, passed to iTunes, and automatically transferred to mp3 players. To test it, Curry launched Daily Source Code, arguably the first podcast, in August 2004.ii Guardian, suggested various possible monikers for the technology, including “podcasting.”5 The next month, New York Times* reported that people were “podcasting” from the US to Australia to Sweden.NYT2004 Indeed, in podcasting’s early days, the hope was that the medium would be a revolutionary format, accessible to any amateur with a microphone and an internet connection, that would open up and democratize media. This is why, in keeping with this mission, the podcasting technology developed by Winer, Curry and others was purposefully kept open source and open access.6

In November 2004, at BloggerCon III, Adam Curry led a session, not on “audioblogging,” but “podcasting.”iii That same month, the first podcast hosting platform, Libsyn, launched. In 2005, Public Radio International hosted its first daily news podcast, and TWiT (This Week in Tech), one of the first podcast networks, launched. Then, in June, Steve Jobs announced on a stage in Silicon Valley that podcasts, and indeed an entire podcast directory, would be available in iTunes 4.9.7 By December, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared “podcast” the word of the year.8

In 2006, podcasting continued to ride the coattails of the hype. The Ricky Gervais Show became the most downloaded podcast in history. The first live podcast tour took place.9 This American Life, a weekly public radio program founded by Ira Glass in 1996, jumped on the bandwagon, making the show freely available as a podcast for the first time. Edison Research reported that 22 percent of Americans were aware of the term “podcasting” and 11 percent of the population had listened to a podcast at least once.10

Then the hype subsided. Podcasting went “under the radar,” so to speak, but it was growing slowly and steadily all the while. By 2014, Apple had one billion podcast subscribers. Edison Research reported that now 48 percent of all Americans knew the term podcasting and 30 percent had listened to a podcast before.11 Then in October, This American Life launched a spin-off show, one that would be released in installments, or serially, each week. They called it Serial.

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