The Podcast Revolution


There was a time when a radio program required an actual radio station. Podcasting changed that. It is now possible to transmit a talk show, a documentary, or an audio play without dealing with anyone licensed to broadcast on the AM or FM bands.

Needless to say, this costs a lot less to operate than it did the old way. And with less money on the line, your audience doesn't need to be as big for your show to be profitable—if profits even matter to you in the first place. (There are podcasters who run their programs as a hobby or a community service, even if they aren't getting any subsidies from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) The opportunity costs are different, too. Before, your show didn't simply need to turn a profit; it needed to be more profitable than anything else that might occupy your spot on the schedule. Not anymore.

With broadcasters liberated from such costs and constraints, we've seen a flowering of creativity and variety. There is a podcast for every niche, from surreal horror-comedy (Welcome to Night Vale) to the history of country music (Cocaine and Rhinestones).

It took a while to get here. When Dave Winer coined the term podcasting in 2004, the medium itself was a small niche. In theory, "pod" stood for "personal option digital" (or sometimes "personal on demand"). But the aim was to evoke the iPods that people could use to listen to the programs. Winer made up the acronym because he didn't want to tie the idea too closely to one particular delivery device.

Evidently it worked. We still say podcasting a decade and a half later, even as the iPod market dwindles to nothing. Future generations may well assume that iPods were named after podcasts rather than the other way around.

The medium grew gradually for about a decade, and then it took off sharply: According to Chartable, there are now more than 700,000 podcasts available. The breakthrough hit was Serial, a true-crime spinoff from the public radio show This American Life. It debuted in 2014, a year when Edison Research's annual Infinite Dial report said that 15 percent of the country had listened to at least one podcast in the past month. Since then, the figure has more than doubled to 32 percent.

The Federal Communications Commission spent decades blocking new competition on the radio dial. Some broadcasters tried to undo those barriers in the courts and legislatures; others defied the law and set up pirate transmitters. Podcasters are using a new technology to rout around the broadcast band altogether.

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  1. Future generations may well assume that iPods were named after podcasts rather than the other way around.

    Future generations are an idiot. They’ll probably find a way to regulate podcasts out of existence.

    Which is a good thing. With all this free and easy access to audiences, the market has been saturated. People keep telling me I have to listen to this podcast or that one and when I don’t, I’m out of the loop. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    1. At least 80% of everything is crap, including podcasts.

  2. More misinformation.

    Podcasts are related to The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, as in, to indoctrinate the pod people.

    Why do you think people run screaming from podcasts, from pods, and from the remake?

  3. I love podcasts. I’m able to listen to long form conversations from opposing political views and understand their positions even if I may not agree with them.

    Before I had an ipod I was able to download complete sermons from Christian Pastors that I could only hear if I was in my car as the sermon was being broadcast. would post these mp3s that I could download onto my Android device so I didnt have to buy an ipod if I didn’t want to.

    Joe Rogan, Mark Maron etc. Provide hours of content that is interesting and thought provoking.

    1. Isn’t Rogan’s shtick about cranks and kooks like Graham Hancock, pseudo archeologist extraordinaire?

      1. Rogan’s shtick is to invite anyone and everyone that has any sort of relevance onto his podcast and let them talk. Some of them will make you think. Others will hang themselves with their words. You should look into it more.

        1. I will look into it more. A leavening of cranks and kooks is not a terrible thing.

  4. I listen to Adam Carolla’s podcasts-the Adam Carolla show and the Adam and Dr. Drew show-both will pass almost three hours during the course of s day. The great thing about podcasting is that you can do something else while you listen, in my case drive a route. For Carolla the transition from radio host to podcaster was a natural progression and he is thriving with it as his profession. Others put out shows without much hope of great financial gain, but they have some personal interest in a particular topic and are interesting to listen to (I follow both a WWI and a Civil War podcast that are educationally entertaining). Tell an interesting story and people will listen, and I suspect that many podcasters are surprised by who listens from around the world.

    1. I highly recommend the podcasts of Russ Roberts: Econtalk.

      1. This comment right here, a now rarity, is what made these comments the awesome years ago. Alas those days are long gone.

        1. Thanks, man.

  5. With the push to regulate wrongspeech on facebook et. al., do you really think podcasts won’t eventually be targeted?

    1. Be pretty hard for the government to do so.

      Easier for Facebook et al, but the beauty of podcasts is that they are just data, easy to put up on any server, unlike forums which are dynamic.

      1. “but the beauty of podcasts is that they are just data,”

        Meta-data too. A piece of cake for the government or others to surveil.

      2. Easier for Facebook et al, but the beauty of podcasts is that they are just data, easy to put up on any server, unlike forums which are dynamic.

        That’s always existed– you can certainly distribute your content in a federated way. But if millions are going to access it, you need infrastructure, and the backbone/infrastructure providers can shut you down. This isn’t speculation. This is real, and happening right now.

  6. I remember listening to the radio on snowy mornings as a lad. If we were lucky, there’d be an announcement that school bus service was cancelled and there’d be no school for us. What joy! It’s hard to imagine anyone turning to a podcast for timely local information of this sort.

    1. People sign up for text alerts now for that sort of thing.

      1. Sign up – subject yourself to surveillance.

    2. My understanding of the word “podcast” is that it does not refer to live streaming, or scheduled streaming, but rather stream-on-demand, or download, from an archive server. So why would anyone even think of podcasts for what you envision?

      However, there is also live streaming, which is suitable for weather reports and other news. It needn’t be local, but it can identify as such for the locals to listen to regularly.

      And then there’s also listen-live-or-to-the-archive. One popular model is advertising-supported live streaming plus subscription access to the archive. And there are programs that are streamed and broadcast at the same time (plus or minus a little latency); either the streaming service provides it to the radio station or the radio station streams it.

      And none of this need be strictly audio. There are vidcasts as well, and there are commonly text discussion threads, put up by either the same host or fans, associated with audio or video podcasts and streams. YouTube even allows you to read synched comments with archived videos.

      So you can listen for those snow cancellations on WFMU’s morning show from any of their 4 area transmitters on 3 frequencies or on several formats of stereo audio stream, and indeed there are listeners who are close enough for that weather to be relevant and yet not in position to get good radio reception of same. And via their comment board on the playlist page you can discuss the weather or report local details of cancellations.

      1. “you can discuss the weather ”

        The Internet is a wonderful thing! I have simple tastes. I don’t like watching videos on a laptop let alone smart phone. I almost never download apps or sign up for things. If a website asks me to turn off my adblocker, I close the site and look elsewhere. I’m not crazy about internet surveillance but it’s not a big thing with me either,

        One recent download and installation on my android is “CL Repl,”
        essentially a Lisp Language interpreter. It can load and save code and lets you edit and run it. Even a debugger. I did a factorial app and (factorial 2900) and after a few seconds my smartphone spat out a long answer. Much higher than 2900! yields an error. But it’s amazing the computing power, dormant most of the time, that lies in your smartphone, and mine is one of the cheaper models.

  7. I’m less than enthusiastic; Written language is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, it’s arguably more important than agriculture. And, here we are, backsliding into the distribution of information in audible form, usually without any transcript.

    I can read several times faster than most people speak. I can do searches on written language. I can instantly pause, go back and re-read something I found unclear. In basically all ways, writing is superior to speech, except when it comes to conveying emotion, or communicating with the illiterate or blind.

    I am NOT enthusiastic about the spread of podcasting.

    1. I agree on the superiority of writing as a means of preserving and conveying information, but podcasts are great for adding value to times when you can’t be reading. When I’m driving, doing dishes, etc., I can listen to a podcast that is actually informative rather than whatever crap is on the radio.

      1. I agree. Of course most of us can take in info faster by reading than listening — if we’re not taking in anything else at that time. However, we can speak faster than we can type. It’s at the production end that voice beats writing, while at the consumption end written matter beats voice.

        As more content is produced, you’d expect a shift from the labor-consuming writing to the easier (in most ways — not editing, though) speaking.

        The trend in personal communication lately has been the other way, from phone calls to texting — but that’s only because voice had been so pervasive previously that even a little substitution of text for voice was proportionally large. Notice that when telephony came in, people who’d never had personal telegraphs got phones; the number of telegraph stations would not have continued to increase enormously had telephony not become available, even with the availability of alphabet-encoding equipment.

    2. “I’m less than enthusiastic; Written language is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, it’s arguably more important than agriculture. And, here we are, backsliding into the distribution of information in audible form, usually without any transcript.”

      If you read a lot, it’s easy to scan a ‘script and decide it’s worth reading, or at least some of it is, and read it all or those portions.
      No way to do so with a verbal presentation, and with a slip of the tongue you seem to find people arguing against their prior comment. With the written word, both of those comments are simultaneously before your nose, Verbally, you’re ‘rewinding’ and then ‘fast-forwarding’ to get a not so good comparison.
      Aside from which, it’s not easy to cite a source verbally, so bullshit is easier to pass of as ‘knowledge’ by bullshitters.
      I don’t listen to radio (or watch TV) to learn concepts and their application; ditto pod-casts. Want me as an audience? Write it down.

      1. That’s my problem with podcasts. If someone mentions a short segment in a hour-long podcast about something in which I’m interested, unless they give a time stamp, I have to listen to the whole thing to find the bit I want. Much easier to do in a text.

        1. Surely you could find podcasts where the entire talk or guest is stimulating?

  8. Podcasts need editors. A lot of dead time in them.
    I live in a downtown metro city so the radio still offers more info and variety than podcasts.

    1. WINS 1010. You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.

    2. I live in a downtown metro city so the radio still offers more info and variety than podcasts.

      I live in a large metro city and the radio doesn’t come close. Not even close. I don’t know of any radio station that offers three hour, commercial free interviews or discussions on a wide variety of subjects.

      1. Or conglomeration of radio stations in a single geographic market, I should say.

  9. Is it any coincidence that the rise of podcasting directly mirrors the rise of problematic thought?

  10. Andrew Heaton’s podcasts are great. The first iteration, Something’s Off with Andrew Heaton, was produced by The Blaze. He’s now independent under The Political Orphanage.

    They’re all available on Google Play Music. An awesome mix of humor and opinion.

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