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Lend Us Your Ears: How the Humble Podcast Conquered Audio

How did podcasting grow from nerdy niche projects to a powerful million-show-strong medium? We dive into the history to find out.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Sep 24 2020

People may no longer gather at firesides to listen to tales and learn new things, but we still learn best through stories. Our lives are more scattered and isolated than ever before but for many, podcasts provide that longed-for sense of shared space, experience, and community.

There are podcasts that appeal to every taste. For celebrity interviews, there’s WTF with Marc Maron, for true crime aficionados there’s My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and for those seeking ideas on personal development, Blinkist offers Simplify.

“Blinkist and podcasts together just make sense.”
— Caitlin Schiller, Simplify Host and Executive Producer of New Content Development at Blinkist

It was this specific, DIY nature of podcasts that helped them to gain popularity, but how did we reach the point where there are over a million, and where are podcasts going from here? Let’s jump into the history of this most modern medium to get a sense of what the future might hold.

Audio Saved the Radio Star

Podcasting didn’t emerge from a vacuum in the early 2000s. In fact, in many ways, podcasting’s story parallels and builds upon the history of radio.

As early as 1892, Nikola Tesla’s public demonstrations showed the potential of radio waves, though it would be a few years before Guglielmo Marconi would file a patent for his radio apparatus in 1896-97. By 1902, the everyday amateur could easily assemble their own ham radios from magazine instructions.

The early history of radio is full of scrappy hobbyists. They sent out their thoughts on niche interests with little to no regulation. Bigger corporations soon joined, investments in broadcasting technology strengthened the signals, and people joked about receiving the weather report in their dental fillings.

With the arrival of television into people’s homes in the 1940s and ‘50s, music and reportage became radio’s mainstays. Episodic fiction, game shows, and more energetic programming transitioned smoothly to the new visual medium. Why only listen to cowboys and cops and robbers when you could watch them?

While talk radio had been a part of the audio environment since the 1920s, the format gained even more traction in the 1980s and 1990s. Hosts like Terry Gross, Rush Limbaugh, and Howard Stern drew massive followings with their shows featuring monologues and interviews covering society, politics, and pop culture.

By the late ‘90s, many hosts had begun talking about a new phenomenon called the world wide web.

All the Small Things: Podcasting’s Start in the 1990s & 2000s

Ben Hammersley coined the term podcasting in 2004. He quickly jotted it and few other terms down as padding for an article on an emerging trend in internet media. Love it or hate it—and Hammersley has certainly apologized for it—the term has stuck. Audio blogging didn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Technological innovations had been quietly percolating over the previous few years. Portable MP3 players started to show up in the late ‘90s. Then Steve Jobs made us all want one in 2001 with the launch of the iPod. It became clear that broadcasters would have to adapt to this new advance, but it would still take a couple years before the internet could handle it.

Even when Christopher Lydon’s 2003 debut of Radio Open Source made him the first podcaster, high-speed internet users were still in the minority. Users could download each episode and play it on their iPod, but if they had dial-up, that might mean missing a few phone calls.

Lydon created Radio Open Source’s early shows using previously recorded interviews, giving it a familiar talk radio feel. It may have been a new medium, but it still built itself on proven foundations.

Hammersley framed podcasts as an in for upstarts looking for freer expression. Yet early adoption required a fair amount of resources. Public radio, such as NPR in the US and the BBC in the UK found early footholds, as did many larger newspapers.

Well-known comedians soon joined in, too. Ricky Gervais and Adam Carolla set some of the first records for most-downloaded podcasts. Then came big brands like ESPN.

This is extremely similar to the Golden Age of Radio during the 1930s and 40s when everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Ford Motor Company all had their own shows.

Apple played an early role in podcasting history. You could listen to podcasts on iTunes or make your own in GarageBand or on your iPhone by the later part of the decade. More people signed up for better internet connections or faster mobile networks.

Numbers grew pretty steadily as hobbyists created shows to talk about what was on their minds or niche topics they found interesting. Podcast may have been the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2005, but it took several more years before we all started saying it. So what happened?

Household Names: 2010s and Forward

As of 2020, more than half of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to a podcast. In less than fifteen years, that percentage had nearly quintupled! How did we get there?

In two words: Serial and smartphones.

Before Serial, you would have thought podcasts were on their way out. The number of listeners over the previous few years had plateaued then started to drop. As people upgraded their tech, they tuned into the season’s true-crime mystery.

Soon more services like Audible, Pandora, Spotify, and numerous podcatchers began to aggregate podcasts for easier discovery. Whatever your interest—books, film, music, model railroads, or farming, just to name a few—there’s a podcast for you.

One of the benefits early podcasters found in the medium was depth. Newspapers could offer greater insight into published stories or they might stream interviews that didn’t make it to print. Usually, the focus shifted from each episode to the next. Serial told a whole story across their entire season.

The team producing Serial had learned quite a bit making This American Life, a radio show on NPR that became one of the first broadly listened-to podcasts. Many radio shows around the mid 2010s had started to convert their on-air broadcasts into podcasts.

They still had their scheduled airings, but that didn’t mean you would have to miss the episode if there wasn’t a radio around. In fact, Fresh Air, Terry Gross’s NPR program, was one of the most downloaded podcasts of 2014.

And it was that kind of inviting tone, whether Gross’s or Krista Tippett’s from On Being or the duo of PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman on Reply All, that inspired the work on Blinkist’s own podcasts.

“We want people to feel like they were in a house with friends rather than a classroom with the teacher lecturing from on high. It should be as earnest and useful as On Being can be and as warm as Reply All, something that makes people feel a little less overwhelmed.”
— Caitlin Schiller, Simplify Host and Executive Producer of New Content Development at Blinkist

Such a combination helped set Blinkist’s podcast Simplify, which first aired in summer 2017, apart from other productivity and self-help podcasts. The unique promise of exclusive access to nonfiction authors and concise conversations meant listeners would learn something useful to their own lives with every episode.

Alongside Simplify, Blinkist continued to experiment with the format. Terence Mickey’s podcast Self? Help! explored the impact of books on authors’ lives. And working with Seth Godin, himself a guest on Season 2 of Simplify, brought about Two Minutes with Seth Godin, in which he offered a nugget of wisdom on each mini-sode.

And Blinkist’s innovation in the realm of podcasts continues. New projects build upon the company’s promise to distill key nonfiction concepts and provide tangible takeaways. The team is excited about Blinkist’s future with audio and podcasts with some exciting projects coming down the line.

You heard it here first—watch this (audio) space!

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