“Just because you play a guitar and are from Nashville doesn’t mean you are a country singer” – cultural identities and development in podcasting
University of Sunderland
It is perhaps telling that although podcasting has been with us since 2004 it is only now that a themed book on the subject has emerged. It could be that as academics we needed time to reflect and evaluate what the trends that are developing around us, or that publishing cycles come and went and thanks to the hiatus in attention interest, for a time, waned. We perhaps also needed time to observe a developing body of work and to collaboratively develop a framework of understanding, data and theoretical scrutiny. Whilst early studies of podcasting (Crofts et al, 2005; Berry, 2006; Menduni, 2007; Sterne et al, 2008) all made references to the relationship between podcasting and radio, with Crofts et al noting “Just as podcasting poses a risk to the radio industry, it also promises many opportunities” (2005, np). Whilst some work has recognised the value of independence (Markman, 2011) and innovation, there is increasing attention being paid to the manner in which contemporary podcasters are reviving formats that have fallen out of favour with terrestrial linear broadcasters; with Bottomley arguing that in the case of Welcome to Night Vale that the “new practice of podcasting is not divorced earlier media like radio” (2015, p186) and rather it refashions in a way that celebrates the cultural heritage of radio. However, whilst podcasting might refashion radio, it also presents formats that do not comfortably fit within more traditional concepts of radio, as later studies (Berry, 2016 and 2016b) have begun to suggest that delineation may be required. As Meserko suggests podcasts share a common heritage with DIY media formats and as such they are “simultaneously striving for a more intimate connection to others, and a more authentic presentation of themselves” (2015, p800)
We are reaching a point in time where a confluence of factors means that podcasting is more visible, more profitable, more accessible and more distinct as a form of media communication; and so we must, as scholars, begin to consider podcasting not as a phenomenon; but as established media activity. Where rather than considering it as a reinvention or a rejuvenation (see Marshall 2004 for a discussion on rejuvenation in film and television) but as a process of convergence and media transformation. In this chapter I will attempt to correlate the development of podcasting as a media form using business models and podcaster experiences to model podcast histories and map the past in a way that might reveal the patterns of growth and attention that we have seen since 2004.
Expectations, disappointments and a process of appreciation
Interest in podcasting reached a critical peak in 2006, with major players in the world of media joining the groundswell of listeners. A search of Google trends shows that interest in the word “podcast” peaked in January 2006 (Google, 2017). Google allocates a value of 100 to the peak of any search term and all points below that with a lower value. The interest in “podcasting” holds for a further year, with values of more than 80; however after that interest (or at least searches) started to fall away. The listeners who were interested didn’t need to search and the medium wasn’t generating the interest it once did. Between January 2008 and June 2014 searches fell to almost half of their peak, with values between 53 (December 2013) and 72 (January 2009). Interest had in effect bottomed-out. Podcasting appeared to fall out favour, suggesting perhaps that whilst some fans would remain addicted to their favourite shows this was another media format destined for the cultural dustbin. However, this pattern fits trends illustrated by the Hype Cycle – an innovation trend highlighted by the technology company Gartner and detailed by Fenn and Raskino (2008). They describe the process as one where an “innovation comes along that captures people fancy, and everybody, including the media joins the parade with great fanfare and high expectations… Then, when it fails to deliver the promised bounty right away, everyone starts baling out” (p7). The Hype Cycle talks about five key stages: “the innovation trigger” (the point at which interest starts to build); “the peak of inflated expectations” (the peak of interest that rises sharply on a tidal wave of hype) which is rapidly followed by the “trough of disillusionment” (where interest drops away almost as quickly as it grew). However, this nadir is followed by a slower more sustainable growth marked by the “slope of enlightenment” and the “plateau of productivity” (p8). Whilst this trend might not always be evident, it is one that we have seen time and time again; especially with innovations. Throughout time there are scores of examples of products or ideas that were just ahead of their time. The ideas were foresighted, but the lack of actual demand, infrastructure or prohibitive price ultimately consigned them to a museum. Think back to a product like the Apple Newton, a device which struggled to establish itself as a mainstream product. However, by the time Apple launched the first iPad 12 years later things had changed: the changes were technological (through improvements in the user experience and the advent of fast home Wi-Fi) and societal as the arrival of social media, casual gaming and second screen experiences meant that there was a role for such a device. The same could be said for podcasting and this is why the Hype Cycle might be useful as a framework to understand where we are.
Podcasting and the problem of the early adopter
If we look back at the history of podcasting we can see the trends laid bare. In March 2005 the technology magazine “Wired” ran with the cover headline “The End of Radio?” with articles in the issue wondering whether Howard Stern on satellite radio could successfully build an audience and how indie radio stations find a place in markets already crowded by corporate radio giants. They also focussed on Adam Curry, a former MTV VJ and a podcaster who achieved near cult status, with the article noting “Every new medium needs a celebrity, and Curry is happy to fill that role” (Newtiz, 2005). The article expounded the potential of the new medium to bypass convention and one was a space that created new opportunities as a “medium unconstrained by place, time, and censorship”. As the Google trends discussed earlier indicate hype around the medium and those involved that would trigger a dramatic spike in interest. Naturally as interest grew established media followed the path the amateur pioneers had laid and started to make their own podcasts; in doing so fuel was added to the fire and the hype accelerated to the that peak in January 2006. One might have expected that upward to continue and to compete with radio in the way in which podcasting’s enthusiastic cheerleaders hoped that it would; however as Fenn and Raskino note, things are more complex than simply humans adopting an idea as “human nature drives people’s heightened expectation, while the nature of innovation drives how quickly something new develops genuine value. The problem is, these two factors move at such different temps that they’re nearly always out of sync. An innovation rarely delivers on its promise when people are most excited about it” (pp25-26). In the case of podcasting the hype didn’t reflect either the potential appeal of the content or the convenience of access that a wider audience might require. Early academic work on podcasting suggested that whilst it offered fresh opportunities to content creators, it was not a finished solution. For Menduni podcasting presented itself as a “mid-term technology” as “it is difficult to think of mass podcasting given that it requires a component of specialised computer work” (pp16). Podcasting here was a tool that followed in a tradition of radio listening, music personalisation, file sharing and internet radio. In fact we might postulate that the development of podcasting was somewhat inevitable. The rise of the upload culture in audio that drew the attention of The Guardian in 2004 (Hammersely, 2004) and was part of what Friedman (2005) refers to as “one of the most revolutionary forms of collaboration in the flat world [because] More than ever, we can all now be producers, not just consumers” (pp94-95). For Friedman and Hammersley the power of podcasting lay in the ability of the public to “become video and music producers, not just passive listeners and viewers” (Friedman, 2005, pp120). This hyperbole around the convergence culture that podcasting exemplified might go somehow to explain a flourish of excitement followed by a period of sluggish growth, stagnation or decline. We all could be podcasters, and we all could listen to whatever we want but the reality not everyone has the patience required to be a podcaster or be able to find content that represents our true interests. Any medium that appeared to offer radical opportunities, will naturally garner attention as Gilmor (2006) suggests in the preface to the second edition of his book We The Media searches for the word “podcasts” went from a standing start to over 100 million Google hits in just over a year, “can you say velocity?” (xiv) He adds.
Although interest in podcasting has seen steady growth since 2006 (Vogt, 2016) with awareness, downloads and the number of podcasts increasing over time. However, if we consider media coverage prior to the arrival of the podcast “Serial” in 2014 it was almost if podcasting was a medium that had fallen down the back of the collective sofa, with journalists talking about renaissance (Berry, 2015). A hard-core group of fans had continued to support their favourite podcasts, but the wider population had moved on to other things. Since podcasting arrived other digital distractions have appeared. Oddly enough Twitter emerged in 2006 from the remnants of the podcasting platform Odeo. In perhaps a move that was symptomatic of the impending trough the founders abandoned their project and went looking for a new opportunity (Carlson, 2011). For Odeo the problem was twofold, firstly the announcement that Apple were about to embrace podcasting after a long standoff suggested that that they might face an unwinnable battle, but as one of the founders noted “We built [Odeo], we tested it a lot, but we never used it” (Carlson). In this we might find a root cause of the decline and subsequent rise of podcasting; we had a technology that solved a problem that most people didn’t need solving or lacked the patience to embrace.
Our problem lies in convenience. In the early days of podcasting required a ‘podcatcher’ application, like the iPodder system developed by Curry when he launched his podcast in 2005. The software solved the problem of how to download a podcast from the internet. However, listening still require a portable MP3 player (like an iPod or the much cheaper iRiver) and then synchronising the audio from a computer. It wasn’t significantly complex but it required a little knowledge and a little time. In an early consumer book on the subject Herrington spend the best part of two chapters discussing where to find podcasts and how to download them, including building your own application. Fast forward not quite ten years and the Executive Producer of the podcast “Serial” sat on a sofa with his neighbour looks into a camera and explains how with a few clicks on a computer or a mobile telephone can achieve the same results, because “What is notable about this promotion was the absence of the iPod. Instead, listeners were directed to a website and to mobile apps on smartphones and tablets. This suggests that, whilst it acknowledged that Americans might have heard of podcasts, there was something getting in the way of them listening” (Berry, 2015).
If we return to the earlier problem of synchronisation in the Hype Cycle, we might further be able to reflect on the journey podcasting has been going through. A 2006 podcast listener might be expecting a simple process that offers a wealth of content but find that, as a USA Today article from 2005 notes, “Subscribing to your favorite podcasts can be tricky, as the steps can vary” and in this lies our synchronisation problem; as the desire to consume was there, some of the content was there but our means to access it was cumbersome. Whilst the Hype Cycle might offer some insight into the processes of adoption and the progression into assimilation into daily life other models innovation might also offer some perspectives on the development of podcasting. Flew (2014, pp150-155) highlights several key models, including Rogers’ work around the diffusion of innovations (2003), which highlight the innovators dilemma of the gap between the expectations of technology users and the reality of the product. Whilst the models Flew highlights (Bower and Christensen, 1999 and Sood and Tellis, 2005) map well onto our experiences of corporate products, the relationship between adoption and economic modelling in podcasting may be more problematic. The greatest challenge and the greatest asset for podcasting is the fact that it is (like the internet) a decentralised space deploying open-sourced tools without organisational structure. There is no international committee of podcast standards. In technological terms it had a single point of innovation (the development of RSS enclosures) followed by a series of user experience enhancements (the integration into iTunes and then apps) and whilst distributors have been able to make servers faster or insert advertising dynamically, the overall ecology of the platform is unchanged. The innovation of podcasting was driven then not by technology itself but by the popularity of the content it was trying to distribute. This is where we might be able to draw comparisons between the Gartner model and Rogers. In his model Rogers identifies a chasm between visionaries and the early majority, a chasm which we might describe as the period of disillusionment suggested by the Hype Cycle a period between the early stages of innovation. Early adopters, Moore (2014) suggests, “expect a radical discontinuity between the old ways and new; and they are prepared to champion this cause against a tide of entrenched resistance. Being the first, they also are prepared to bear with inevitable bugs and glitches that accompany any innovation coming to market” (pp24-25). Moore adds that “to cross into the mainstream market – you have to first meet the demands of the pragmatist customers” (p134). In other words, whilst the early adopters may remain, those who might identify themselves as less technical or more mainstream might drift away. This might explain that in the research for this chapter a managing editor of a podcast network (author interview) told me he felt there had been slump, but a producer for a ‘tech’ podcast had experience continued and steady growth (personal correspondence); one market was willing to engage to get the content they wanted and the other was less willing to be patient and found more convenient ways to access entertainment or information. In this we see one of the dichotomies of podcasting; in that whilst it offers a common platform it is one that is shared between pragmatic niche audiences and those who might be described as more mainstream and less technologically patient.
As I highlighted above the dilemma for podcasting is its lack of ownership, whilst YouTube was by no means the innovator in their space by promoting and collaborating with key producers the site was able to draw attention to important work and develop reasons for the audience to visit and participate. YouTube has a marketing plan and a strapline and whilst this corporate status means work can be blocked or removed; it means there is an economic force behind growth. In podcasting the space was shared between amateurs looking to experiment and explore opportunities to make work, whilst radio stations were looking for ways to distribute work. However, very few people were working to improve the experience of the work in a way that would benefit all users. It is in this period of technological stagnation that the ‘chasm’ identified by Rogers and the ‘trough of disillusionment’ in the Gartner model might co-exist. The key development here was the integration of podcasts into iTunes 4.9 in 2005, placing podcasts in front of more people and helping to steer audiences towards content (Apple, 2005) (Berry, 2006). In a small survey of podcasters I asked if this was still seen as important, whilst one noted “Being featured on iTunes definitely helped, but I think that any show, if it well produced and “for the ages” will eventually find an audience” (respondent 9) another suggested that whilst “Publicity can be useful but guests can also be a big help. Much more important is word of mouth” (respondent 2).
However, listeners were still stuck with a download model and one that (more often than not) relied upon an iPod. For Apple the movement into podcasting was potentially as much about owning the narrative around a term that essentially re-appropriated one of their most important brand names. The iPod became a hugely important cultural item (Jones, 2005 and Bull, 2004) as a status symbol but also convenient place to consume music, podcasts, and audiobooks. In this sense the iPod created both a barrier for entry but also created a framework for podcasts to flourish. As Harrington notes in his podcasting handbook “digital audio is freeing us from the tyranny of the live” (p xi) For Harrington (2005) and Fargas (2006) podcasting had dual appeal; it created the self-scheduling listener (Murray, 2009) and opened the door for independent voices to create work in their own voice without the constraint of traditional media environments. The fact that both these books needed to spend time explaining the tools (in often technical) terms suggests that the appeal here was restricted to fairly small group of technically minded individuals.
When considering how to model the development of podcasting we should reflect on the external and internal forces that might facilitate growth, stagnation or decline. In the case of podcasting these are broadly technology, content and the demands of the audience. It is worth returning to the point here that podcasting predates YouTube (by about a year), Netflix’s Video-on-demand service (by 3 years) and Spotify (by 4 years). We could argue therefore that had the core content providers not been independent of the distribution network it is possible that podcasting would not have survived. Whilst the attention as seen in Google searches dipped during the ‘trough of disillusionment’ audience numbers and awareness as indicated in research by both the Pew Internet Research Centre and Edison Research show a steady growth in listeners from when they started to audit numbers in 2006 with the latter noting in 2017 that “after six years of relatively static growth, awareness of podcasting has grown by 22per cent in just two years” (Edison Research, 2017). Whilst the number of Americans who have ‘ever listened’ and listen monthly to podcasts had a steady (but slow) upward trend between 2006 and 2014 this growth is relatively modest suggesting a difference between the measurement of hype and consumption, but recognises the impact of organic word of mouth growth. Without the marketing hype any growth must therefore rely upon serendipitous discovery, social sharing, and the ability of the early adopters to influence change. We can attribute, or at least link, the steady growth in listening seen by Edison to a parallel growth in the number of active podcasts on the US iTunes store seen by Morgan (2015). The enthusiasm of the new seen in the podcasting books of 2005 and 2006 was not shared by the wider population who failed to flock to podcasting in any significant sense. Edison’s “Infinite Dial” (2017) report shows that awareness of podcasting only passed the 50per cent mark in 2015, with monthly listening still to pass 25 per cent, compare this to the 86per cent awareness of the music streaming service Pandora, the 50 per cent who had a Netflix account or the 82 per cent who listen to AM/FM in the car.
This brings us to what Bonini (2015) has described as a “second age” of podcasting “characterised by the transformation of podcasting into a commercial productive practice and a medium for mass consumption” (p22). Bonini argues that the rhetoric of the first age (or in Gartner’s frame the period around the ‘peak of expectations’) was giving way to a period where we might consider podcasting to be “not merely as an alternative to broadcasting but as a renewed form of it, with merging new markets as well as a growing number of listeners and practitioners” (p23). For Bonini, the movement of podcasting for innovative upstart to mainstream is driven by the trilogy of economy, technology and creativity; where “the more widespread use of smartphones, the popularity of new crowdfunding sites and the artistic and creative growth of a legion of professional radio producers trained in public radio have brought about a new phase for podcasting” (Bonini, p25). This second age is the point at which the Hype Cycle bottoms out and climbs out of the ‘trough of disillusionment’, as both listeners and practitioners find formats that work, funding methods that aid sustainability and technologies that remove the barriers that were once there. This is an era where the processes and practices of podcasting have been professionalised and institutionalised not only by experienced radio producers moving their skills and products from public radio stations into the independent podcast space, but also by the growth of podcast networks and collectives where work can be branded, marketed and distributed collectively and coherently. A position made possible by steady (rather than radical) growth.
Beyond innovation – defining the form and the consolidation of technologies
In this second age of podcasting, the point at which in Gartner’s Cycle an innovation breaks out of the slump into a period of productivity: or rather the point at which early adopters have become the early majority. The early majority are characterised by Moore (2014) as being pragmatic and vertically orientated “meaning that they communicate more with others like themselves within their own industry than technology enthusiasts and early adopters, who are more likely to communicate ‘horizontally’ across industry boundaries in search of kindred spirits” (p57). In other words whilst early adopters of podcasts might look outside their own communities for new ideas, later listeners favour a more coherent offer with established and formalised and accessible distribution and recommendation networks. This might go some way to explain why social media was an important factor in the diffusion of “Serial” in 2014 (Berry, 2015). Just as the early adopters of radio were happy to build their own radio sets, the very early adopters of podcasts were enthusiastically willing to create their own software, drag files from computers to iPods and to connect their devices each morning to download fresh content. The majority of people, though, have less patience, less time, and less technical skill. This is where the development of the smartphone, in particular the iPhone, (the called “Jesus ‘phone”) proved to be so important in carrying podcasting across the ‘trough of disillusionment’ and into the wider markets of casual media consumers. Successive datasets from Edison Research in the United States shows movement from iPods and computers to touchscreen devices like tablets and smartphones; of which the company note “We’ve tracked podcasting since 2006 in this research series, and I still remember the days of hunting down an RSS feed, copying it and pasting it into iTunes, downloading the podcast to my computer, and then syncing it to my iPod to listen to later. Today, all that friction has been reduced to just one step, thanks to the convergence of Broadband access, computing, and media server that is the modern mobile phone. There is no question that the mobile phone has dramatically changed podcast consumption–“syncing” and downloads have effectively been supplanted by the immediate gratification of a single click.” (Webster, 2014). These devices removed the barrier to more widespread adoption. Whilst the inclusion of podcasts into iTunes in 2005 had a profound effect, the ability to add podcasts to any Apple, Android or Windows smartphone placed the ability to download podcasts in substantially more pockets. If consider that developments in the media landscape are either driven or restricted by technologies, economics and creativity, then the ability to access podcasts through a smartphone was a substantial reason for growth.
In many regards we could consider the period 2004-2014 to be that first age of podcasting where the medium was in flux; in terms of its technology but also its form and nature. For public broadcasters podcasting was an additional platform. Another means of distribution through a process that has not been so much about creating new forms of content “but rather about podcasting as a form of time shifting or creating archives to be listened to in whatever time sequence the listener chooses” (Madsen, 2009). This ‘podcasting-as-platform’ approach slowly gave way to a greater sense of remediation “where older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media” (Bolter and Grusin, 2001, Pp15). In this interaction between old and new media traditional media forms were reinvented, honed and retuned for the new space they found themselves in and the opportunities that offered. In podcasting programmes were no longer constrained by programme schedules and listeners were more able to put aside time to give intricate content more of their attention. Podcasts such as 99per cent Invisible and Radiolab were able to grow both new audiences but also scale and duration when feed from the live schedule. In each case, podcasting offered producers the opportunity to spin-off projects or businesses with a podcast, rather than a broadcast, focus. In the case of 99per cent Invisible this lead to independent Kickstarter projects and the development of the Radiotopia collective and in the case of Radiolab the creation of WYNC studios a space intent on “leading the new golden age in audio with high quality storytelling that informs, inspires and delights millions of intellectually curious and highly engaged listeners across digital, mobile and broadcast platforms.” (WYNC). Such developments are key elements to Bonini’s 2015 discussion of the ‘Second Age’ of podcasting where the political economy of the most successful podcasts has moved from cross-funded ventures to “economic systems that are alternative to public services such as crowdfunding, sponsors and advertising” (p27). It is a model where not only do podcast ‘studios’ and networks emerge, but also the financial models to support them. This occurs because of an accumulation of technological, economic and aesthetic factors. It is within this final criterion that we may find a further and more insightful rationale behind the development of the podcast space since 2014.
Podcasts as a distinct media form
Many authors have argued over time that podcasting situated in a liminal space between radio and the participatory cultures it emerged from, where the conventions and practices of each informed the early iterations of the medium. In her survey and analysis of podcasters in 2011 Markman notes that many of those she surveyed talked of their desire ‘do radio’, via the online on-demand delivery system that podcasting offered them. This, she suggests, reflects the difference between the practices and protocols of a medium (in this case radio) and the system used to deliver content to audiences. These podcasters were adhering to “the traditional protocols associated with broadcasting (DJ banter, back announcing, talk show formatting etc.,) while at the same time being divorced from the delivery technology” (pp561, her emphasis). This suggests that, in some regards, podcasters were doing radio by another route and so purposely retained the same cultural, social and discourse practices seen in linear broadcast radio as a means of culturally identifying their practice. Therefore, in this survey at least podcasting offered producers democratic access to the media; and listeners a means to consume media in a way that engendered a degree of control not previously available. For the podcasters in my own survey who left radio jobs for podcasting those same constraints were highlighted, with one commending “The freedom of telling the story the way you like it without having to follow editor or radio station guidelines” (respondent 19). Interestingly, that whilst there was correlation between those from broader media backgrounds and a desire to use podcasting as a platform, there was no significant difference in attitude about what to call their activity between those had experience of radio and those who did not. For Markman, podcasts were part of a wider pattern of convergence culture and pro-Am publishers but the tag of ‘radio’ remained. It is perhaps used here as a cultural shorthand. When reflecting on development of the medium and our current understanding of its ontological status, we should consider if this remains a useful position.
From a convergence perspective podcasting is merely another iteration of radio, one that might demonstrate its own cultures and practices but remains part of the radio family; just as journalists embraced blogging, or filmmakers embraced platforms like Vimeo. There is a risk here of reductivism, we were reduce the discussion to an argument that suggests anything that adheres to a broad set of cultural practices is radio. Whilst the remediation argument is strong and reflects radio’s institutional ability to adapt to the changing cultural landscape, the diversity of such podcasting is such that at the extremes of the medium those comparisons look increasingly unhelpful.
If we consider Bonini’s argument that the development of podcasting coincided with a shift in dominance from traditional media outlets to specialist podcast businesses or divisions that might reveal a connection between success, skills development and emerging sense of a cultural identity for podcasting. In essence what we might be talking about here is credibility where the Hype Cycle applies to both attention and cultural identity; as whilst numbers continued to rise, the sense that podcasting presented itself as a credible medium for storytelling, entertainment or sustainable commercial activity grew much more slowly. The 2014 podcast was largely credited for establishing this medium maturity but as its co-creator Ira Glass has acknowledged the success was emblematic of the shift, rather than origin of it. He points out that “podcasts are like world music or soccer — one of those things where everybody is like, “next year is gonna be the big year when all of America is playing soccer!… But for over a decade, people have been saying, “Everyone’s going to listen to podcasts!” — And no one ever did. Finally, a lucky congruence of a bunch of new, really good podcasts, but also the fact that the technology has changed made for a lot of new people finally hearing podcasts.” (Kocher, 2015) a point echoed in 2017 by this analysis in The National where Bristow-Bovey notes “As the networks gather strength by developing new shows and experimenting with new forms, podcasting is approaching a creative and economic tipping point, similar to the evolution of network television in the 1950s and 1960s. Production values increase, shows are more exquisitely produced, quality rises in the search for new ears” (np). The podcasters in my survey noted that they felt that quality in many regards was a key factor in development and growth, one notes that “Great sound quality, attention to detail, and the emotional investment of the listener, are the most important contributory factors” (respondent 9) and a thought echoed by this Canadian producer “Being featured by iTunes can give you a hit. But our biggest growth moment was making an imgur list of top ten audio dramas. But we believe writing is the single most overlooked element in the audio drama podcast world. Second is recording technique” (respondent 34). This self-driven sense of improvement combined with the freedoms it offers for both producers and listeners is significant, as not only does the audience have greater control over the experience in what Morris and Patterson describe as “an going flow from a personalized feed of self-scheduled, self-selected and on-demand programming” (2015, pp226-227) they are consuming content from a developing field of crafted works from producers driven to produce work that engages their audience in a specific space.
The transfer of listening from a ‘dumb’ device that can simply play back podcasts to one that allows immediate gratification and sharing of content is significant here. The smartphone is conceivably a device that is not only always connected to the internet but is also always close at hand and as such it offers a fertile ground for podcast listening, an experience which is enhanced by apps that “play an active role in shaping and managing listeners tastes through the curation and packing of programming” (Morris and Patterson p227). It is this amalgam of developing technologies, steady audience growth and a stronger skill base that created what became known as a “golden age” of podcasting in 2014 (See Roose, 2014) As Roose suggests that whilst technology played a role here so did the development of production skills and techniques as “today’s podcasts are simply better. Most podcasts used to be pretty amateurish — two people talking about sports for an hour, say, or a businessman ad libbing MBA lessons. And some still are. But today’s top podcasts … are full-scale productions with real staff, budget, and industry expertise behind them” (np). This is expertise that has been developed within the ‘produser’ (Bruns, 2006) community and shared via online communities, YouTube videos, books, and conferences such Podcast Movement in the United States and similar events in the UK and Spain. It is a process through which enthusiastic amateurs connect with each other and, as Bruns suggests “present their works to a wider audience of potential users and participants” (p261). Bruns goes on to suggest that through hybrid models (he mentions current.tv) a crossover between produser and producer can be located. In contemporary podcasting we can identify this not only an uncontested porous space where traditional media cross into the new space and produsers exploit their experience and their cultural capital by crossing into traditional linear media or commercial podcasting. It is also expertise that has migrated into the podcast space from public radio services such as the BBC or NPR. By example the podcast company Gimlet has a producer staff recruited almost entirely from public radio. In the case This American Life the programme first established podcasting as a delivery platform and now through the development of Serial Productions and its own independence from the public radio station that created it, it has become a media entity that straddles radio, live events and podcasting by successfully reflecting upon and exploiting their experience in both traditional radio production and the inherent differences of the podcast space. This is perhaps well demonstrated by the 2017 podcast S Town, a project born of an email to This American Life but one which in finished form has uniquely podcast aesthetic (McHugh, 2017). Whilst deploying traditional radiogenic techniques highlighted by Spinelli (2006); there is also a claustrophobic intimacy here lends itself to listening to on headphones in a single sitting (See Berry, 2016). This is audio production that shares a common heritage, a common media language and shared practices but through trial, error and experience, podcast producers have successfully created a mesh of their own practices which exploit the innate characteristics of the listening practices, flows and capabilities of podcasting as a medium. On one hand we can consider that contemporary podcasts such as The Modern Mann or Grammar Girl are technically stronger than their forerunners such as The Dawn and Drew Show or Morning Coffee Notes; on the other also we see development within work derived from traditional broadcasts towards a paradigm where the space is used as an ancillary space for remediated programming or new content designed with podcasting in mind.
Podcasting should not be understood as an attempt to replace, radicalise or reinvent radio, rather it is complimentary arena that is technically informed and culturally influenced by radio and whilst in places it is institutionally the same, it should be seen as actually the same. In my survey of podcasters many commented on the both the similarities and the differences between radio and podcasting, with one independent podcasting noting “There is a definite split between the independent podcaster and those backed by radio with full staffs who simply repackage their radio content and call it a “podcast.” We call them “procasters” and it is not a complimentary term” (respondent 21). Another producer working in paid position suggests that the relationship is more complex as “there are some versions of podcasting that are basically radio, but with less talent, editing and generosity toward an audience. So – I ultimately don’t really give a fuck what it’s called” (respondent 14). However, the some respondents offer perspectives that correlate with Silverstone’s notions of the importance of social meanings in innovation diffusion, with 27per cent of the podcasters who responded to my survey indicating that they described their work as radio to make things easier for the listener to comprehend, with one noting “Calling it ‘radio’ also gives it more credibility with guests and listeners” (respondent 34). However, when asked what they make only 3per cent of the sample self-identified as someone who makes radio, whilst half (49per cent) described their activity as making podcasts specifically, as opposed to making media content (32per cent) or being an entrepreneur (14per cent). This suggests that whilst externally and instructionally podcasters might use radio as a frame of reference, culturally and industrially they might situate themselves as a podcaster; as one podcaster put it “Just because you play a guitar and are from Nashville doesn’t mean you are a country singer” (respondent 26).
Whilst the Hype Cycle is a tool to guide business leaders in innovative practice it can, as we have seen tell us something about the past, present and future of podcasting: it tells us that early spikes in attention are not unusual and that the following wave of later adopters is more sustainable for a myriad of technical, social or leadership issues. Fenn and Raskino (2008) suggest that after a period of evaluation, innovations enter a period of evangelisation. Podcasting has long relied on evangelists like Adam Curry and more latterly Roman Mars around which communities have coalesced. Whilst Curry advocates free speech and open-access, Mars applied crowdsourced funding models to build networks to drive collective marketing and build a funding model that built on the power of networks. As Bonini notes “In just three years this has radically changed the economics behind the production of podcasts. Whereas, in their first ten years, the most downloaded podcasts with the greatest following were produced by European and American public radio broadcasters, today many of these same podcasts, in addition to new products, are starting to be funded through economic systems that are alternative to public services such as crowdfunding, sponsors and advertising” (1) (2015, p27) In order to develop podcasting needed public facing advocates and the systems to support growth. The smartphone offered the technical solution, crowdfunding and digital ad agencies offered the economic solution with a migration of talent into the digital space offering the content that more mainstream audiences might be looking for. Whilst the typology of adopters that Rogers outlines in the Diffusion of Innovations might help to map the early stages of podcasting, it may be less useful in establishing where the cycle sits today. Rogers suggests (as does Gladwell, 2000) that early adopters are generally are more connected, more educated and more interested in innovation than most of their peers (2003, pp 289-292). These are the early podcast listeners who are not only willing endure technical challenges, but might also relish them. However, the non-adopters raise a question mark for us when reflecting on podcasting. Whilst some innovations such as refrigerators or even the internet might hard to resist, the same cannot be said for podcasting. It is neither a technology nor a product in the traditional sense that seeks to replace something, nor is it an attempt to migrate commerce or communication into a new space. As Silverstone (1999) notes such diffusions have their own trajectory based around social meanings, practices and cultural representations. Therefore, where podcasting might be located industrially, economically or institutionally within the radio sphere, it can be argued that it is culturally different and as time goes this ideological difference is becoming more pronounced – even if technologies ultimately render the delivery system invisible to the consumer. As with blogs those boundaries are often set by the participants themselves, as boyd notes in her work on blogging “The medium is defined by the practice it supports and the ways in which one identifies with that practice…The boundaries of blogs are socially constructed, not technologically defined. Yet, the technology plays a heavy role in shaping the resulting forms” (2006, np)
Whilst from an academic view, or a radio industry view coalescing radio and podcasts under a single banner of ‘radio’ or ‘audio’ might reflect convergences in media cultures it might be neither helpful nor accurate to do so in the long term. Let us remember that podcasting is a space shared by a myriad of media forms from University lectures and language courses through to home-made shows about video games or movies. Therefore, we must be careful and selective about what we locate where, in his discussion of the ‘politics of podcasting’ Sterne et al (2008) suggest that the word ‘broadcast’ might better reflect the ontological position, they suggest that “If we free the term broadcasting from its corporate connotations and remember its longer history, then podcasting is not simply an outgrowth of blogger culture, but rather part of a much longer history of dissemination” (np). If we reflect on the podcasters who responded to my survey, then it is clear that many podcasters culturally and economically identity themselves as podcasters, which is a view that should command respect. Therefore, whilst branches of podcasting might remain economically interwound with radio (as they are also interwound with education) there is an increasing rationale to suggest that it is capable of being technologically and culturally different. The reference to political economic models here show that we are now in a position of more sustainable growth driven in part by critical mass but also a clearer sense of what podcasting is culturally. This collection of chapters recognises that cultural position and should be further confirmation of the diversity, challenge and opportunity not only in podcast production but also podcast studies.
- It is important to note here that podcast charts are merely records of new subscriptions and (in the case of iTunes) listener comments. Therefore, they are not a true reflection of the market.
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