Shortcuts / 15 June 2023

The 20th anniversary of podcasting

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the birth of podcasting, so in this Squiz Shortcut, we look at how it all got started, how it completely changed the media landscape, and what’s ahead for the medium.

Twenty years, eh?
Yep, it’s hard to believe it’s been so long since we first started hearing the first podcasts – they’re so ubiquitous these days.

What was the first-ever pod?
A politics show by a journo named Christopher Lyndon is widely credited with being the first podcast back in 2003. It mainly gets that credit because it was the first time an audio file had been distributed via an RSS feed – that stands for really simple syndication.

Was it known as a ‘podcast’ then?
The term – which is a hybrid of iPod and broadcast – wasn’t actually used until 2004. It really took off because people were downloading the audio equivalent of a blog onto their iPods.

RIP iPod… Who else was creating these early podcasts?
A lot of them were just everyday people producing them out of their living rooms. And like the early bloggers, they were pretty amateur and had tiny audiences.

So what was the breakthrough pod?
The first one to really make a splash was actually just an edited version of a radio show hosted by Ricky Gervais. In 2006 it was averaging 250,000 downloads every show. And for a while, big broadcasters like NPR in the US, the BBC and the ABC really just saw podcasting as a way just to get their existing radio shows online.

Sounds like a pretty slow burn…
Yeah, it’s fair to say it was for the first decade – so if you missed it you’re not alone. But the biggy came in 2014 when Serial – a story about a guy who was possibly wrongly convicted of murdering his girlfriend – got 100 million downloads in its first year.

Those are some pretty impressive stats…
Exactly. And like how Netflix changed everything for TV and brought an end to appointment viewing – in some ways podcasting made more profound changes to the media landscape.

How so?
Well, the thing about video streaming is that you still need lots of money to make content, and that’s why big studios like Netflix and Disney dominate the market. What podcasting did was take away the gatekeeper. So there were very few barriers to entry, you didn’t need millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars – just a really solid concept and maybe a couple of microphones and some pillows for soundproofing…

So what kind of content is taking off in podcast land?
The true crime genre has absolutely exploded – Serial was the original of the genre and then there was Dirty John. And closer to home we’ve had Teacher’s Pet, which played a big part in getting the Chris Dawson murder case to trial.

And I feel like every celeb has a podcast now…
Mmm, it feels like when we were stuck at home during the pandemic that this really took off. Kim Kardashian getting into the true crime genre was a step too far even for her fans – but pods like Smartless with Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes and Armchair Expert with Dax Shepherd are incredibly popular.

So have we reached peak podcast?
We’ve heard a lot over the last couple of years that podcasting has hit saturation point – it’s estimated there are about 3 to 5 million podcasts out there – and probably 100 million episodes.

That’s a lot…
It is, but Oz is actually a big podcast-consuming nation – there was a big survey mid-last year showing 40% of Aussies were listening to a podcast every month compared to 38% in the US – but clearly even the most dedicated consumer ain’t getting through that back catalogue…

Not even close…
Yeah – especially when the average podcast listener gets through 7 episodes a week. And they might only subscribe to half a dozen shows – so clearly a lot of podcasts being made are not going to get an audience.

So there are no rivers of gold…
Certainly not for everyone. And of course that doesn’t matter if someone is making it just for fun but now a lot of podcasts are being made with backing from media companies – and they’re looking for advertisers to attach themselves to their shows. And the truth is there are not enough sponsorship dollars to go around.

But podcasts aren’t going anywhere…
It doesn’t seem that way, not least because car manufacturers have all but stopped putting radios in their cars. So as people buy new cars, they’ll be forced to go online. And a lot of traditional radio stations – AM FM will be switching off within a decade – so over time people are going to have to get listening on their phones or smart speakers.

So there’s plenty of life left in the format yet…
Yep, there’s plenty of life left in this sprightly, young 20yo…

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13 Minutes to the Moon podcast – BBC

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