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Podcasting's 15-Year Journey

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(By Rob Greenlee) We’ve seen the headlines about the closures of podcasting divisions at prominent digital media companies like BuzzFeed, Audible, and Panoply, which have unleashed a new round of bubble-bursting reactionism. And like the swings in perception podcasting has experienced since 2004, this too shall pass. Here’s my take on podcasting’s 15-year journey from rebellious upstart to media-industry darling

The truth is, podcasting has experienced a very steady growth rate, with audience and awareness growing between 2 to 4 percent every year for the last decade and a half. Yes, we’ve seen waves of inflated interest each time a new type of content comes onto the scene — from technology and comedy to sports talkers and reality storytelling. And now we’re seeing an uptick as younger audiences show a hunger for fictional storytelling in podcast format.

Much of the perceived ups and downs of podcasting have been sparked by concerns from within the industry. People worried it was moving too fast or that the influx of media coverage, investment, and new content would knock the medium out of balance, and with not enough monetizable audience a correction would occur. But if we look back at the history of podcasting we can see that the medium has always been flexible, evolving with every change in media formats, devices, and popularity. And it never really was about money.

While most think of podcasting as starting in mid-2004, it was really the Microsoft Plus! Sync & Go service, launched in 2003 on Windows XP and Pocket PCs (see image), that set the stage for the coming wave. With the advent of mp3 downloads and the file-sharing craze that came with Napster, came the tech development that really made podcasting take off: the invention of RSS-based enclosure tags by Dave Winer.

As iPods and portable mp3 players grew in popularity, the podcasting revolution continued. An MTV VJ invented the first podcast catcher, iPodder, which enabled audiences to listen to downloads on audio players like iTunes and Windows Media player, as well as portable devices like iPod, Creative Zen, and other mp3 players.

In 2005, Apple iTunes added a podcast-subscription feature to its June 28 update. The new audio medium was hyped in the beginning to change radio forever with the launch of open-source radio station KYOU in San Francisco, which only aired podcasts. That same year, Wired magazine ran a cover story about how podcasting was going to kill the radio star that included an image of a bullet crashing through a table top radio.

Up to this point, podcasting was really a rebellion at its core and early pioneers of the medium weren’t interested in bringing radio into the mix. The original podcasters had a negative view of the ad model that fueled the commercial radio industry. The attitude within the podcast culture was more, “Let’s stick it to the man.” They wanted to break the over-commercialization of radio and level the playing field on both the the creation and listening sides.

Public radio did, however, jump in very early, and with its non-commercial sponsorship model they were accepted by the growing legion of podcast listeners. Commercial radio eventually dipped its toe into podcasting, but mostly had an unsupported role early on.

Slowly, over the years, creators found it more and more time consuming and challenging to create content, but still loved doing it. Many wanted to quit their regular jobs and produce podcasts full time. Of course, that also meant earning a living from it which necessitated the shift from the anti-commercialism of the early days.

Over time, ads became more and more accepted. First it was donations from the listener side, and then host-read spots began cropping up. Some podcasts went with a premium-paid content model offering episodes for nominal prices per download.

Now, with the ever-growing audiences and proven effectiveness of podcasting as a platform for audience engagement, we’ve seen a large upswing of interest from ad agencies who value the deep loyalty, trust, and connections between listener and host.

Podcasting has, from its very beginning, been more about telling stories to dedicated audiences, and there’s always been a good balance between the number of listeners and amount of available content. As both grow, so too will the interest from advertisers, which will bring in ads and ad dollars that the medium resisted early on, but happily accepted years later.

As we look to the future in 2019, the issues top of mind will be audience growth, dynamic ad insertion revenue to all podcasters, easier-to-use audio players, content discovery, adoption of audience measurement standards, and commercial radio’s entry into the podcasting medium.

Rob Greenlee is VP of Podcaster Relations at Voxnest’s Spreaker and a 2017 inductee of the Academy of Podcasters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at


Paul Plack -

Rob, thanks for the concise history lesson. As someone with experience in both radio and podcasting, I’d caution content creators that all the same temptations which led to the “over-commercialization” of radio also threaten this newer medium. There’s nothing inherently wrong with commercialization, especially if it enables better content and more reliable episode releases. But radio sales departments actually promote the intrusiveness of ads as a benefit! A screaming car dealer who winds up in your podcast due to automated ad insertion will make you sound like radio in a hurry. Let’s be appreciative of ad revenue, but careful not to get lazy or greedy. It would be easy to lose the listener trust that differentiates us from radio and supports our cost-per-thousand.

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