What is a Podcast?

Over the past year, I’ve written over 50 articles about podcasting and how someone can turn their hobby into a profitable venture through community building and audience participation. During that time, we’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with some outstanding content producers that specialize in both audio and video productions.

It’s through these relationships that I’ve grown to understand just how diverse the podcasting community is, and how a single phrase used to describe a method of distributing media files has changed the face of media.

History of Podcasting

Podcast as a term is a combination of the word “broadcast” and “iPod.” The term originated in the early 2000s after being coined by Guardian writer Ben Hammersley, and became popular in late 2004 as content creators began adopting the RSS format to distribute media files. In June of 2005, iTunes began officially supporting podcasts through its music store, allowing users to subscribe to feeds and automatically receive the latest episodes via aggregation.

This wasn’t where the journey of podcasting began, however. As early as the 1980s, radio stations and educational institutes were receiving audio and video files through an Internet-equivalent online distribution platform. In the mid 1990s, Internet Talk Radio was launched featuring audio files users could download a la carte.

It wasn’t until 2000-2001 that Dave Winter drafted and successfully demonstrated the RSS enclosure for aggregating audio files, a feature arguably made possible by Adam Curry’s influence. Over the next few years, distribution of media files throgh RSS was slow-growing and development on the format continued. What was then called audioblogging would soon become the booming distribution medium we know as podcasting today.

In 2004, developers began implementing RSS into their media software. Eventually in 2005, Apple joined in by announcing the addition of an officially supported podcast section on the iTunes Music Store. It was this, combined with the popularity of the iPod, that pushed the label “podcast” over other descriptive words used at the time. There were, however, several third-party software solutions in place that added podcast aggregation to iTunes by manually adding new media files to the user’s iTunes Library before iTunes supported the standard in an official capacity. One of these programs was iPodderX, also called Transistr which was one of several to be targeted by Apple and forced to change its name due to copyright.

In any case, podcasting flourished as an easy way to distribute and subscribe to media shows. At first, audio was the format of choice and even to this day it’s believed by some to be the only legitimate format to carry the name “podcast.” For those in the know, video and audio media were both part of the original idea of digital automated content distribution dating back to the 1980s.

Today, you can subscribe to audio, video, and mixed media podcasts on a variety of subjects and qualities. Some podcasts even feature 1080p video, which is a far cry from the low-bitrate mono audio files that used to dominate the platform.

Who are Podcasters?

The act of podcasting knows no financial bounds. Anyone can be a podcaster, regardless of the cost of their hardware or background. Mothers, fathers, teenagers, grandparents, gardeners, journalists, and even seasoned broadcasters with millions of fans are podcasters.

Podcasts range in production quality as well. Some podcasts are done with little more than a mobile phone and basic, freely available editing software while others are based in million-dollar studios with production teams and editors working diligently to produce a professional product worthy of corporate sponsorship. Often, there isn’t much of a difference between these two scenarios as each is distributed in the same way.

Podcasting could exist as a hobby or a full-time job. In some cases, entire companies are built on the income provided by a show distributed as a podcast. For example, This Week in Tech (TWiT) has grown from a single podcast featuring a handful of tech pundits to an entire network of shows produced in both audio and video formats and distributed through a variety of avenues.

The subjects of a podcast can range just as dramatically. Technology, pets, the paranormal, interviews, personal audio/video journals, and even dramatic fictional stories could fall under the podcasting umbrella. Over the years, even shows distributed through audio/video sharing sites such as YouTube are occasionally referred to as podcasts, even if they don’t fit the traditional standard of being distributed via an RSS embed. Whether or not this is proper use of the term is up for debate.

What is the Future of Podcasting?

Podcasting as a distribution format isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, Apple just released an official Podcast app through iOS. This enables users to subscribe to and manage podcast downloads without having to use iTunes.

It could be argued that the market is becoming over-saturated with content with hundreds of thousands of podcasts being produced even today. That’s a lot of programming, and not every show is a hit. As with anything on the Internet, one can only hope that the best content eventually rises to the top and finds its audience.

With more traditional media production corporations turning their gaze to online distribution methods (such as podcasting), it could be argued that the platform itself hasn’t reached its peak just yet. Settop boxes and other Internet-capable entertainment devices plugged into televisions are becoming more supportive of the podcast format. Many televisions made today are RSS capable, enabling you to subscribe to and watch/listen to your favorite podcast without having to go through a computer or external media device.

Some of the biggest names in broadcasting have already made the transition to podcasting as a primary distribution platform for their programs. Adam Corolla, the former host of a syndicated radio show Loveline, began doing his podcast just a few years ago. His audience reached into the millions within the first month.

There’s no doubt in my mind that podcasting will continue to thrive as a distribution standard. The term itself may have evolved (much to the dismay of some), but the spirit behind the podcasting movement remains as strong today as it was in the mid 2000s. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. You can create, promote, and distribute your own show on a dime thanks to the wonders if modern technology.

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