I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.
And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.
When he started doing it, Winer called it “audioblogging” and if you listen to his early experiments you can see why. They’re relaxed, friendly, digressive, unpretentious and insightful – in other words an accurate reflection of the man himself and of his blog. He thought of them as “morning coffee notes” – audio meditations about what was on his mind first thing in the morning. The term “podcast” was coined later in 2004 by Ben Hammersley as a portmanteau term that combined “pod” (from the Apple iPod) and “broadcast”. This was a great term for the medium, though it has taken 15 years for the radio and TV industry to realise that it’s nothing like broadcasting. Which only goes to confirm HL Mencken’s observation that it’s difficult to explain anything to a person if their salary depends on not understanding it.
The thing that the broadcast industry didn’t get is that podcasting is a new and distinctive medium. The BBC for years persisted in not understanding it – as shown by the way its radio programmes that were hosted on a web server after transmission were described as podcasts. They’re not: they’re stored radio programmes available for access at the listener’s convenience.
The most distinctive thing about podcasts is the more intimate relationship between creator and listener that they enable. A radio broadcast reaches large numbers of listeners simultaneously, many of them not giving the programme their undivided attention. Most podcasts, on the other hand, are heard via headphones so the producer has a different relationship with the listener. You have to choose what you’re going to hear rather than just accepting what the station transmits. And while you may be doing something else at the same time – walking, jogging, exercising, washing-up, cooking, whatever – the audio signal is no longer just background noise: it’s coming straight into your ears. This means that podcasting has a higher cognitive bandwidth than broadcasting, and so can often convey more intellectually challenging ideas and content.
Podcasting also reaches parts that broadcasting, despite its power, sometimes cannot reach. For example, Talking Politics, a weekly podcast created and presented by the Cambridge academic David Runciman (and on which I have occasionally been a guest), has had 10.2 million listens in 165 countries since they started keeping records in 2016, and is currently running at more than half a million listeners every month. This for a podcast that produces weekly conversations between a group of serious scholars in a range of disciplines and makes few of the concessions to the audience that a broadcast show on the same subject would be obliged to make.
Another example is The Daily, the New York Times’s weekday podcast, on which the host Michael Barbaro takes a news story of the day and probes it with a journalist who has broken – or worked on – the story. One of the things that surprised the Times about The Daily was that its audience has a radically different demographic from its normal readership. They’re younger, for one thing; and most of them would never dream of buying a newspaper. These lessons have not been lost on other publications, not least our stablemate, the Guardian, which last month celebrated the first anniversary of Today in Focus, its daily news-based podcast.
For a long time, podcasting was a hidden treasure enabled by the affordances of the technology. It was – just as blogging was – the province of enthusiasts and evangelists like Winer who did it because it was empowering, interesting, communal and fun. But now it seems to be falling prey to the same phenomenon that has bedevilled the web – the thundering herds motivated by corporate greed. In that sense, it may be subject to the pernicious cycle first noticed by Tim Wu in his landmark book, The Master Switch – in which a medium starts out gloriously free but winds up being captured and zombified by commercial interests.
Podcasting certainly started out free. At the end of his first “audioblog”, Winer said: “The conclusion I came to was: forget about starting a business. When I started blogging, the last thing I was thinking about was how am I going to turn this into a business. I just found it interesting, then found it fascinating, then decided to just go with the flow – to keep doing it and see where it led. The only way to find out is to start doing it.”
So he did, and we are all in his debt.
What I’m reading
AI bans in the pipeline?
The second wave of algorithmic accountability is the basis of a great essay by the legal scholar Frank Pasquale about how we have to think beyond the regulation of existing tech and which technologies should be banned outright.
Let’s be honest…
Ethan Zuckerman of MIT writes on building a more honest internet and what social media would look like if it really served the public interest and what we can do to fix it.
Deep in thought
An innovative teaching text on neural networks and deep learning by Michael Nielsen comes in the form of a free eBook. If you find it useful, you can donate £5.