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The Podcast Host

When Did Podcasts Start? A Brief History of Podcasting

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Some say that Conan O’Brien invented podcasting. Others say that the first podcast was Serial with Sarah Koenig. And, some people say that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. There is a ton of information about the history of podcasting. Some bits of data complement each other, and some conflict. Like the camera, radio communication, and television, podcasting is a child with many midwives. It may also have many birthdays. In this article, we’re going to try to answer the question, “when did podcasting start?”

When Did People Start Listening to Podcasts?

Most people became aware of podcasts around 2005. Then, iTunes 4.9 made it easier for people to subscribe to podcasts. At the time, podcasts and music used the same app, so you could make playlists containing both. However, the iPod wasn’t unique. People used various kinds of mp3 players to download and share audio, even after Apple’s iPod hit consumer shelves in October 2001. The i2Go, “a deliverer of personalized Internet audio content to mobile Internet appliances for businesses and consumers,” blew through $7 million in funding in the same year. People used other mp3 players to download and listen to audio content. But, none of them had the PR muscle of Apple.

Despite inventing the iPod, though, Apple didn’t invent the podcast. So, when did podcasting start?

When Did People Start Podcasting?

In 2000, there was a lot of time and energy spent on making communication faster, cheaper, and more efficient. Because music is high in demand, people tend to focus a lot of attention on how to share music easily (whether for profit or fun). So, a lot of the history of podcasting is tied up in music sharing.

The audio drama podcast Limetown‘s fourth episode, written by Chris Littler, proposed an idea that isn’t fiction. In the story, entrepreneur Max Finlayson divulges a secret and explains his scientific goal:

“Since we’ve been walking upright, man has been trying to answer the same question: how do I, Max, transmit an idea from my mind to yours, Lia, with the least amount of information lost during dissemination? Cave drawings and the alphabet, telegraph, television, telephone, the Internet… these were all precursors.”

“Precursors to what?”

“Your head. Ding, ding, ding. Mind-to-mind communication.”

Podcasting isn’t a psychic connection, thank goodness. But, it’s definitely a simpler and more efficient way to communicate as much information as possible with the least amount of data lost. And, since the creator tends to be the owner, it allows for the most efficient freedom of information since the handwritten letter.

The Slow Internet File-Sharing Conundrum

In the early years of the iPod, the devices didn’t connect to the internet with wi-fi. Typically you would transfer audio files from a CD, convert them to an mp3, and put them in your iTunes library. Or, you could buy tracks on iTunes, if you weren’t downloading them from Napster. It was time-consuming and required attention to detail. If a friend wanted to share their audio or video with you over the Internet, that could take even longer. The majority of people in the US had dial-up internet in the early 2000s, and it was slow. For a three-minute pop song, this wasn’t all that big of a deal. But it added up. What if you wanted to share something bigger than that?

In the US, The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was meant to keep radio stations profitable. Unfortunately, it meant that large corporations like Clear Channel (now iHeart Media) could buy more than one radio or television station in the same geographic market. The result was a homogenization of radio culture. It was much harder for individual artists to share their work with a broader audience. As the 21st century rolled in, creative folks needed the Internet so badly, that they had to invent it and popularize it.

Music Sharing, Blogging, and Podcasting

In February of 2004, journalist Ben Hammersley wrote for The Guardian that an audible revolution was taking place. “But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?” So, is that when it started? Nope.

Adam Curry (of The Podcast Index) was emotionally invested in music and radio, and getting new music and video from peer to peer as efficiently as possible. He told me that “Karlheinz Brandenburg or whoever holds the patent on the mp3 needs to be kissed and hugged,” for their contribution to efficient audio sharing. Curry studied Apple Script and worked with developer Kevin Marks to create iPodder. This program made it easier to consume and share audio on your iPod via RSS feeds. One could say that this is when podcasting started. But, podcasting didn’t explode from any one person’s head, fully formed, like Athena’s birth from Zeus’.

Prior to that, Dave Winer and Adam Curry partnered to popularize the idea of sharing audio, video and text via an RSS feed. Curry said that at the time he was living in The Netherlands. With the nine-hour time difference, Winer could send him a QuickTime file and the next morning when Curry woke up, it would be there on his computer. Around the same time, in October of 2000, entrepreneur Tristan Louis proposed an idea to Winer and other developers to share audio and video more efficiently via RSS.

So, Curry already had ideas about efficient file sharing, the drive, emotional attachment and the connections to promote it. Louis had the details of the concept, and Winer was the RSS expert of the three. He proposed sharing the audio and video inside an enclosure, like a letter in an envelope, or like peas in a pod.

A podcasting pea and some listening peas nestled in a pea pod
Podcasting peas in a pod.

There you have it. When did podcasts start? October of 2000. In fact, if we really want to have fun with this, we can say it’s October 30, 2000, because it would be the anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast.

Is This Really When Podcasts Started, Everywhere?

A Russian samizdat radio program, The Illusion of Independent Radio, shared music, interviews and panel discussions via an underground network of subscribers. This was an audio companion to a magazine of Russian underground culture, called Hurray Boom Boom!

Between 1989 and 1990, the producers distributed music and ideas both Eastern European and Western. You can still hear some of The Illusion of Independent Radio on YouTube. Like podcasts we know today, the creators recorded and edited in home studios, and people who opted in of their own volition, outside of government or corporate control, consumed it.

Is this a podcast? At the time, there was no Internet in Russia. Cassette tapes were the norm. The Illusion of Independent Radio had a unifying theme, independent creation and distribution, and a willing audience who opted in of their own volition with shared interests. It has many of the features of what we now call a podcast. It even meets the criteria that Louis, Winer and Curry, and other developers, batted back and forth; audio and ideas in a package that gives it the most efficient means of delivery. In this case, it was the cassette tape, rather than the RSS feed.

How Do We Define, “Podcast?”

Today, Substack newsletters include audio, images and text. Are they podcasts? My friend Kyle in Philadelphia records his knitting lessons over Zoom with his teacher in Iceland, shares them on YouTube, and calls it a podcast (Drunk Knitting Iceland). It’s a unified series of episodes with a goal, but it doesn’t have an RSS feed. Raucous, a theatre collective in the UK, has created a web-based series of connected audio fiction experiences, The Prick and The Sting, without an RSS feed or subscription element. As I write this, Stephanie is writing an article about what makes a podcast a podcast. Once we have her definition, then we can figure out where podcasting can go next.