Delving Into Audio: What Is a Podcast, Really?

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What is a podcast? It feels like such a simple question doesn’t it? But these days, people might argue about the answer. Is it a couple of people chatting about a current events subject in an audio only format? Perhaps it’s a single person riffing on the mic sharing a topic they are passionate about. Or is it a fiction audio show? The truth is, podcasts can be all of these things, and more.

In its most basic sense - a podcast is a digital audio file that can be downloaded or streamed online. But there's much more to this evolving format that merits a deeper dive. Podcasts come in a wide variety of genres and styles, from serialized non-fiction narratives to interview-based shows and comedy programs. Understanding the ins and outs of podcasting, including its origins and how it differs from traditional radio, can help both listeners and aspiring creators navigate this booming landscape. Let's explore what really defines a podcast and why this medium has captured the attention of millions.

So - What is a Podcast?

At its core, a podcast is a digital audio file - this file can be streamed online via a podcast app or downloaded directly to listen to on a media player, your computer, smart device, phone, etc… Podcasts encompass a wide array of formats and genres, making them a versatile medium for both information dissemination and entertainment.

Podcasts can be serialized non-fiction narratives that dive deep into a particular topic. They can be interview-based shows that feature engaging conversations with experts and personalities. They can even be off the cuff musings about random thoughts a person has on a Tuesday night.

Podcasts offer something for every listener. Comedy podcasts, panel discussions, and even fictional storytelling are just a few examples of the many formats podcasts can take.

This versatility has allowed podcasts to become a popular way for people to consume information and entertainment on their own terms. It’s an intimate audio experience that anyone can enjoy during a commute, workout, relaxation time, or whenever really.

The Fundamental Elements of Podcasts

Every podcast has key parts that make it what it is. The most important part is the content. The content is what the podcast is all about. It's the topic or story the podcast covers.

The content sets the tone for the whole show. It also determines who the podcast is for, known as the target audience.

Next is the format. The format is how the content is presented. Some podcasts have just one host talking. Others have interviews with guests.

Some tell stories with many voices and sound effects. The format shapes how the content comes across to listeners.

Another key element is the platform. This is where the podcast is hosted and shared. Popular platforms for hosting include Libsyn, Podbean, Buzzsprout, and Spotify for Podcasters (a free podcast hosting service).

Finally, there's distribution. This is how the podcast reaches listeners. Podcasters can submit their shows to directories such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify. They can share them on social media. They can even have them featured in apps. Distribution helps grow the podcast's audience.

Together, content, format, platform, and distribution define a podcast's identity. They determine what it's about, how it's presented, and who listens to it. That's why these elements are so fundamental to every podcast.

Origins of Podcasting

The term "podcast" was first coined by Ben Hammersley, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper, in an article published on February 12, 2004, titled "Audible Revolution." In the article, Hammersley discussed the growing trend of online audio content and the need for a new term to describe it.

He wrote, "But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?" This is believed to be the first time the term "podcasting" was used in a published work.

The word "podcast" itself is a portmanteau, combining "iPod" (Apple's popular digital audio player) and "broadcast." Although the term derives from the iPod, podcasts can be played on various devices, not just Apple products.

Later in 2004, the term "podcast" was popularized by former MTV video jockey Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer. They are credited with developing the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology that allowed users to subscribe to and automatically download new audio content, which was a crucial step in the development of podcasting as we know it today.

In fact, many refer to Adam Curry as “The Podfather” because of his contribution to the audio format.

The medium truly began to take off with the advent of broadband internet and portable digital audio players in the early 2000s. Other key milestones in the history of podcasting include:

  • 2004: The launch of the first podcast hosting service, Libsyn (Liberated Syndication). This made it easier for podcasters to host and distribute their content
  • 2005: The launch of Apple's iTunes podcast directory (now called Apple Podcasts), which made it easy for listeners to find and subscribe to shows
  • 2006: Open source software Podcast Generator comes online to publish self-hosted podcasts
  • 2007: The release of the first iPhone, which put a powerful podcast listening device in people's pockets
  • 2012: The launch of Apple's standalone "Podcasts" app, which came preinstalled on iOS devices. This made it even easier for people to discover and listen to podcasts
  • 2014: The launch of Gimlet Media, a podcast network founded by Alex Blumberg and Matthew Lieber. Gimlet's success helped legitimize podcasting as a business and paved the way for other podcast networks
  • 2014: The release of "Serial," a true crime podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig. It became a cultural phenomenon and introduced many new listeners to podcasting
  • 2018: Spotify, the music streaming giant, begins to seriously invest in podcasting purchasing exclusive rights to a show called “The Joe Budden Podcast” 
  • 2019: Spotify also acquired Anchor and Gimlet Media. This along with many of their other podcasting acquisitions and exclusive shows marked a significant shift in the industry and brought podcasting to Spotify's large user base.
  • 2020: “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of the most popular podcasts in the world, signed an exclusive multi-year licensing deal with Spotify, rumored to be worth over $100 million. This deal was a major milestone, reflecting the growing value and mainstream appeal of top podcasting content. 

These milestones showcase the rapid growth and evolution of podcasting from a niche medium to a mainstream form of entertainment and information dissemination.

Since its early beginnings, podcasting has continued to grow and evolve, with major media companies and independent creators alike embracing the medium.

Podcasting vs. Traditional Broadcasting

Podcasting offers several unique advantages over traditional broadcasting. For one, podcasts are on-demand, meaning listeners can choose what they want to hear and when they want to hear it. This level of control and convenience has been a major factor in the medium's popularity, particularly among younger audiences accustomed to on-demand content.

Podcasting also has lower barriers to entry compared to traditional broadcasting, with minimal equipment and hosting costs making it possible for anyone to create and distribute a show. Additionally, podcasts often foster a strong sense of community and engagement between hosts and listeners, with many shows encouraging feedback and participation through social media and live events. 

The Role of a Podcaster

A podcaster is the creator and host of a podcast, responsible for conceptualizing, producing, and promoting their show. This can involve a wide range of tasks, from researching and scripting episodes to recording and editing audio, and engaging with listeners through social media and other channels.

Successful podcasters often have a unique voice and perspective that resonates with their audience, as well as a deep knowledge of their subject matter. Some notable examples include Sarah Koenig, host of the groundbreaking true-crime podcast "Serial," and Marc Maron, whose "WTF with Marc Maron" podcast has featured in-depth interviews with celebrities and public figures.

Developing a Successful Podcast

Starting a successful podcast requires careful planning and execution. Key considerations include defining your topic and target audience, choosing a format and release schedule, and investing in quality equipment and editing software.

Each episode you create needs to have a podcast intro that hooks the listener and makes them want to tune in for the whole episode. It's also a good idea to create podcast cover art for each episode you release to convey what the episode is about. And, you can then repurpose that podcast cover art as social media content.

Promoting your podcast through social media, guest appearances on other shows, and paid advertising can also help grow your audience. However, the most important factor in a podcast's success is often its content.

Podcasts that offer unique perspectives, engaging storytelling, and valuable information tend to stand out in a crowded field and attract loyal listeners over time. Consistency, both in terms of release schedule and content quality, is also crucial for building and maintaining an audience.

Whether you have a free podcast host, or are paying for podcast hosting, the most successful podcasters treat it as a business. This means things like having a podcast website, recording software that minimizes editing time, and keeping the listener in mind with every episode they create.

Unless you're already a celebrity or someone with a large audience, it's less likely that you will have a popular podcast from the outset. But, with a little planning, and a lot of work, you can create a successful podcast that listeners can't stop tuning into.

What About Video Podcasts?

In recent years, many podcasters have started to release video recordings of their podcast episodes. These "video podcasts" often show the hosts and guests as they record the audio podcast, adding a visual element to the listening experience.

However, it's important to note that despite this trend, podcasting is still primarily an audio-based medium. The core of a podcast is the audio content, which can be listened to while driving, exercising, or doing other activities where watching a video would be impractical.

The video component of a "video podcast" was initially intended as a supplement to the audio, rather than the main focus. Many listeners still consume these podcasts as audio-only, using the video as an optional extra.

While some podcasters may choose to release video alongside their audio episodes, the audio itself is what makes it a podcast.

This distinction is important because it highlights the unique strengths of podcasting as a medium. Podcasts allow for a level of multitasking and mobility that video-only content does not. Audio-only podcasts also tend to foster a more intimate connection between the host and listener, as the audio format creates a sense of one-on-one conversation.

So while "video podcasts" are becoming more common, they are more accurately described as a related, but distinct format. At its core, podcasting remains an audio medium, and this is a key part of its appeal and success.

Resources to Help You Start a Podcast of Your Own

Thinking about joining the audioverse and becoming a podcaster yourself? Check out some of our resources below that may help you launch your own show. And, once you’re ready to start a podcast, grab a free trial of Castmagic to make quick work of creating episode transcripts, social media content, podcast descriptions and more! 

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