The media milestone the media (fittingly?) forgot

Photo: AP

One decade ago this weekend, millions of iPod owners woke up to a quiet change to the iTunes software they probably didn’t even notice. The really revolutionary updates usually have nice, round numbers—iTunes 3.0 invented the personalized playlist, 4.0 introduced the Music Store, 11.0 gave us iCloud—so it was somehow fitting that even mighty Cupertino didn’t seem to realize they were launching, yet again, a powerful new category of media with iTunes 4.9: Podcasting.

That this milestone has gone entirely unnoticed in an anniversary-mad age when Google gets animated about Bartolomeo Cristofori’s 360th Birthday or the 175 years since the penny black stamp is not terribly surprising given the strange and jagged trajectory of the field. An awful lot of people probably think Sarah Koenig invented the podcast last year with Serial and wonder exactly how Marc Maron lucked into last month’s free-range garage chat with President Barack Obama.

As with so much, though, it really began with Apple. The company didn’t invent the concept of serialized digital audio programs delivered via RSS any more than it invented the portable MP3 player, the smartphone, the tablet, or the wearable.  But there’s a reason they became known as “podcasts,” why that new portmanteau stuck even though there was plenty of debate about its iPod-centric connotations in the early years. Prior to the iTunes 4.9 update on June 28, 2005, podcasts were so clumsily arranged around the internet and so technologically challenging to use on any device other than a desktop or laptop computer that only the most tech-savvy even knew they existed.

Then iTunes added that purple icon and created a section of its store for users to find shows by recommendations as well as by searching for areas of interest. It became easier to download and sync to the iPod, even for the low-tech among us. Two days after the 4.9 update, Apple trumpeted its 1 millionth podcast subscription. By 2013, Apple announced its 1 billionth podcast subscriptiona seemingly impressive milestone that actually reflected of how dramatically the medium’s growth slowed after that fast start.

Still, in many mainstream media circles, podcasting is seen as an oddity. Last week, during an hour on “The Rising Popularity of Audio Streaming and Podcasting,” NPR grande dame Diane Rehm expressed her shock that so many listeners tell her they only hear her program via its podcast. She also marveled that anyone can make a living as a podcaster. Guest Eric Nuzum, former vice president of programming at NPR who starts this month as senior vice president of original content at Audible.com, gently explained that advertisers actually pay a premium —as much as $30 per 1,000 downloads—for some shows. Podcast listeners, Nuzum told a baffled Rehm, are self-selected enthusiasts of the show’s topic or fans of the hosts who have sought out the content and are loyal to advertisers who support their passions. In other words, in industry parlance, they have “high value.”

If you had predicted to those of us who pioneered the craft back in the summer of 2005 that 10 years later this would still require such basic explanation, we might have ridiculed you as a short-sighted Luddite. The New Oxford American Dictionary, after all, named “podcast” the word of the year for 2005. Early adapters—especially those of us in journalism and media who sat out the birth of blogging as the likes of Ana Marie Cox, Andy Towle and Michelle Malkin marked their territory in big ways—figured we were boarding the next new media rocketship.

What Nuzum said in 2015 about the value of the podcast audience was precisely what Adam Curry, an original MTV veejay who remade himself as a podcast host and entrepreneur, tried to tell Madison Avenue in 2005 when he formed his company, PodShow. Curry, who dubbed himself The Podfather and wore a priest-like getup where the cross was replaced by an iPod in a promotional photo, handed out T-shirts that blared “Quit Your Day Job” at a 2006 podcasting convention in Ontario, Calif. Among the popular shows he signed into his network was my Vegas-centric show, “The Strip,” which by then had conducted what we believe were the first podcast interviews with Bill Maher, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Wynn, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Liza Minnelli, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Harvey Fierstein and many others.

Even with star power like that, it was a hard sell. Curry and his team tried to bring in serious sponsorship, but the learning curve for advertising buyers was too steep and the metrics of the podcast audience too unfamiliar. “The Strip” actually made money, but primarily on ads on the website where marketers could see traffic and enjoy the bump in SEO for their Google search rankings.

The mainstream media, however, took little interest in what was going on in the independent podosphere. Even as NPR crowded the iTunes charts with Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and This American Life, the medium continued to be as misunderstood as it was underused. The Associated Press Stylebook added “podcast” in 2008, but even now the journalistic Bible has a perplexingly incomplete definition as a “digital media program, in audio or video form, that can be downloaded or streamed to a computer, smartphone or portable media device.” This omits the key characteristic of podcasts—that people can subscribe to them—and essentially makes every audio or video file on the internet a podcast.

It is difficult to find a new medium with as non-linear a trajectory as podcasting. Rather than the steady, exponential upward climb into the mainstream seen by radio, broadcast and then cable TV, and the Web itself, podcasting had that early burst followed by a startling leveling off. By 2008, tech writers asked if podcasting was dead. For a while, it was a craft so niche that devotees would open The New York Times’ Sunday Review section to Kate Murphy’s quick-profile columns just to see if her subject of the week, under “LISTENING,” mentioned any podcasts.

And then, of course, podcasting experienced its “renaissance.” What changed? iTunes, again. And smartphones. Early podcast enthusiasts had to subscribe on a computer, download the shows and sync them to their portable devices. By 2012, though, it was possible to bypass the computer and download—or stream! —shows on any device. Subscribing became easy, the iTunes podcast library became much more searchable by topic, and advertisers finally started to “get” it. It also helped that just about every media entity now produces at least one.

None of this is to downplay the important events in the medium over the past year. Serial was only the latest in a creative use of the form, but it was brilliant and brought journalistic respectability. Obama’s interview on WTF was similarly fantastic, although it is worth noting that the president did a tour of weird YouTube shows and a Funny or Die sketch before it occurred to his folks to send him to Maron’s garage. 

But it is still a strangely neglected medium. There’s no major publication or website with a podcast critic, for instance. Maron—even with his gigantic audience and a TV sitcom about his podcast life—famously complains about not being get invited onto The Tonight Show. And, most notably, there was absolutely no fanfare surrounding this anniversary. Not like, you know, Edvard Grieg’s 172nd birthday.

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.