How Podcasts Went Mainstream

By Samantha Haase

The Rise of The Podcast

Podcasts first arrived on the scene in 2004, but have come a long way since, exploding in popularity over recent years, thanks to apps like Spotify and Apple Music. Both boast a massive podcast section of any and every genre imaginable. From true crime, to historical, to comedy, and everything in between. How did this massive explosion of podcasting occur?

What Are Podcasts?

Podcasts are audio blogs. They are usually in serial or episodic style and focus on one main genre or topic. Podcasters upload new files regularly, usually on a daily or weekly basis. There are at least four different types of podcasts:

• Enhanced podcasts combine images and audio so it becomes a narrated slideshow. PowerPoint presentations can technically qualify as podcasting.

• Scripted podcasts are fictional stories told through a narrative form. There can be multiple voice actors, sound effects, and music as a way to pull the listener in. Gimlet media, a digital media company that is focused on producing podcasts, is notorious for these types of podcasts. Examples include Homecoming, a psychological thriller podcast. The same technique is not limited to its scripted series, however. Podcasts like Conviction, about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the aftermath that came out of it, also use audio snippets and music to build suspense and add context.

• Podcast novels are similar to audiobooks. Podcasters who double as authors tend to use this as a way to gain exposure and secure book deals from it. An example of this is Fated Mates on Spotify, a romance novel.

• Live podcasts are recorded in front of a live audience.

Early Days

Legend has it that in 2004 former MTV DJ Adam Curry and a software developer, Dave Winer, teamed up in order to create a medium that would allow audio files to be stored on a portable player. That player just so happened to be Apple’s iPod, which had been a huge seller back in the early 2000s. Back then, the term podcast did not really exist according to Voices.com, that term came around in the following year, when the New Oxford dictionary deemed it the word of the year.
In the early and mid-2000s, podcasting grew in popularity, with Yahoo incorporating a Podcast search on their website in 2005, and Apple jumped onto the podcasting trend by introducing it to their iTunes store (remember that?). By 2006, many influential people, including the Queen of England, and former president George Bush jumped on board and delivered speeches via podcasts. Radio personalities and comedians also thrived on podcasting because it gave them another medium to spread their thoughts.

Popularity of Podcasts

Podcasting can be divided into two sections: Pre 2014, and Post 2014.

Pre 2014, podcasting was still on a steady incline. In 2006, only 22% of Americans were even aware they existed according to Statistica. iTunes only had a limited selection of podcasts available, and Spotify had not become a Global phenomenon yet.

Post 2014 let us just say that podcasting exploded.

It is impossible to talk about podcasts without talking about Serial, an investigative journalism podcast released in 2014. It was hosted by Sarah Koenig and was developed by This American Life as a podcast that explores murder mysteries. The podcast attracted a massive audience and was the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads on the iTunes store. Many consider it the breakout hit of podcasting that pushed it into the mainstream. Serial went on to have three seasons and is now owned by The New York Times. Serial set the stage for a number of true crime podcasts to appear online, including My Favorite Murder and Criminal, and Koenig and the series won a Peabody award, the first podcast to do so.

Podcasting Today

Now it is 2021, and podcasts pull in an average of 144 million Americans. Spotify boasts a podcasting catalogue of 1.9 million, and Apple Music boasts 1.7 million. In 2020, the highest listened podcast was The Joe Rogan Experience, and podcast listeners on Spotify have doubled since 2019. There has also been a rise in people choosing to create podcasts as well. Statistica notes that a whopping 76% of Americans are aware and listen to podcasts, compared to the less than a quarter of them two decades ago. Good data. That number is expected to grow, as well. So, the next time you are bored, and trying to find something new to listen to, or sitting through a long travel, sit back, relax, and pick a podcast to listen to. It is free to download and stream.

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