As the internet began to reshape and streamline traditional forms of communication, new informational modes signified by strange new terms emerged to help news outlets and journalists connect with audiences. “Blogging” sprung up to replace editorial columns. “Live streams” are positioned to displace 24/7 cable news. And “podcasting” has evolved in the space between AM broadcasts and syndicated radio dramas. Named after a combination of the words “iPod” and “broadcast,” podcasts have become a mainstay of online conversations in just under a decade of rapid growth. But while the medium’s space-age name might share the pejorative connotations of a word like “microblogging,” it shouldn’t—podcasts represent the evolution of centuries-old communication mediums, modernized and refined for a new generation of listeners.
From co-host to client
Podcasts are delivered via syndication networks, and can be discovered and subscribed using one of many podcast clients for desktop and mobile devices. Many podcasts are made available for streaming on the web, but most submit their episodes to iTunes or other syndicates for automatic broadcast and delivery to eager subscribers around the world. This dynamic allows listeners to “follow” their favorite personalities and have their latest recordings automatically delivered to them as soon as they becomes available.
A number of factors have played into the explosion of high-polish podcasts that in recent years has been dubbed a “podcast renaissance.” Top technology pundits and internet personalities have launched universally regarded podcast projects—John Gruber’s The Talk Show expands on the Apple-centric opinions popularized on his website while the Accidental Tech Podcast features dialogue between OS X legend John Siracusa, programmer Casey Liss, and iOS developer Marco Arment. But it’s not just about great content—these shows have symbiotically grown the popularity of podcasts alongside simply amazing new clients for listeners to enjoy them.
As design trends for mobile devices ebb and flow, new app types become increasingly popular for top designers to revisit and attempt to reinvent. For many years, developing a great Twitter client that included new interaction design ideas was the prime showcase for designers trying to make an impact. Mobile products like Twitterrific by The Icon Factory, Tweetie by Loren Brichter (which Twitter purchased and transformed into the official Twitter app), and Tweetbot by Tapbots all followed the trope of gorgeous, thoughtfully designed Twitter clients. But as Twitter tightened its grip on its public APIs, it became increasingly difficult to make a Twitter client for iOS or Android that stands out and gets noticed.
To fill that void, podcasting apps have seen unprecedented attention from developers on both platforms. While podcasts were relegated to a hidden tab in the iOS Music app in past iterations, they were spun out into their own Podcasts app that now ships as a stock component of iOS 8. But for many, the barebones functionality of Apple’s solution wasn’t enough, so apps like Instacast, Castro, and Marco Arment’s own Overcast have popped up to accommodate design-conscious audiences.
A perfect storm of availability though syndicates, new opinions from popular talent, and cross-pollination of interest from the world of mobile app design have equated to a modern podcast renaissance. But this wealth of audio content does more than pass through earbuds—podcasts are becoming the format of our technological generation.
From “on-air” to online
Although AM and FM radio still dominates airwaves across the country, online broadcasts offer a new way for millions of internet-connected listeners to access new information and engage with top opinions about their favorite topics. Whereas radio stations tailor content to the prioritize accessibility and broad listenership, podcasts have the flexibility to appeal to niche markets across the globe over the web. Whether you’re interested in science, technology, music, business, comedy, or anything in between, there are likely a dozen podcasts available for you to download or stream instantly.
Podcasts represent something of a bastion of intelligent discussion on the internet. And this isn’t because opinionated and well-informed pundits tend to produce more popular and widely enjoyed podcast content, either—the medium itself produces good conversations. Free from the dissenting voices of the comments section and immune to outside influence from real-time tweets or messages, podcast hosts can perform candid interviews and have reflective, insightful discussions about important topics.
There are some exceptions to this rule—the Accidental Tech Podcast welcomes listeners to follow along with a real-time chat room as its hosts record—but the detachment and inaccessibility helps lend an air of prominence and import. These sessions exist in a vacuum, available to download once and purge from storage after listening. They reflect the cultural zeitgeists of the day, and are archived as testament to our societal concerns and fascinations long into the future. In some ways, podcasts can be seen as the evolution of the radio drama. But really, they are the perfection of it, empowered by technology to crystalize ideas forever.