Let's get one thing out of the way at the outset. I have no idea who is responsible for "history is written by the X," where X is any one of a number of synonyms for victors. The internet will give you lots of options: Napoleon, Walter Benjamin, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Elder. I'm going to go with Walter Benjamin, because it suits my purposes.

Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything had a recent episode on Secret Histories of Podcasting that I listened to with great pleasure. The episode was well-made, featured some good voices and made some good points, not least that there are several ways to tell the history of podcasting and that, like Rashomon or The Alexandria Quartet, different people tell the story in different ways. And yet ...

You might think an honest-to-god timeline from Vanessa Quirk, a fellow at Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, would get things straight, but that too reflects the author's selectivity. How could it not?

It was Dave Slusher who sensitised me to some aspects of the history because, no matter what Vanessa Quirk may think, his Evil Genius Chronicles podcast is the longest continuously running podcast, which I’d say deserves a place on any timeline. Dave says he’d prefer to be remembered for co-organising an impromptu barbecue pool party at one of the first Podcast Expos, but that's MIA too. I sent him a link to the timeline:

Thanks. Any timeline that excludes all the Podcast Expos but includes the founding of Odeo is pretty specious.

Anyway, that’s all a long, throat-clearing exercise prior to getting to two points.

The first was an excellent discussion of the differences between podcasting and radio and the whole notion of quality. On quality, Dave Winer 1 admitted, rather proudly I think, that one of his early podcasts had a three-minute gap of dead air because something went wrong with the microphone. Stuff like that happens, but listeners shouldn't have to put up with it. How hard would it have been, even in the bad old days, to edit the file? That kind of poor quality as a mark of “authenticity” pisses me (and Benjamen Walker) right off. Sure, if content is compelling one can put up with a certain amount of poor audio quality, but dead air?

And then there was the comparison of radio and podcasting. These days, all the popular podcasts do sound a lot like NPR, and there has been a lot of noise about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. One view seems to be that you couldn’t actually put some podcasts on the radio, and that somehow makes them lower quality. But there’s a crucial difference, which Ben Hammersley 2 nailed:

They're not unbroadcastable. They're uncommissionable.

That’s the crucial part about podcasting; you don't have to persuade some no-account “commissioning editor” who “can’t hear it on the page” that people might want to listen to your stuff. You make it, and if people want to listen, they can. And, as someone 3 perspicaciously noted, it was the “quality” of most broadcast radio that drove many people -- makers and listeners -- to podcasting in the first place.

Looking forward, to the history yet to be made, I’m pretty certain something new will turn up in podcasting, just as I am pretty sure the same old stuff will continue to be made. The democratisation of radio, like the democratisation of print before it, is a wonderful thing, which offers opportunities that could barely be dreamed of even 20 years ago.

Ah, but ...

To be continued.

  1. Who made podcasting possible by adapting RSS feeds so that they could include audio files. 

  2. Who coined the term podcasting in the rush to make an extra line in a print story. Ironic, or what? 

  3. Maybe Hammersely again, maybe Walker. Which gives me an opportunity to point out that automated transcription of audio is by no means ready for prime time yet. 

Two ways to respond: webmentions and comments


Webmentions allow conversations across the web, based on a web standard. They are a powerful building block for the decentralized social web.

“Ordinary” comments

These are not webmentions, but ordinary old-fashioned comments left by using the form below.

Reactions from around the web