I started podcasting in the summer of 2003. I had been listening to two early podcasters, although they weren’t called that at the time — much as early blogging wasn’t called blogging. The name came later. My two inspirations were Doug Kaye and Steve Gillmor.
Doug did a series of interviews with tech people called IT Conversations, and Steve did what he called The Gillmor Gang, which was and still is a roundtable discussion about nothing, much the same way Seinfeld was a TV series about nothing.
It’s almost ten years later, and while podcasting is huge, according to the BBC more people listen to podcasts than use Twitter, the press is still not sold on the accomplishments of the medium. The latest takedown is by Richard MacManus at ReadWriteWeb.
Yes, podcasting is huge, he says, but look at how it’s dominated by NPR. That means radio won, he says, the promise of podcasting which was an overturning of the hierarchy, was a losing proposition.
I don’t know where that idea came from, that podcasting meant the end of radio. That’s not at all what I wanted from it. What I wanted was to be able to go around the gatekeepers at public radio, but I loved NPR and PRI then, and still do today. I remember clearly, listening to a pledge drive on WBUR in Boston saying that we, the listeners, owned the station. I tried to call the station management, as one of the owners, to ask when I could get some airtime for my ideas. They offered to send me a glossy brochure on why WBUR is so great. They didn’t get the idea. I never got to speak to the CEO who had gushed so enthusiastically on the radio about how important the listeners were.
There was also a low-grade competition going on at Berkman Center, where I was a research fellow at the time. Berkman was a sponsor of the Public Radio Exchange, or PRX, whose idea was to distribute public radio programming from the big stations to the little ones. Distribution was the key idea of PRX. The big stations only had 24 hours a day to broadcast, just like the smaller-market stations. Podcasting overturned that idea. With the Internet there is no concept of a 24-hour broadcast day. You can upload as many hours of MP3s as you like, and if there are people who care, you will get listened to. Eventually that battle was settled and today PRX is a thriving venture, distributing podcasts of course.
The battle of podcasting was to get access to the distribution channel for anyone who wanted it, and that certainly has been accomplished. We wanted, very much, for public radio to use this channel. When Tony Kahn at WGBH showed up on our mail list, we gave him a huge embrace, and offered whatever help we could. Public radio was a huge force for the adoption of podcasting, and I would argue is totally in-line with their goals. I would have been happy to explain this to the CEO of WBUR had she been willing to come to the phone back in 2003.
The problem with gatekeepers is that they want to keep those gates up. New technology comes along from time to time and takes down the gates. Podcasting was one such technology. We’re now living in the post-revolutionary world. When we fall in love with a great TV show, for example, we expect to hear a podcast with the director, writers and stars, and you can tell that they love doing it. That’s how this media works. Podcasting gave us a huge number more hours so that weird ideas could be tried out. It’s made my life richer, because when I take auto trips I don’t have to listen to crap. I get to hear exactly what I want, when I want.
To me it doesn’t matter what’s popular as long as it doesn’t limit access to the people I want to hear from. Podcasting, like blogging accomplished that. I often ask people if they want to do a podcast with me to explore an idea. I haven’t been doing that so much in the last year, for me it comes and goes. But the freedom to do it, that’s what matters most.
So podcasting is about freedom, just like blogging. And I’d say that both have been raging successes, have exceeded all the expectations we set back in the beginning, wildly.