When I woke up this morning and looked at my watch, something about today’s date grabbed my attention. After a quick mental tally of children and grandchildren: no, it’s none of their birthdays. I was perplexed, and then I heard in my head Roosevelt’s famous speech, delivered the day after Pearl Harbor, “December 7th, 1941, a date that will live in infamy.” The next words I heard, internally, were …
The juxtaposition of those two words may perplex you, and I think it’s a fair bet that your first thought wasn’t that they refer to the chronicles of building materials; however, I hasten to add, nor are they relevant to what was coyly described in my callow youth as ‘gentleman’s relish’.
A few of you, I hope, will know of their provenance: the first podcast I listened to, which goes by that name, Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History, covers past world events, such as World War (WW1) , in some detail. Each episode (and beware: they can and often are four hours long) opens with the Pearl Harbor quote, and then the name of the show, hence my Proustian Madeleine this morning on looking at the date; and I recommend the podcast to you.
The start of podcasts
Those of us who listen to BBC radio are probably heartily sick of their audio ‘ident’ which goes, I hate to remind you, “BBC Sounds: Music, radio, podcasts”. When that was first aired five years ago, the final word may have been a novel one to some listeners. It’s a portmanteau of ‘iPod’ (remember them?) and ‘broadcast’, first coined in 2004 by the Guardian columnist Ben Hammersley, and there is of course a podcast on that very subject, should you care to listen to it.
In less than 20 years, it has become ubiquitous enough that my parents now listen to them – and they are always, for me, the bellwether of whether the zeitgeist has achieved ubiquity. You probably do as well. Everyone who is anyone, it appears, is ‘doing a podcast’, but where did this new form of media come from, and why is it so popular?
Just as the Reformation was enabled by technology – in that case, the printing press (which enabled the dissemination throughout Europe of an attack on the Catholic church by an obscure German prelate), so podcasts have been made possible through similar advances. The first step was the invention of the MP3 audio format, which compressed sound files so that they could be easily downloaded. This made it possible for audio longer than the standard three-minute pop song to be sent over the then nascent Internet.
The popularity of devices capable of playing MP3s, the iPods and similar (now displaced in the main by mobile phones), then provided the mechanic to play the medium; and here we are, less than 20 years later, with an estimated 3m podcasts to choose from.
Why the podcast?
The means of production for podcasts would have pleased Marx in its low cost of entry. Anyone with a mobile phone can, in theory, make a podcast, although in practice, the bulk of them will have been produced with a home computer and an external microphone. They are also, in the main, distributed for free, and thus are a ‘disruptive technology’.
What is of interest though, is that podcasts are still harder to make than their text-based predecessor, the blog. However, in 2023, if someone said that they were a ‘blogger’, it would seem somehow quaintly archaic. Why then did podcasts overtake blogs as the medium in which anyone can share with the world their personal views?
In my professional life, amongst other things, I manage an IVR platform – that’s “press 1 for… press 2 for …” – for a major UK plc. It still receives millions of calls a year – a surprise when alternative platforms such as apps exist – but more pertinently, promotions on that channel are significantly more effective than on any other.
The difference is – voice. Our muscle memory means we can dismiss texts, app push notifications, pop-up windows on websites asking you to subscribe, without engaging our conscious brains. We can, and do, let our eyes wander from screen to screen as we skim-read text. However, there is no ‘fast forward’ for voice-based information; once engaged, we have to listen to it, although it can act as background whilst we’re driving, commuting or otherwise occupied. Voice is the first form of communication we ever learned; and voice imparts more than just information; the accents, phrasing and tones are unique to every speaker.
Podcasts for me
I came across Hardcore History at a period in my life when seeing my youngest and having her with me would mean at least ten hours of driving every other weekend. Dan Carlin’s modest erudition as he talked about the Romans, the Persians, the horrors of WW1 meant that it felt as if in the car seat next to me, I had an educated, enthusiastic friend.
Since then, I’ve started listening to the esoteric Blindboy podcast, where an anonymous Irishman waxes lyrical for around an hour on literally any topic that comes into his plastic-bag festooned head (you’ll need to click on the link). Podcasts are everywhere, and no matter what your interest, there will be (more than) one for you.
Whether podcasts will go the way of blogs, and become another chapter in the history of new media remains to be seen. In the meantime, worry not, I have no desire to start one, except in print form – I can’t stand the sound of my own voice.