Podcast History: 5 Surprising Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

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Backtracks players render in Twitter by the way.

Podcasts have become increasingly popular in recent years (as I’m sure you noticed). From their humble beginnings as MP3 clips distributed via RSS to the proliferation of hugely popular shows like Serial, the podcast has come a very long way.

The history of the podcast has several key aspects that everyone can agree on, but there are many parts to its multi-tentacled history which are clouded in debate. Taking this into consideration, here are five indisputable facts about podcasting that are sure to interest, entertain and possibly surprise.

1. A little-known company took the first big step towards podcasting.

When people talk about the genesis of podcasts, two big names usually come up — Dave Winer and Adam Curry. In the year 2000, Winer, a software developer, was working on creating the now-popular RSS feed format. Winer started devising a way to include audio clips in RSS feeds, which later were to become highly influential in the development of the podcast.

Many stories regarding the history of podcasting will inevitably feature mentions of Winer and Curry. As an aside, at the time of writing, Adam Curry(“The Podfather”) is based in the same town as Backtracks (Austin, Texas, USA). In case the name Adam Curry rings a bell, he was an MTV VJ back when MTV played music videos.

What many people don’t know is that a little-known company called i2Go had previously made big steps in this area already.

The company made mp3 players, which were all the rage at the time. Back then most people were using mp3 players to listen to music, but i2Go did something different. They set up a website called MyAudio2Go.com which allowed users to download spoken word audio files. Rather than having to tune into the radio, watch the television or buy newspapers, MyAudio2Go.com allowed users to download news stories as mp3s. Users could also listen to stories about sport, business or even find out what was going on in the latest episode of popular television series. Most importantly, i2Go didn’t make their files proprietary, so it wasn’t necessary to own an i2go to download or play the audio.

Unfortunately, the company crashed to a halt in 2001.

2. One of the first MP3 “podcasts” was a track from The Grateful Dead.

While working on RSS, Winer had many requests to develop something that, at the time, was known as audioblogging. RSS was only able to work with text, but together, Curry and Winer worked out a way to get other large file types included.

Winer found out a solution to combine software feeds from multiple different sources. By the beginning of 2001, Winer had worked out how to aggregate mp3 files. On the 11th January 2001, Winer made a post on his Scripting News weblog to show that he had been able to aggregate an mp3 track. The track was “Truckin” by The Grateful Dead.

Dave Winer, a big fan of The Grateful Dead, made a habit of this, ending up adding hi-fidelity Grateful Dead songs to his weblog every day. This isn’t the first time that the band has played an unwitting inspirational role in software development though. The long-running Linux distribution Slackware is maintained by developer Patrick Volkerding, a renowned Deadhead. The default hostname for the distribution is “Darkstar,” named after the Grateful Dead track of the same name, while Patrick has a section dedicated to the band on his website.

3. Microsoft wasn’t happy about the word ‘Podcast’ was named after the iPod

In 2004, Guardian reporter Ben Hammersley had to throw together an article on audio blogging, something which was becoming increasingly popular. Hammersley inserted some gesture words into the material to describe the sensation, commenting, “but what to call [the new technology]? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”

The name “podcast” stuck, slowly gaining traction and eventually entering common parlance. By 2005 the word had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary and was now officially part of the language along with new entries such as “fanboy,” “offshoring,” and “supersize.”

Microsoft, on the other hand, wasn’t happy about this. Seeing as the iPod used a media format that was a rival to the then-popular Window Media Player, it made it difficult for employees at the firm to voice their enthusiasm about it publicly. Microsoft tried to subtly engineer the term “blogcast” into common usage instead but was unsuccessful. By now, the damage was done.

4. Twitter was launched because of a failed podcasting company

Nowadays we know of Twitter as one of the most influential and revolutionary social media sites on the internet. Just like Facebook, it has the mythology of being started out of one person’s bedroom. Unlike Facebook, however, it wasn’t intended to be a social network.

Launched in July 2005, the original idea behind the Noah Glass’ company AudBlog was that a user would call a telephone number which would then turn the message into an audio file that would be hosted on the internet. Back then, it was pretty revolutionary stuff.

Glass and Evan Williams, who had recently sold a company called Blogger to Google, joined forces. As the two worked together, they fashioned the O.G. podcasting platform Odeo. However, their ambitions didn’t last long when Apple announced the launch of iTunes, which meant that a podcasting platform was included in each of its iPod devices.

The two realized that Odeo wasn’t going to succeed (it was a too early and Apple just released an improved iTunes with podcasting support) and began thinking about other ideas. One of the company employees, Jack Dorsey, mooted the idea of how “statuses” were becoming increasingly popular and how people loved to share them through social media. Soon enough Glass had come up with the word “Twitter,” and the company developed from there, being officially founded on March 21, 2006. After a shocking buyout whereby Williams fired Glass and many years, Twitter became the platform that it is today.

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Backtracks players render in Twitter by the way.

5. Ricky Gervais mainstreamed podcasts?

Most people now know Ricky Gervais as a rather outspoken comedian behind The Office and for embarrassing hordes of celebrities at the Golden Globe Awards. However, what many people don’t know is that Ricky Gervais also played a prominent role in the popularity of podcasts in the mid-2000s.

Initially starting off with a small slot in Britain’s The 11 O‘clock Show, Gervais quickly gained popularity because of his sharp wit, dry humor and no-holds-barred style of commentary. By 2005 and after the success of The Office, Gervais had seen the potential of the podcast as a way to increase his fandom and started to release them regularly. By February 2006 he held the world record for the most amount of podcasts downloaded (yes, that Ricky Gervais).

Reported by The Guardian at the time, The Ricky Gervais Show averaged more than 260,000 downloads a week during its first month. This was an impressive feat for the comedian and he was honored with a place in the 2007 Guinness World Book of Records for the most downloaded podcast ever. Whatever people may think about Gervais, there can be no denying the influence he had in increasing the podcast’s popularity.

Podcasts are becoming increasingly popular (we know because Backtracks keeps close tabs on podcast data and podcasts analytics). Now viral since the release of the milestone seasonal Serial, they are becoming an important and regular part of our daily listening activities. Like many successful things in history, the podcast has a somewhat checkered (or chequered) past, but now its future looks extremely bright.

We hope some of these five facts about podcasting were new to you and bring home some of the innovations that came to pass in the podcast’s rise, and show how it became as significant and widespread as it is today.

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