The Evolution of Podcasts & The Possible Future

By Nick Epson on October 26, 2021

Once upon a time, families would gather around to listen to programming broadcast over the preferred medium of the era, AM radio waves – since the introduction of the podcast format that got its rise in the 2000s, we see that this audio-focused content has substantial appeal to broad demographics. Podcasts have proven themselves over the past couple of decades by carving out their own valuable niches in entertainment, news, and business.

Though strictly audio content fell out of favor with the masses because of TV for some time (which would significantly impact the music industry as well) it’s come back around to be a highly popular format once again. Video might have killed the radio star for a few decades but the idea now lives on in podcasts that come from all corners of the world. So let’s take a quick look at how it all began, discuss where podcasting is today, then look at an upcoming contender in the market that aims to take audio-driven content to the next level.

Podcasts then & now

The term podcast was coined on The Guardian by journalist Ben Hammersly in his article “Audible revolution” where he tossed out a few other names like audio blogging and guerrilla media. The podcast got its official start after former MTV video jockey, Adam Curry, used software that he and his developer buddy, Dave Winer, made called iPodder that ripped radio broadcasts to an MP3 – basically, a new spin on the mixtape creation process but more digital. Interestingly, this process aligned perfectly with another trend at the time, widespread media piracy, that was fueled by P2P platforms like Napster, WinMX, and LimeWire.

As the world gravitated toward digital-only media and the web for entertainment, the popularity of podcasts grew in conjunction with other digital media growth. Now, the format is well-defined with some 60% of US adults between 18 and 34 listening on a monthly basis as well as another large group of listeners that fall into the older millennial and younger gen X category (i.e., mid-30 to mid-40-year-olds) where about half tune into a podcast monthly.

As such, you likely listen to a podcast. And for those who shy away from this format, let this serve as an eye-opener that podcasts are a major player for just about everything: books, finance, technology, comedy, fitness, and so much more. Whether you like it or not, the world’s most popular anti-woke bro, Joe Rogan, commands the most listened-to podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which is essentially long-form conversations with his various guests on a variety of matters.

Businesses and other outlets use podcasts too such as one of the most prolific news organizations in the US, NPR. They have embraced the format, as we can see from their website, as well as through their mobile apps, NPR One and NPR News that also broadcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. Another good example is Vox that publishes content to all the major podcast platforms – they even produced a science-based Netflix series called Explained.

Because of the move to content streaming for both existing and live content, the moniker podcast is now used to describe this broad category of content whether it’s just a sound file played over an app or a real-time stream. Interestingly, we see that some of the oldest formats used for shows in the radio’s golden era are still just as viable today and we see newer styles as well.

Despite major advances in video technology like 8K video game consoles, podcasting is still growing to convert more and more people into regular listeners. Moreover, some interesting changes emerging in the market have the potential to shake things up even further.

Podcasting is now a mainstream format that allows businesses to expand their reach as well as a medium for just about any content producer to achieve celebrity status, just like we see on platforms like YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, and man others. Think about how YouTube helped Justin Beiber rise to global fame – the world watched him grow up from a sweet teenybopper performer and through an almost rite of passage that many young stars seem to go through as they struggle with the complexities that come with fame. Another great example is the Call Her Daddy from Alex Cooper who rose to fame talking about social issues and now has a deal with Spotify.

The next wave of podcasting & a look at the new Fireside app

The one limitation with true radio and most contenting streams is that it’s one way. For many podcast formats, this is ideal as a heckler or troll can derail otherwise productive or entertaining content. Rarely does unwanted audience participation help a structured performance or closed discussion, with some exceptions like comedian and podcaster, Bill Burr, who is notorious for engaging hecklers, sometimes viciously so.

But, what about content where there’s substantial potential value if the audience could actually participate more so than just view or listen?

Thanks to existing audio-only platforms like Clubhouse, we can see that there’s real value to this format. It’s almost like a meeting but for topics that you care about and features to make the format more functional for the masses. Though we pointed out that Clubhouse never really grew to full potential on account of it being mostly just a feature, we can see growing trends with this style of content and collaboration in Twitter Spaces and Facebook Live Audio Rooms.

Now entering this space is a product backed by the celebrity investor, Mark Cuban, known as Fireside that aims to provide creators (and their audience) live audio collaboration. Fireside aims to use a foundation that’s similar to Clubhouse but with a more feature-rich interface and a broader scope of service that makes podcasting interactive. Of all the celebrity businesses with hands in the tech world, Cuban knows a thing or two about tech as he’s been making big moves since the 90s when he sold his first company to Yahoo. Now, he’s banking on this formula that gives users an experience that’s much more than just listening.

Taking cues from platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and even big social media services, Fireside will include tools for creators to promote, edit, measure, distribute, and monetize their efforts as part of an all-inclusive content production service. Currently, the platform has just launched for creators and already has the support of several notable “Firesiders” who you can see on the Fireside home page.

A couple of things to note is that security has been a front-and-center concern that we see come to fruition in features like the Fireside messenger that forces secure end-to-end connections between users. With a breadth of tools available on a platform and moves to round up a large user base, one spokesperson from Fireside implies that it’s much bigger in scope than other perceived competitors in this “new category” of content. They also aim to protect its creators while allowing them to freely use and reproduce their content as they see fit.

Is this future of podcasting?

Some are saying that the “next big thing in podcasts is talking back” which the growth of these collaborative audio platforms seems to indicate. Of course, these same kinds of statements come along with every promising piece of technology and format (remember HD DVDs or more recently, 3D TVs?) when there’s a shred of potential.

This, however, is much different than some transient trend that inevitably surfaces alongside gimmicky technology. Even though talk shows may not be your cup of tea, there’s certainly appeal to be in the live studio audience for fans as it’s a chance to participate for some. Outside of this niche of entertainment, there’s potential for other discussions to benefit greatly on a platform with high visibility.

For example, there’s a lot of potential for things like city council meetings, Q&As with VCs, open discussions on books or media, and much more. Because of all the tools available to the creators and the drive from stakeholders to become a hotspot for traffic, there is immense opportunity for innovation with this newer style of collaborative content.

Sure, it may look like another Quibi in the making but here, there’s existing data from other “social audio” platforms that shows there’s a winning formula here. It won’t replace podcasts as many creators will prefer to keep their content closed off for obvious reasons. But for others, this is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that’s going to grow in the long term.

We build collaborative experiences 

The value of digital collaboration has proven itself through numerous platforms which we’ve witnessed evolve over the years. With the advent of Fireside and other apps or features in this category, we’ll likely see these products adopted by larger portions of the population. At Blue Label Labs, we understand what it’s like to build and grow innovative ideas to cultivate long-term success. For more information or to discuss your idea, reach out to us to learn more.