Podcasts: A Primer

Over the last decade, podcasts have become a popular entertainment and informative media choice.  According to Edison Research, around 112 million Americans have listened to at least one podcast, and 42 million Americans listen to at least one podcast on a weekly basis.[1]

What is podcasting? A “podcast” is an episodic series of digital audio or video files (vodcast) which a user can download and listen to. It is often available for subscription, so that new episodes are automatically downloaded via Internet to the user’s own local computer, mobile application, or portable media player.  The word itself is a mashup of “iPod” and “broadcast.”  It has roots in the “audio blogging” field of the 1980s, but it wasn’t until broadband Internet and portable media players, like the iPod, became widely available in 2004 that the whole business really took off.  And when Apple added podcasts to iTunes, the field absolutely exploded with content.

There are podcasts for any field you can think of: business, religion, science, arts, music, news, celebrity interviews, true crime, history, health, sports, radio fiction, and even farming, and that barely scratches the surface.  Within those broad fields are a seemingly infinite number of possible shows to choose from.  In my field of interest – history – there are series on Rome, Byzantium, the United States, the Constitutional Convention, and podcasts that cover different historical subjects that change from episode to episode.  Right now, I have at least five podcasts that cover history/true crime, two on the Beatles, and one on the “great albums” of rock music.

Some episodes are released first on radio before being released as episodes of podcasts.  Examples would be A Prairie Home Companion, This American Life, and pretty much all of NPR’s shows.  The attraction is that it allows listeners to listen on their own schedule.  If a person wants to listen to This American Life while riding a bike or painting the house, they can.  However, most podcasts are never broadcast on radio, but rather are exclusively made for podcasting.

Continuing with history podcasts as my example, I suggest these break down into two main varieties.  First are the podcasts that tell a linear story from beginning to end.  The History of Rome begins with Romulus and Remus and extends through the conventionally-accepted date of its end in 476 AD.  Each episode is 20-25 minutes long, with the whole series lasting 180 episodes, which equals roughly 60 hours of content.  Not all of them are that long.  Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, which is about old Hollywood, did a 12-part series on the Charles Manson murders, with each episode running about 45 minutes.

Second are the podcasts that cover history but bounce from subject to subject.  The most well-known is Stuff You Missed in History Class.  For the month of August 2017, the podcast covered the invention of cheese, Charles VI of France, the eugenics movement, the Espy Rebellion of 1857, and eclipses, and that’s just picking a few.  History Dweebs (adult language and humor) also follows this formula, with topics in August including the murder of Mia Zapata, human lightning rod Roy Sullivan, Titanic officer Charles Lightoller, and the Canadian severed feet mystery.  True crime podcasts also follow this formula, examples being In Sight, Already Gone, and Once upon a Crime.  Sometimes these shows will have a theme for four or five episodes, but usually not much longer than that.

(Jason Dikes is an associate adjunct professor of US history at Austin Community College and Adult Services Librarian for the Leander Public Library. His other two articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Podcasting & Peoples Temple and Guinn Follows Many Routes on Road to Jonestown. His previous article is A Brief and General Overview of Jonestown Historiography. He may be reached at jdikes@austincc.edu.)

[1] http://www.edisonresearch.com/infinite-dial-2017/