A Brief History of Podcasts & the Importance of “Internet Radio”

Before Spotify, before iPods, before the internet, and especially before television, there was the radio. In 1933, families sat around their radios and rode through the wild west alongside the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the vigilante pair who was so against killing, they only used silver bullets, an expensive commodity that reminded him of the value of human life. The seminal series would later get turned into comics, movies, and books, inspiring the likes of Clint Eastwood, James Bond, and Batman. In 1938, on a brisk October 30th evening, The Mercury Theatre on Air series performed their rendition of the popular sci-fi alien invasion story, The War of the Worlds, inciting a small panic across America as families believed that the nation was being invaded by real life Martians.

Fast forward more than 70 years and multiple mediums, and on April 17th, 2017, thousands of people across the world downloaded, streamed, and otherwise listened to the season finale of the McElroy’s popular fantasy Podcast, The Adventure Zone. Best described as a mix of Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and dick jokes, The Adventure Zone remains a popular podcast story series, following the McElroy brothers (made famous by their popular advice/comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me) as they inhabit the personas of Magnus, Merle, and Taako (and yes, that last name is literally pronounced like “taco”). The Adventure Zone has taken off with multiple live shows, a massive amount of internet attention, and just an absolute ton of fan art, embedding itself in people’s hearts in much the same way that radio programming used to.

Modern podcasting owes a lot to the radio of old. Most podcasts build their format around the tried-and-true stylings of classic talk radio. From the religious rantings of Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s to the “All-Talk” radio of the 60s (which showcased opinion pieces and confrontational conversations with guests), a large corner of popular culture owes their formatting to radio, including podcasting, NPR, and Oprah. Most podcasts have taken to the tendencies of radio talk shows, which found a resurgence in the 70s in response to the invention of the FM radio. As FM provided better quality audio for music, AM radio in the 70s reinvented itself as the place for “talk radio,” bringing on high-profile celebrities, pundits, and personalities for everything from argumentative discourse to political analysis. On the flip side, FM radio has slowly dabbled in the talk radio space, presenting “Hot Talk” radio, focusing on pop culture and comedy skits to entertain and shock audiences. Podcasts are the most direct inheritors of radio’s legacy, not just stylistically, but also by being broadly available, mostly free, and audio only.

Podcasting mirrors this same breath of diverse content, ironically falling into related categories even without the artificial barrier of radio frequencies. Looking for some political insight? The Apple Store, Spotify, and Google Play Music are awash in political pundits, including the ever-popular NPR podcast (ironically named National Public Radio despite becoming a juggernaut in Podcasting). Like listening to celebrities and musicians, but hate late night TV? Give a listen to WTF with Marc Maron, coming up on 1000 episodes, as he engages with celebs in frank and hilarious conversation. Maybe you’re a surrealist, forever in love with the Twilight Zone episodes you watched with your dad as a kid. Then might I recommend the excellently written Welcome to Night Vale, the internet sensation series set in an unspecified, nondescript desert town as it warps between dimensions, is visited by angels and invaded by eldritch abominations, all conveyed by the dulcet tones of Night Vale’s resident faux radio host, Cecil Palmer. Or maybe you’ve been out of school for a while and want to feel smarter. In this case, I recommend the massive Hardcore History podcast by Dan Carlin, who unloads an encyclopedia-like knowledge of history infused alongside personal philosophy, or Stuff You Should Know hosted by Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark, who created the podcast as an accompaniment to the popular educational TV show. Check out these stimulating shows and more under the Educational banner on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, which teach hundreds of people everything from taxes to social justice to cooking.

In referring to Podcasts as “Internet Radio,” we continue the thoughtful construction, tradition, and culture of audio storytelling and modern art. Rather than view podcasts as separate entities, society and historians can look at podcasting as a progression rather than a deviation, giving us greater insight into the development of the form. In the same way that an artist today can share their profession choice with the likes of Van Gogh and Warhol, so can the talented writers and personalities of modern internet radio take pride in the lineage of their medium over the last 100 years.

It’s a wonder that so much exists already, when podcasting only began to take off in 2004 as a third-party app for the Apple iPod. While the iPod may have been one of the most influential consumer technologies of the last 20 years, Podcasting owing its name to it is a disservice to what the medium emulates and has accomplished. Podcasting is the continuation of a long and storied tradition of oral storytelling, home to hundreds of powerful pieces and pop culture touchstones. Nearly a century after the adventures of a lone cowboy seeking justice, told to excited children and adults huddled around the stereo, people still have their ears fanned open, listening to the stories of far off, fantastical heroes, of wise teachers, and of everyday people. And as that Ranger touched hundreds, so have three bumbling fantasy adventurers played by a trio of brothers and their father. That association should not be forgotten, or written off, but celebrated as one and the same.

#reflections #popculture

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