Podcasting Revolution: A Revolution in Audio?

By Bryan A. Banks

In 1902, the Italian engineer and inventor, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) successfully broadcasted a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. Just over one hundred years later, podcasts would be invented, building off the advent of the Internet. We can upload and download audio all around the world at speeds unfathomable to Marconi.

Yet, are podcasts a revolutionary technology like Marconi’s initial transmission? Are podcasts another revolutionary paradigm in audio technology? In a class I taught last spring, I asked my students these questions. Initially, my students praised the podcast as a truly revolutionary, democratic technology. Podcasters can hover over kitchen tables recording into laptops or they can rent studios with high quality microphones and audio engineers.  No matter how one produces their audio, they upload their content to the same sites — iTunes, Stitcher…etc. Podcasts are all created equal and have an equal opportunity of being heard by everyone, or so said my students.

I followed their revolutionary declaration by drawing their attention to the socio-economic side of podcasting. On some level, don’t the technologies needed to produce and consume podcasts impede access and fundamentally undermine the so-called democratic character of podcasting? This question caught my students off-guard as they’d been focusing on the potential of the technology rather than the social and technological constraints that might limit access to podcasts. Basic internet access, the costs of smart phones and laptops, and the education needed to create technologically literate-citizens are all walls, which impede the ability of podcasts to be a truly democratic mode of information delivery — if such a thing exists. In the 1960s, a small transistor radio cost around $40 (over $300 in today’s money). My mother’s family who lived on a farm in rural Georgia, couldn’t afford that price. Millions of families around the world face similar financial burdens today. Surely, such financial restrictions limit the revolutionary potential of technology.

It seems to me that podcasts are more of an audio renaissance than a revolution. Podcasts are drawing people to audio in a world dominated by the visual – e.g. countless social medias, television, YouTube, …etc. One wonders how Marconi might react to the American comedian, Marc Maron whose comedy podcast WTF brought credibility to the medium. How might he react to the sheer impact of Serial? Each episode of season 1 was downloaded nearly 1.5 million times back in 2014. I like to think he’d enter the podcasting fray by starting his own Italian inventor podcast alongside the likes of the feminist actress and comedian, Lena Dunham, the journalist and best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell, or even retired NBA star, Shaquille O’Neal. History buffs, professional historians, and other academics, too, have jumped on the proverbial band(width)wagon. The New Books Network offers interviews from authors across academia. Podcasts like the Juntocast and Past Present are run by professional historians. There are so many more — click here for a more detailed list.

While podcasting might not be the most revolutionary medium out there, it does help foster niche markets, which transcend the academic-popular history divide. “Revolutions” have found their way into several podcasts and created vital communities.

This week, Age of Revolutions will feature two interviews with podcasters who have a particular interest in revolutions. Tomorrow (Tuesday), we will post an interview with Liz Covart, the creator of Ben Franklin’s Worlda podcast that covers Early American history, the American Revolution, and the practice of “Doing History.”  Liz’s podcast just reached 1,000,000 downloads in early September! On Wednesday, we will post our interview with Mike Duncan, the host of Revolutions, a narrative podcast, which deconstructs political revolutions guided by the question — what happened next?

What do you think of podcasts and podcasting? Is it a revolutionary technology?

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