Changing Stations: Radio Lessons for Tomorrow's Podcasters

What can the history of radio teach us about the present and future of podcasting?

I've been contemplating this question for over two years. I think about it because podcasters like to think what we do is new and novel. We are a group of tinkerers, hobbyists, and professionals who create audio programs that can develop worldwide audiences. We make media more democratic by allowing anyone with a message, microphone, and internet connection to create and broadcast content. We measure statistics to learn about our audience and whether they listen and respond to our calls to action. And we like to tell the world we are inventing new types of media: The branded-content podcast, the serial podcast, and podcasts with native advertisements. Yet none of what we claim as new, is new. It has all happened before in radio.

My professional life keeps me happily immersed in the history of early America, but over the last year, I've embraced a few spare moments to venture into the twentieth century. I've been dabbling in research about the history of radio because I know history is useful and relevant. And yet, I've never heard anyone in podcasting seriously consider how the history of radio has influenced the development of podcasting. Ignoring the past is a mistake. Even in my casual research, I've turned up many interesting connections and similarities between these two media forms.

Radio began as a technology in the 1870s. It grew slowly at first and then rapidly. By 1910, anyone with some money and a bit of engineering know-how could build a crystal radio set and broadcast their message. The popularity of radio and the feeling of community it created, caused hobbyist and professional radio stations to flood the airwaves. In 1921, the United States government licensed twenty-eight stations and assigned them a place on the radio dial. By 1922, over 550 new stations sought a license to broadcast. Meanwhile hundreds and possibly even thousands of “DXers” (the hobbyists) broadcast their messages and preferred audio formats over their homemade sets—in fact, it was a hobbyist in his barn in Pittsburgh who created the first radio music station.

To a certain extent, podcasters have been following in the footsteps of early radio "DXers." Anyone with a bit of time, money, and technical know-how can build an in-home studio, record their message, and upload it the internet so anyone can listen to it. Podcasting also develops communities. Podcasters gather in communities to discuss podcasting. And podcasters create communities of listeners around their favorite podcasts. 

The commercial development of podcasts also shares similarities with the commercial development of radio. There is a growing divide in podcasting between independent podcasters and "procasters," podcasters with profession radio experience. A lot of diversity exists among independent podcasters. Some podcast purely as a hobby. Others podcast to build or support businesses. Some seek to create episodes that reflect a high-degree of professionalism in content and audio quality. Others "wing it" and simply record and release episodes. Many independent podcasters fear the professionalization of podcasting because of the competition for listeners, money, and attention it promises to bring into the space.

In contrast, procasters want to see podcasting professionalize. They don't view podcasting as a hobby and they disdain podcasters who "wing it." Procasters recognize that the media is still in its early stages of development. Therefore, they seek to bring their professional radio experience into the space and use it as a competitive advantage. Many procasters hope that they can capitalize on the development of podcasting and, although variations exist within the procaster community, most agree that commercial podcast networks will help control, consolidate, and serve as the core of the media. In this belief, procasters borrow heavily from the history of radio.

When we look at history, we see similar trends in the bifurcation of radio. Radio split between hobbyists and those who sought to commercialize the media. The commercialization of radio began in earnest during the 1930s as corporate networks and the United States government began to regulate the airwaves. Networks formed to produce high-quality audio programs, expand their reach, and make money by doing both. The original “audio stats obsession” began in the late 1930s when the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) hired an Austrian academic to help them define their audience through surveys. Companies like Edison Research, which issues the most widely accepted statistics on podcast listening habits, still rely on the quantitative methods originally tried and tested by this early radio pioneer.

The history of radio is relevant to the present and future of podcasting. And I need to step up my research on this subject because in July, I will be speaking at the largest conference dedicated to podcasting, Podcast Movement. Podcast Movement has emerged as an event where independent podcasters and procasters converge. It's the perfect venue to seriously consider how the history of radio has influenced the development of podcasting and to explore where audio has been as a content form and commercial media so we can develop a true understanding of how and where we can truly innovate in audio.