Episode One - What is a Podcast?<!-- --> | <!-- -->Ben Pettis
Ben Pettis

Episode One - What is a Podcast?

November 01, 2021

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A photo of a man in a black turtleneck and jeans standing in front of a large screen with the word 'Podcasting' on it
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In this first episode of the first season of Beside the Rabbit Hole, I give a brief little intro to the concept of the podcast series as a whole. After that, I explain the topic for this inaugural season: the potentials and failures of the video podcast.

Podcasts seem to be everywhere these days—if you’re reading this there is a really good chance you are already familiar with what podcasts are. But when you try and come up with some sort of an all-encompassing definition that covers all types of podcasts—news, entertainment, drama, etc.—we start to see how difficult it is to define podcasts. They’re kind of like radio, but also kind of something entirely new. But throughout the various definitions of podcasts, there is an unspoken assumption that they have to be audio only.

But what if we put this assumption off to the side? In fact, in the mid- to late-2000s there was somewhat of a push to promote video podcasts as the “next generation of podcasting.” Yet this never really took off and a decade later we still think of podcasts as primarily audio. If it were just the case of poor technology, we might expect video podcasts to have become popular as mobile video improved. But this wasn’t the case, and this season of Beside the Rabbit Hole hopes to interrogate just why that might be.

Be sure to check your podcast feed for a bonus “episode” – a PDF file with screenshots of the Apple website pages that were referenced in the episode. (PDF files may not display in all podcast apps – sorry! You can download this supplmental PDF on this page)

Episode One Supplemental Materials (PDF, 2MB)

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Get in touch with me - bpettis@wisc.edu or see my website www.benpettis.com. You can also tweet at me @benpettis.

Music Credits:

License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

This episode also includes short clips from the following podcasts:

  • 99 Percent Invisible
  • This Day in Esoteric Political History
  • Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me
  • Just the Zoo of Us
  • My Brother My Brother and Me
  • No Compromise
  • Serial
  • Up First
  • The NPR Politics Podcast

Apple Events:

  • WWDC 2005 – from AppleVideoArchive on YouTube
  • October 2005 Special Event – from Seung-hyun Kim on YouTube
Additional Works Cited:

Hagood, Mack. “The Scholarly Podcast.” In Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, edited by Jeremy Wade Morris and Eric Hoyt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021.

Hansen, Samuel. “The Feed Is the Thing: How RSS Defined PodcastRE and Why Podcasts May Need to Move On.” In Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, edited by Jeremy Wade Morris and Eric Hoyt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021.

Spinelli, Martin, and Lance Dann. Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.


[Intro Music]

Ben: Hello and welcome to Beside the Rabbit Hole, a brand new podcast by me, Ben Pettis.

I guess since it is the first episode and it is the first season, I do owe everyone a bit of an explanation. What is this podcast all about anyway? Why should I listen to it? And do we really need yet another podcast since it seems that everyone and their mother has one already?

Well at least to that last question, yeah okay fair. Probably not, but here we are anyway so I’m just going to press on and explain what I’m thinking for the show. So what is Beside the Rabbit Hole?

I’m a graduate student, which kind of means that I am in the twentieth grade. So I have been in college for a long time. I guess that’s not typically something that is seen as a good thing. Anyway…

A phrase that I have heard a lot throughout my classes is that we want to be careful to not go too far down the rabbit hole—that is, we don’t want to get too caught up debating the specific definitions of something and we want to do everything we can to avoid going off too far on some unrelated tangent.

And I think there’s definitely some value in that. Wanting to stay focused on the topic at hand. But at the same time, I do think that we don't want to lose sight of this rabbit hole entirely. If the definition of some term theory idea ahs suc ha contested meaning, it must be pretty important, right?

Or at least it’s an early indication that there’s something interesting going on there. So I think we want to find the rabbit hole even if we then still take care to avoid jumping completely down into it. And that’s exactly what I’m hoping to do with this new podcast Beside the Rabbit Hole.

[Music Begins in Background]

So that answers that first questions about what is this show about anyway? That leaves the second one – why should we even listen? Well, my hope is that this is going to be entertaining and at the same time that you’ll learn something new and interesting.

Each season, I’m going to pick a topic that has the potential for us to go down some sort of a definitional rabbit hole. I’m going to walk us right up to the edge. And instead of going down and jumping in, we’re going to try to explore that surrounding area and see what issues are at stake.

And in the first season of my podcast, I apologize because I am going to be getting a little bit meta and do a podcast about podcasts. Sorry in advance.

[Background Music Ends]

[Montage of podcast trailers and introduction]


[Theme music from Serial]

Before we get started, an update from another show in the Radiotopia family

[Theme music from Up First]

[Theme music from Just the Zoo of Us]

Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts

And they’ve put together a podcast every weekday

A member of Radiotopia from PRX

Also this show isn’t for kids. Which I mention only so that babies out there know how cool they are for listening

[Theme music from No Compromise]

Subscribe now, wherever you get your podcasts

[Montage Ends]

Steve Jobs: And we recently announced something new for iTunes and iPod, and it’s called podcasting. As you know, the podcasting phenomenon is exploding right now. And podcasting of course, is a concatenation of iPod and broadcasting

Ben: So unlike Steve Jobs in 2005 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, I’m not sure I have to give as much of an explanation of what a podcast is. You are, after all, listening to one right now.

And today, the cultural practices of podcasts are pretty commonplace and well-known. And there can be all kinds of podcasts: news, discussions of movies and TV shows, fandoms, the ever popular true crime podcast. And so given just how broad the category of podcasts really is, it does actually become a little bit trick to come up with an all-encompassing definition of what a podcast is.

So maybe we do need Steve Jobs to help us out a little bit here.

Steve Jobs: And what is podcasting? It’s been described a lot of different ways. One way has been TiVo for radio. You can download radio shows

Ben: Okay, so it’s kind of like this older technology, radio, but we’ve got time shifting and it’s delivered over the Internet. Okay, what else you got Steve?

Steve Jobs: Another way it’s been described is Wayne’s World for radio.

[Audience Laughter]

Which means that anyone, without much capital investment, can make a podcast, put it on a server, and get a worldwide audience for their radio show. And that’s true too.

Ben: Okay, so podcasts represent—or at least they did in the early 2000s—all the exciting possibilities of new technologies. Anyone can listen and anyone can make them. Isn’t that great!?

But are they really all that different than other forms of media? I mean, kinda sorta? I mean, part of the trouble is that there is almost this assumption that podcasts have to be distinctly audio. When we think about them, especially in the context of sound studies, it is this fact that we consume them by listening to them that makes them special. They’re almost like radio plus, in a sense.

Ben (Reading Quote): Even the producers most attached to the radio format seem to revel in podcasting’s possibilities in style, content, and engagement

Ben: That’s from Lance Dann and Martin Spinelli’s book Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution. And they’re not alone in drawing this line from radio to podcasting and emphasizing their fundamentally auditory nature.

Mack Hagood also sees the history of radio as a way to understand the future of podcasting

Ben (Reading Quote): Given that, like its radio predecessor, academic podcasting enjoys comparatively little institutional support, the story of educational radio should probably be read as a cautionary tale

Ben: And I should point out because that was a little bit of a bleak or negative framing of the radio-podcast relationship that that wasn’t necessarily true of all definitions. Let’s hop back into Steve Jobs’ presentation really quick and see how excited he was about podcasts.

Steve Jobs: We see it as the hottest thing going on in radio. Hotter than anything else in radio. You know, what podcasting is…

Ben: With all these framings of what podcasts are and what they might become, there’s still almost this assumption that podcasts are primarily audio. But what if we put that assumption off to the side? What if podcasts weren’t only audio?

[Music Begins in Background]

Well, actually it doesn’t have to be a mere thought experiment. Here’s how the Apple website explained what a podcast was in February of 2007:

Ben (Reading Quote): The word podcast is a concatenation of the words iPod and broadcast. The underlying technology for podcasts, called RSS, is capable of containing any type of media including audio, graphics, and more.

Ben: This broader definition of podcasts beyond audio has been picked up over a decade later by Samuel Hansen who suggests:

Ben (Reading Quote): The definition of a podcast is a collection of downloadable files of any format served with the accompanying metadata via an open, updateable internet feed, primarily RSS.

Ben: So even if most day-to-day understanding of what makes a podcast a podcast tend to assume that they are all audio shows, from a technical standpoint at least, they really can be any kind of media, even text documents. Can you imagine that? But it’s this mention of video as a potential format for podcasts that really interests me

[Background Music Ends]

Especially given that in this day and age we are surrounded by video—from all our movies and TV shows, but of course in the endless feed of content that gets delivered to us on Instagram, TikTok, or whatever the cool new platform is—Given that we’re surrounded by video, why is it that video podcasts are not really that much of a thing?

Well, interestingly, they actually are a thing. Well, perhaps more accurately were a thing. Well, perhaps even more accurately, people tried to make them a thing. In 2005, Apple was making a big push into mobile video, first in the form of a newly video capable iPod:

Steve Jobs: Introducing the new white iPod as we head into the holiday season. And yes, it does video. And the video quality is just amazing. For watching iMovies, podcasts—both spoken word and video, for watching music videos, for watching anything you’ve got and you want to see on your iPod. It’s pretty amazing.

Ben: This new iPod did everything that previous iPods could do, including synchronize podcasts via iTunes. Both video and audio, see what Steve Jobs did? Just kind of snuck that mention in there?

That same year, the Apple website had announced that the next generation of podcasting had arrived. Though, notably, other pages on their website at the time were still pushing podcasts as audio only:

Ben (Reading Quote): Want to listen to your favorite radio shows and audio programs anytime? Just subscribe to the podcast you want and iTunes takes care of the rest. Updates occur automatically

Ben: A few years later in 2007, they introduced the brand new iPhone, of course with video capabilities. That same year, the Apple website was finally updated and their Podcasts FAQ page had a new question listed: are there video podcasts? And the answer:

Ben (Reading Quote): Podcasts are more than just audio. Some of the most popular podcasts in the iTunes store are video podcasts. Most are playable on iPod with video capabilitiy. Additionally, Apple TV supports watching video podcasts on your TV screen.

There are also text-based podcasts. iTunes podcasting supports PDF files which can be opened on your computer. iPod cannot display PDF files.

Ben: Kind of strange for them to like advertise this new feature and then immediately walk it back by saying, oh no no but our cool new product can’t actually do it. Anyways.

What’s clear from all this is that video podcasts were in fact a thing. It’s just that they never quite took off in popularity. And several years later we still have this widespread truism that podcasts have to be audio.

What’s clear from all this is that video podcasts were in fact a thing. It’s just that they never quite took off in popularity. And several years later we still have this widespread truism that podcasts have to be audio.

My guess is that there’s some fundamental characteristic of podcasts, their podcast-iness if you will, that makes video a less effective format than audio. The podcast-iness of podcasts is what I’ll get into in the next episode.

What does it actually feel like to listen to a podcast? What kind of relationship is build between podcast producer and podcast listener? And how might that help us to understand the ultimate failure of the video podcast?

All of that, and more, coming up next time on Beside the Rabbit Hole.

[Music Begins]

Beside the Rabbit Hole is written and produced by me, Ben Pettis. Thank you to Kevin MacLeod for the music which is used as the them and throughout the episode.

This episode also contains a handful of clips from Apple events. Thank you to random YouTubers for hosting mediocre mirrors and not to Apple PR for making those past events incredibly difficult to find.

Thank you also to the Internet Archive and the WayBack machine for making it so easy to access and search prior versions of the Web.

For information about this, along with citations for the quotes I read during the episode, check out the episode description.

There you can also find my contact information, so please feel free to reach out and let me know what you think of the show.

And until next time, thank you so much for listening.

[Music Ends]

[Sounds of Furniture Being Dragged Across the Floor]

What the f— are they doing upstairs? Apparently it’s like assemble and disassemble furniture day in the apartment complex. My god.