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What is a podcast?

· By James Cridland · 3.3 minutes to read

What is a podcast? It’s a simple question: but it doesn’t, quite, have a simple answer. I’m regularly asked this: so, here’s an attempt to work out what a 'podcast’ really is.

The origin of the word

Ben Hammersley, at the time a journalist working for The Guardian, wrote in February 2004:

MP3 players, like Apple’s iPod, in many pockets, audio production software cheap or free, and weblogging an established part of the internet; all the ingredients are there for a new boom in amateur radio. But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?

That was the first time the word “podcasting” had ever been seen in public.

However, the first podcast had been published almost a year earlier, on July 9, 2003, though the first podcast feed, as defined by the technical definition of a podcast, was on January 20, 2001. The content wasn’t a show, though: it was a pirated song from the Grateful Dead.

Either way, podcasts existed before they were called podcasts. (Just as mobile phone apps existed before they were called mobile phone apps).

The technical answer

Most podcasters would agree that, technically, a podcast has five elements:

(You can have video podcasts, but they’re called “video podcasts”.)

What people think are podcasts

According to the Edison Research Podcast Consumer Tracker from Q1/21, the platforms used most often in the US for podcasts are…

  1. Apple Podcasts - 23%
  2. Spotify - 22%
  3. YouTube - 18%

You will note that YouTube is #3 on this list, even though it does not satisfy any of the above elements.

It’s not just the US. In fact, in Germany the most popular platform for podcast listening is YouTube (YouGov, June 2021).

This is confused further by shows like No Agenda that publish on YouTube as audio, as well as on “proper” podcast apps. Are you listening to a podcast when you listen on YouTube? Absolutely. Is it a podcast app? No.

Shows like TWiT take this one step further. You can listen to TWiT in your favourite podcast player; but you can watch it on YouTube in a fully-produced television show. And you can download it as video, using RSS enclosures.

The real answer

“It’s on-demand audio. Like a radio show, but on-demand.”

That’s it. That’s all a podcast really is.

The “on-demand” bit is important. It’s the defining thing about podcasting.

The “audio” bit is important. Yes, you can get video podcasts, but the point of any podcast, even one with video in it, is as a piece of audio.

The “like a radio show” bit is imperfect: podcasts can be very different to the kind of polished radio shows you might hear on NPR or the BBC. But it tries to convey that you’ll hear human beings talking: which makes it different from an algorithmic Pandora music stream, for example. Or an episode of Friends.

Are Spotify exclusives “podcasts”?

Well, not technically: they don’t appear as a DRM-free enclosure in an RSS feed.

But they’re absolutely what humans would call a podcast; and Spotify, themselves, call them podcasts.

Spotify itself plays “podcasts”, delivered via RSS, but it also plays plenty of things that aren’t delivered that way but still sound, look and smell like podcasts.

Are paid-for Apple Podcasts Subscriptions “podcasts”?

Well, not technically. You can’t subscribe in any podcast app other than Apple’s, and they don’t appear in a DRM-free enclosure in an RSS feed.

But Apple calls them podcasts, as do the people who make them available that way, like Luminary or Radiotopia. If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, most people will call it a duck.

Does an argument about “what a podcast is” help the industry move forward?

An argument about the benefits of an open ecosystem certainly helps.

However, it’s probably not too helpful to tell people who have just spent an hour listening to their favourite podcast on YouTube that, in fact, they’ve not been listening to a podcast. Because they have.

James CridlandJames Cridland is the Editor of Podnews, a keynote speaker and consultant. He wrote his first podcast RSS feed in January 2005; and also launched the first live radio streaming app for mobile phones in the same year. He's worked in the audio industry since 1989.

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