Podcasts: A Storytelling Breakthrough

Host Walter Isaacson and guests follow the evolution of podcasting from radio and blogs, all the way up to the juggernaut it is today, with over a million podcasts and counting
All Trailblazers Podcasts

In this episode:

  • A nationwide opera (0:00)
  • Enter: the radio (3:24)
  • Beaming from space (9:15)
  • The Podfather (11:47)
  • A new golden age for radio (14:36)
  • Serial's numbers (17:05)
  • Seeing podcast's potential (20:57)
  • The new economy of podcasting (23:54)

Radio programs have been around for decades, yet podcasts have become one of the most significant new media formats of the 21st century.

How did this monumental change occur? Find out.

Podcasts are still a new form of media, and so there is plenty of room for innovation:

● See how one service is making audio storytelling more visual.

● Find out how AI is being used to showcase relevant content from your favorite shows.

● Learn more about the history of telecom from an earlier episode of Trailblazers.

● Trailblazers isn’t our only podcast. Here are a few more to check out.

“It's just been growing every year, it gets bigger and bigger. It's been one of the most gratifying things imaginable actually.”

— Dave Winer, podcast inventor

Guest List

  • Marshall Williams is the founder and CEO of Ad Results Media Inc. Ad Results Media was one of the first U.S.-based agencies to combine the disciplines of influencer and audio advertising across podcasts, radio, streaming audio and YouTube.
  • Dave Winer is an inventor of new media types, software developer and blogger in Woodstock NY. Winer developed podcasting, RSS, blogging, outlining and web content management software.. Winer has the first and longest-running blog on the internet, Scripting News, scripting.com.
  • Julie Shapiro is the executive producer of Radiotopia from PRX - a curated network of extraordinary, story-driven podcasts. She is also the executive producer of Ear Hustle. In 2000 she co-founded the Third Coast International Audio Festival, where as artistic director she shaped the Festival's creative trajectory and nurtured a robust international listening culture.
  • Ben Calhoun is a reporter, producer, editor and radio programmer. He’s spent much of the last ten years at This American Life and Serial Productions, where his work as a reporter and editor has won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award. He also served as Vice President of Content and Programming for WBEZ -- Chicago’s NPR affiliate.
  • Jacob Weisberg is the co-founder and CEO of the audio production company Pushkin Industries. He was previously CEO of the Slate Group, and the co-founder of Panoply, another audio company. He is the former editor-in-chief of Slate Magazine.
  • Derek Valliant is a Professor of Communication and Media and Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He writes and teaches on the history of modern media and technologies of communication, particularly radio, sound, and music. He is the author of Across the Waves: How the United States and France Shaped the International Age of Radio.

Walter Isaacson: It’s January 13th, 1910, and the internationally renowned Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso is about to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He’s performed at the Met many times before, but this night is different from all the others. Caruso is about to participate in a historic experiment. For the first time, Caruso’s voice will not only be heard by the 3,600 people in the theater, it will also be heard by people listening from miles away. Caruso is about to perform on the first ever public radio broadcast.

Walter Isaacson: The man behind the experiment is a 36 year old serial inventor named Lee de Forest. de Forest has long been intrigued by the idea of transmitting sound wirelessly. And, as a great lover of opera, he dreams of introducing people to the best performers in the world. de Forest is able to convince the opera’s director to let him hang two microphones over the stage, connecting it to a transmitter in the attic. And then, string an antenna on the roof of the building. But, who will listen?

Walter Isaacson: In 1910, there were no radios in New York. So de Forest has to set up receivers on ships in New York Harbor, at large hotels in Times Square, and several other locations around town. When Caruso walks on stage, de Forest flips the switch and the rest is history. It would take another decade before radio would become an indispensable part of American life. But, on that cold winter night, Lee de Forest provided a fleeting glimpse of what was possible.

Walter Isaacson: 110 years later, radio continues to survive and thrive. Over the past several years, it’s power and influence has been amplified over the internet, using a technology that, even a visionary like Lee de Forest, could likely never imagine. That technology is the podcast. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: Coming to us, out of the sky …

Speaker 3: The best the world has to offer in music, drama, and comedy may be enjoyed in one’s own home.

Speaker 2: With regular programs in the public interest …

Speaker 4: Questions of the day are discussed.

Speaker 2: Entertainment, information, and cheer.

Speaker 3: From any place, at any time.

Walter Isaacson: It took nearly 10 years, a world war, and many technical refinements before radio was ready to become a truly mass medium. By 1924, there are 530 stations on the air in America. And by 1930, about two-thirds of Americans had radios in their home, and there were more than a million cars on the road that were equipped with radios. Those listeners were treated to an impressively diverse range of programming.

Derek Vaillant: So imagine yourself in Chicago, in the mid-1920s …

Walter Isaacson: This is Derek Vaillant. He’s a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan.

Speaker 6: This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company.

Derek Vaillant: You would have access both to networked programs, that is to say programs carried by the National Broadcasting Company, NBC, or CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting Service. And that would feature, in the evening, live concerts from jazz clubs, it would feature nationally known entertainers, comics. You would have access to sports broadcasts, the news, of course. But, you could also listen to a local community broadcast in Swedish, or German, or Polish, so it was a quite diverse access point for Americans.

Walter Isaacson: Radio’s rapid rise presented challenges for both those trying to regulate it, and those trying to make money off of it. In the early days of radio, an aspiring broadcaster simply had to write to the Commerce Department in Washington to request a license. They would be assigned a frequency and told when they could broadcast, and that was about it, when it came to regulation.

Derek Vaillant: This did create opportunities for innovation. It also created occasions for some real abuse.

Derek Vaillant: Back in the 1920s and early ’30s, radio was very lively and important as a community service, but it also was a place for some eccentrics, loud mouths. So the way to respond, if you were a listener, was to complain to the station, or write away to Washington. So it was a bit of a wild, wild West situation, and eventually there were enough complaints that Congress responded by creating the Federal Communications Commission.

Walter Isaacson: The FCC was created in 1934. It was welcome by companies that had investments in radio and wanted to make sure that the programs they broadcast did not alienate large segments of the public.

Walter Isaacson: But, it was hard for those independent stations to make money, and eventually they began to consolidate in networks like NBC, which allowed programs on these independent stations to reach a national audience. Radio in the 1930s and ’40s also provided news, radio plays, detective shows, soap operas, children’s programming, and live play-by-play sports broadcasts to a nation struggling through economic depression and war. But by the late 1940s, radio supremacy was challenged by a remarkable new technology, television.

Walter Isaacson: Popular radio shows started appearing on television, leaving recorded music as the mainstay of radio programming. Predictions of radio’s demise where everywhere, and those predictions may well have come true were it not for the work of some scientists working out of the Bell Labs in the late 1940s.

Walter Isaacson: Until then, radio signals were still being strengthened and amplified using vacuum tubes. But after the war, Bell scientists started experimenting with transistor technology, and eventually it was adapted for radio. Transistor technology was truly a transformative innovation for the medium.

Derek Vaillant: Suddenly, the radio became a portable device. It had been a mobile device in cars from decades earlier, but suddenly you have young consumers with transistors radios in their hands, spinning the dial, looking for fun music to listen to, encountering rock and roll. And taking the radio with them to parties, to the beach, out of the home where radio had been centered, and therefore controlled by parents and patriarchs, into another domain.

Walter Isaacson: The transistor and rock and roll helped propel radio’s popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. By the turn of the century, radio station ownership in the US was concentrated in the hands of a few large media companies. And although public radio continued to offer a broad range of quality programming, many listeners felt commercial stations had become too formulaic, and ripe for disruption.

Walter Isaacson: It’s September 25th, 2001, and a company called XM Radio is about to launch two broadcast satellites into space. What did they decide to call their satellites? Rock and Roll. Within a few months, XM started the first national digital satellite radio service. It was followed in 2002 by a second national service, run by a company called Sirius Satellite Radio. Satellite radio had several advantages over terrestrial radio. Its programs could be heard across the continent, and because funding was based on a subscription model, much of it was ad free. And, perhaps most importantly, FCC regulations did not apply to satellite radio. That last point was crucial.

Walter Isaacson: In 2004, Sirius Radio was able to lure Howard Stern, America’s most popular shock jock, away from his home station. They offered Stern an unprecedented five year deal worth an estimated $500 million. During his years on FM radio, Stern was fined more than $2 million by the FCC for broadcasting what it considered to be indecent material. That would no longer be an issue on satellite radio.

Walter Isaacson: In 2008, XM and Sirius Radio merged into Sirius XM. And today, it remains the only satellite radio company in the US. But satellite radio also had its downsides. For the first time, listening was no longer free. But what if there were a technology that allowed you to tune into any program in the world for free, any time, day or night, on a device that you already had in your pocket? What if there was a technology that allowed you to be a creator as well as a listener?

Walter Isaacson: Well, that technology is now here and it’s called podcasting.

Dave Winer: My name is Dave Winer, and that’s how you should identify me, a blogger and a software developer. Yeah, that’s what I do. It’s not very impressive, but that’s what I do.

Walter Isaacson: There are lots of people who identify themselves as bloggers and software developers, but very few have a resume with David Winer’s credentials.

Walter Isaacson: In 1994, he wrote what is widely considered to be one of the first blog posts. He also wrote the software that made blogging accessible to everyone. And as if being The Blog Father isn’t impressive enough, 10 years later Winer added the title Pod Father to his list of credits. He developed the software that made podcasting possible. His unlikely collaborator was an MTV VJ named Adam Curry.

Dave Winer: We were at his hotel suite in Manhattan in December 2001, and we were hanging out. Adam was using my blogging software, which was called Manila, and he had this idea about using the network for audio and video. You could have a piece of software that subscribed to a feed, basically, of audio or video, and it would download the fresh stuff overnight. And then, it would be sitting there waiting for you when you got in, and there wouldn’t be any limit on the quality of the audio or the video. He had to say it eight times before it sunk in. I thought, that’s actually a really interesting idea.

Walter Isaacson: So Dave Winer went back to California and started working on Adam Curry’s idea. Finally, on June 11th, 2004, Dave Winer recorded himself reading his daily blog post. Then, he posted it online. It’s now considered to be the first podcast.

Walter Isaacson: For David Winer, podcasting was a natural extension of the democratic ethos that lay behind his passion for blogging.

Dave Winer: You see, what I had wanted all along was that it should be something that anybody could do, that it would require a lot of special expertise, and a lot of hardware, and a lot of very technical software. It just should be easy. Ever since then, it’s just been growing. Every year, it gets bigger and bigger, and it’s been one of the most gratifying things imaginable, actually.

Walter Isaacson: From those humble beginnings, podcasting has emerged as perhaps the most significant new media of the early part of the 21st Century. There are more than a million podcasts to choose from, ranging from the Joe Rogan Experience, with about 200 million monthly downloads, to podcast heard only by a select group of family and friends.

Walter Isaacson: There’s likely not been this much interest in audio storytelling since the Golden Age of radio. It’s a development that Julie Shapiro witnessed from the front row. In 2000, she co-founded the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago. The festival is an annual celebration of the best storytelling to be found on radio. But podcasts were not on her horizon, until a chance encounter in 2008.

Julie Shapiro: I do remember hearing the word podcast for the first time. We were at another public radio conference, and I’ll never forget. An independent producer started talking about this new technology and how great it would be, and how all of a sudden, it would unlock opportunities for producers to tell all kinds of stories. But we really had no idea what was coming.

Walter Isaacson: In 2011, for the first time, a podcast beat all its radio competitors and won the Gold Award at the Third Coast Festival. And then, four years later, Shapiro became the executive producer of the Radiotopia Podcast Network.

Walter Isaacson: Radiotopia is a collection of almost 30 independent cutting-edge podcasts, with about 19 million monthly downloads. It’s given her a unique vantage point, as radio producers have worked to adapt to the new medium.

Julie Shapiro: It was a while before we felt producers were starting to push the boundaries of what they could do through the freedom of podcasting. A lot of early podcasts just sounded exactly like radio shows that people had worked on. So I think there was a long period of experimentation, where the courage and then the desire to push boundaries, and try new things with the form, and then find an audience for that, it took a little while for that to catch on.

Walter Isaacson: Some of the most popular shows on public radio in the United States, such as This American Life, were the first to embrace the idea of making their shows available online as a podcast. But, before This American Life and others like it became hid podcasts, many people first discovered them on the FM dial.

Ben Calhoun: There was a day when I was delivering pizza, that’s how I paid my way through college. I had five orders in the car, and I was listening to This American Life, actually.

Walter Isaacson: This is Ben Calhoun. He’s a producer on This American Life.

Ben Calhoun: It was just in the middle of that story, and my brakes went out. Cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and I didn’t have one, so I was stranded on the side of the road with no brakes, and five orders, and no way to call the store, no way to figure out what I was going to do. But, all I wanted was to hear what happened next on that radio story, and it was sitting in that car that I just realized I don’t know how the people make this thing that’s coming through the radio right now, but that is what I want to do. However they make what this is, I want to make that.

Walter Isaacson: This American Life was created in 1995 by Ira Glass. The show is often credited for ushering in both the public radio and storytelling podcast revolutions. But, no single event changed the podcast landscape more dramatically than a show that was launched in 2014.

Walter Isaacson: That show is Serial. In the podcasting world, there’s before Serial and after Serial. Serial was produced by the team behind This American Life. The first season of Serial told the true story of a Baltimore teenager in prison for a murder he said that he did not commit. The story unfolds over 12 episodes, and takes the listener on a journey to determine this teen’s guilt or innocence. Ben Calhoun was also a producer on the Serial podcast. He thinks the podcast creators were able to think beyond the constraints of radio storytelling.

Ben Calhoun: I was at the staff retreat when we were talking about what podcasting was changing, in terms of narrative shows like ours. Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig, who created Serial, were talking about what it was that they were interested in doing, and the thing that they were referencing was Netflix and how you can jump from one episode, and go immediately to listening to the next episode, and the next episode, and the next episode. So you could actually create a much larger format show, where people could listen as long as they wanted to, and stop when they needed to. But, you would build, propulsively from one episode to the next one. I feel like it’s even in the name of the show that they created, and that was what they had their eye on.

Walter Isaacson: A month after its release, Serial became the fastest podcast in iTunes history to reach five million downloads. The public radio roots of podcasting remain strong. National Public Radio is one of the leading podcast publishers in the country. But after the surprising success of Serial, many commercial media outlets and advertisers began to realize that the potential audience for podcasts was much larger than they had previously thought.

Walter Isaacson: Marshall Williams is the founder and CEO of the radio advertising agency Ad Results Media. He saw a potential audience for podcasts earlier than a lot of other people. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many of his big clients began reducing costs by firing some of their high priced on-air talent. One of casualties was a popular DJ named Adam Carolla on station KLSX in Los Angeles. Marshall Williams.

Marshall Williams: Adam Carolla was doing mornings at KLSX. He wanted to keep doing an audio show, so he simply went home and started doing the equivalent of his radio program from his garage. Literally, his garage.

Marshall Williams: I read about it in Fast Company Magazine. I read about Adam doing this new thing, his radio program was going to be digitally delivered, and on-demand, and so on and so forth.

Walter Isaacson: So Marshall Williams tracked down Adam Carolla and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Marshall Williams: I said, “I want to advertise on Adam’s show.” We ran the ads, and we thought it would be fairly small. Well, it generated results that were about 20X what we thought they might be. We were like, “Wow, what is going on here? There are all these people out here listening to a digitally delivered, on-demand program.” They responded to these ads en masse, that’s really what go our company invested in the podcast space.

Walter Isaacson: Today, podcasters have more intimate knowledge about their audiences than ever before. Podcast platforms, such as Apple Podcast and Spotify, tell podcasters and advertisers when people skip certain parts of a podcast, and where they tune out all together. These are incredibly useful data points, because this information can help with things like a show’s editorial direction. Podcast platforms can also target listeners with specific advertisements. With terrestrial radio, everyone listening to the same show hears the same ads. But today, people listening to the same podcast hear ads based on their individual listening history, and other information that is unique to them.

Walter Isaacson: Next year, podcast advertising revenue is expected to reach the $1 billion mark, and Marshall Williams’ Ad Results Media is among the biggest players in the space. But advertising is only part of the new economy of podcasting. Today’s podcast boom has brought some big players with very deep pockets into the industry. Just last month, the New York Times bought the production company behind the Serial podcast. And in 2019, music streaming giant Spotify paid $230 million to purchase the podcast company Gimlet Media. Earlier this year, Spotify also paid an estimated $100 million for exclusive rights to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Deals of that magnitude will inevitably lead to new business models where advertising becomes just one of the many revenue sources.

Jake Weisberg: I’m very focused now on figuring out the non advertising revenue.

Walter Isaacson: This is my friend Jake Weisberg. He’s the CEO of the podcast company Pushkin Industries. He co-founded his company in 2018, with author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell.

Jake Weisberg: I think, ultimately, media businesses that depend exclusively on advertising don’t tend to be sustainable business, or businesses that are healthy over the longterm. So I think it’s very important, if podcasting is going to become an industry that’s viable over the longterm, that it figures out how to get revenue from listeners as well as from advertisers.

Walter Isaacson: The shift away from advertising has already begun. Some podcasts are now funded by listeners through platforms such as Patreon. Luminary, a $100 million startup, launched last year, has recruited some celebrity hosts and put their podcasts behind a subscription paywall. And then, there’s platforms such as Spotify.

Jake Weisberg: Like Sirius with Howard Stern, Spotify is using Joe Rogan as leverage, to say to his listeners, “If you want to keep listening to this thing that you love, you have to do it on Spotify.” You’re not going to be able to hear Joe Rogan on an Apple Podcast after September, I think. Or, on any other app. And then, presumably, if you’re listening to him on Spotify, you’ll want to listen to other podcasts on Spotify. So Spotify is starting from a very small base, in terms of its listenership, is making these very, very bold moves, acquiring big audiences and big podcast companies, or big in the world of podcasting, to say that this is central to their strategy as a company.

Walter Isaacson: Whether the big bets that companies such as Spotify have made on podcasting will eventually payoff remains to be seen. Some critics worry that the trend towards exclusive content placed behind paywalls is incompatible with the democratic impulse that drove Dave Winer to develop podcast software 16 years ago. But, Winer is not one of those critics. When he surveys the landscape today, with a million podcasts and more being added every day, he still sees the universe unfolding exactly as he hoped it would.

Dave Winer: Nobody needs permission to publish a podcast. You know how, at the end of podcasts, they say, “Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts,” that’s a piece of boilerplate, you hear it everywhere. That tells you that the medium hasn’t been owned yet, and it’s amazing how long it’s survived that way.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast by Dell Technologies. Thanks for listening.