10 Years of Podcasting: Code, Comedy, and Patent Lawsuits

August 18, 2014

By Cyrus Farivar via Ars Technica

A decade ago today—August 13, 2004—former MTV VJ Adam Curry spoke these words, recorded in his car in rural Belgium while driving to the Netherlands:

“Well, good morning everybody, and welcome to the Daily Source Code. Thank you very much for taking the time to download this MP3 file. Some of you may have received it overnight as an enclosure in your aggregator. In that case, thanks for subscribing. So first what I’d like to do is to explain exactly what this is, and what the Daily Source Code is going to be.”

Now, Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code (DSC) was not the very first podcast ever recorded. That honor belongs to Christopher Lydon, who recorded one back in July 2003. (Amazingly, Lydon is still going strong with Radio Open Source, which now exists as both a podcast and a public radio show on WBUR in Boston.)

Still, Curry’s DSC remains an important early marker in the history of podcasting. It was created essentially as a proof of concept for Curry’s first foray into software development, utilizing an Apple Script designed to pull audio enclosures off RSS and then synch them via iTunes to an iPod. That became iPodder, one of the first “podcatchers.” It was inspired by Winer’s blogging software, Radio UserLand, which was the first to debut this feature to send and receive RSS enclosures. This “podcatching” feature has since been incorporated into iTunes, rendering iPodder and its ilk obsolete.

And tech aside, the DSC was an iconic podcast. At the time, Wired reported that when Curry promoted a new podcast, “downloads double for the show he mentions.” In its heyday, DSC may have been something analogous to the 1950s-era Ed Sullivan Show—ambitious and popular but almost simple and quaint when measured by modern media standards.

While podcasting hasn’t yet become as massive as other media, it’s made its mark on the popular culture landscape despite being the baby of the group. A 2014 study from Pew Research shows that podcasting appears to have leveled off after its first decade—the number of Americans who have “ever” listened to an audio podcast was down slightly from 29 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2013. Today, fifteen percent of the United States population still listens to podcasts weekly, according to a survey of over 2,000 Americans by Edison Research. If true, that would be around 48 million people in the US alone.

“It’s getting to the point where once my producer Nick said, ‘Have you ever tried to explain what podcasting is to your dentist?’” Jesse Thorn, the founder of the Maximum Fun podcast network, told Ars. “It’s getting to the point where you don’t have to explain it. It’s not quite all the way there, but it’s almost there.”

“There’s a big sticky problem in the way”

While audio distributed online long predates podcasting (hello, Usenet!), having an automated way to get regular audio content to a portable device is really what separates podcasting from its predecessors.

In this regard, it took a few years for podcasting to go from concept to launch. In October 2000, Tristan Louis, a developer on the XML development e-mail list, suggested something resembling an enclosure to the upcoming 0.92 version of Real Simple Syndication (RSS), Dave Winer’s now-ubiquitous XML-based format for delivering updates of Web content.

It was around that same time that Curry, independently, started thinking about how to deliver audio and video content to people with some of the earliest forms of broadband.

“I had an idea as to how we could use these always-on but rather slow connections for large media files,” he told Ars. “To have some kind of subscription-based service that would be alerted when there was a new episode and that would download at night during your unused cycles. There was no click-and-wait, that sucked. Now the idea was just like the nightly news: it didn’t just happen, it was taped [hours] ago. When it comes in and you’re alerted, you click and it plays immediately—there’s some satisfaction.”

This was in the early days of broadband in the United States—when only around 1.5 million Americans even had DSL—and only five percent of home Internet users had broadband. Sometime in October 2000, Curry met Winer in person in New York and pitched his idea for making this tweak to RSS to include audio or video elements.

As Winer wrote at the time:

Adam wants the Internet to be Everyman’s broadcast medium, to route around TV and radio broadcast networks, with no compromise in quality. Now if this were easy, or the solution obvious, we’d already be doing it. But there’s a big sticky problem in the way, the pipes don’t seem big enough.

Believe me, I know about that. I have a relatively slow DSL connection. If I download a multi-megabyte QuickTime movie, it can take five minutes for less than a minute’s worth of video. So it’s hardly ever worth it to me to click on a video link.

“He had to beat me over the head to get me to listen to the idea,” Winer told Ars in a recent interview. “The whole idea of video on the Internet didn’t interest me due to the latency problem. At the time I thought video and audio whatever, the pipes were small. The whole idea of waiting for the thing to download would not be worth the wait. I had written off the idea at first—it took me a few times to listen. If those barriers are there for me [as a software developer], you can only imagine how they were for everybody else.”

Ultimately, the technical solution of futzing with RSS to support enclosures was relatively easy, Winer said. On January 11, 2001, Winer released a Grateful Dead recording via RSS—a proto-podcast, if you will. He called it: “Payloads for RSS.” With that, the delivery mechanism was born. However, there wasn’t much of an audience for it just yet, despite the original iPod’s release in October 2001.

“What to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”

Over the next couple of years, audio enclosures via RSS largely languished as a fairly obscure activity practiced only by a small group largely revolving around Winer, Curry, and a handful of others. And in mid-to-late 2002, much of Curry’s time was taken up by a Dutch reality show about him and his family. (At the time, he was married to Patricia Paay, a well-known Dutch singer and model.)

By August 2003, Winer started working with Christopher Lydon, a veteran of Boston-area television and public radio, to include audio interviews as part of the RSS feed. He described it in a blog post at the time:

An experiment with RSS enclosures. If this works, users who subscribe to my feed with an enclosure-aware aggregator will have an MP3 of the interview Chris Lydon did with me last month, with no click-wait.

For months, Lydon appears to have been the only regular podcaster out there. It took place during his year as a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. With Winer’s help, he released a number of interviews, which eventually became his Radio Open Source podcast.

But part of the issue was that even if the tools to create these audio recordings were all there, early MP3 players remained relatively small and expensive. Yes, the iPod had already gone through three iterations by that point (Apple sold its millionth iPod by June 2003), but they hadn’t yet fully caught on in the mainstream. As a way to listen to Lydon’s audio entries while on-the-go, Winer even purchased a 128MB Creative Labs MuVo player for $129. In Setpember 2003, inspired by Winer’s efforts, Steve Gillmor and Doug Kaye debuted IT Conversations, the second-ever podcast.

In October 2003, podcasting finally received an iPod-centric solution. Curry debuted his RSS2iPod AppleScript, which pulled MP3s out of an RSS feed and loaded them onto an iPod. A few months later, the iPod line prepared to reach the masses. Apple introduced the first iPod mini in January 2004, and the more affordable 4GB model debuted on the market in February for $249.

“The response to iPod mini has been off the charts,” Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, said in a statement at the time. “iPod mini broadens the market for iPod by competing head-on with flash-based players. iPod mini costs only about $50 more than a 256MB flash-based player, yet it holds 16 times the music, is smaller, is easier to use and provides superior audio.”

Ben Hammersley, then a reporter for The Guardian, appears to have been the first to publish the term “podcasting” in February 2004. (Hammersley is now the editor-in-chief of Wired UK, among other things.) He focused largely on Lydon’s efforts that, as he described it, were at the bleeding edge of “a new boom in amateur radio.” (Later, Dannie Gregoire, an early developer, picked up on use of the term months later.)

Curry, for his part, believes the mainstream debut of Apple’s new product line was what accelerated the growth of podcasting.

“The iPod was what triggered me,” he said. “I didn’t see a digital Sony Walkman. I saw a broadcast receiver.”

Winer began his own podcast, Morning Coffee Notes, in June 2004. Over the course of summer 2004, Curry honed his programming skills and developed iPodder. It was a more mature version of his earlier script—for both Mac and Windows—that could automatically deliver audio files from an RSS to an iPod. His iPodder.org website became the home of the application, and it quickly spawned newer and better versions, including iPodderX. (You can find some early Ars forum users discovering iPodder back in the day.)

“At first it was a proof of concept, AppleScript that looked at an RSS feed and automatically loaded it onto the iPod,” Curry said. “The Daily Source Code, the name was chosen for developers so that while I was telling them what was necessary to create this broadcast river, this podcatcher would give them something to test against. It’s very hard to test with some fake stuff, and it’s not fun. I learned a little bit about what makes developers tick. Stuff would break, and we learned pretty early on that if you subscribe to a new feed, then it would try to download 100 old episodes.”

Early episodes of the DSC are very self-referential. They largely highlight Curry’s frustration with audio production and learning to program, even podcasting itself. But all the while he’s very comfortable on-mic, seemingly doing very little editing while fluidly transitioning from one topic to the next. It didn’t take long for DSC to settle on a format, complete with intro theme music and everything.

That fall, podcasting’s growth continued. In September 2004, iPodder got its own entry on SourceForge and, eventually, its own e-mail list. Later that month, a small article on iPodder got a writeup on ExtremeiPod.com, which then got posted to Slashdot. The rest is history—one month later, the very first New York Times article about podcasting appeared. (Full disclosure, it was written by the author of this piece.)

Going mainstream

If 2004 was the introduction of podcasting to the masses, 2005 marked the year when Apple really started to embrace it. That June, Apple decided it wanted to incorporate the feature of a “podcatcher” directly into iTunes 4.9. While, sadly, that pretty much definitively killed off iPodderX and related applications, it was an enormous breakthrough in terms of reaching audiences. “One thing Apple did do is that they made podcasts ubiquitous,” August Trometer, the creator of iPodderX, told Ars.

Apple itself trumpeted that it wanted to take podcasting “mainstream” with the release of iTunes 4.9. And as Macworld wrote at the time, it did just that by simplifying the process for those just getting into listening:

So how does iTunes 4.9 stack up against some of the other podcasting clients? Well, having used iPodderX, I’d say it is an improvement, if for no other reason than it eliminates the need for another application. In iPodderX, you had to select which podcasts to subscribe to; when the client updated new podcasts, it would open iTunes to transfer them from your Mac to your iPod.

iPodderX works well, but it has a very cluttered interface, with four windows across the single application, displaying podcast lists, the list of files to download, the selected file name and a large window for show notes.

Apple’s effort simplifies the interface, though it could take a page from iPodderX’s playbook and incorporate the show notes directly in iTunes. (Currently, you have to jump to a podcast’s Web page to find the show notes.) The only information of a particular podcast that you get is just the name, the date, and maybe a hint in the description field.

Integrating podcasts into iTunes makes getting podcasts easier by eliminating the need for a third-party application. Also, iTunes lets you preview (or even listen to the whole show) before you choose to subscribe to a particular podcast—a feature iPodderX doesn’t offer.

But one of the side effects of podcasting’s Apple-fication was pricing. Apple made perhaps the most impactful decision ever for the podcasting business when it chose to make podcasts free by default.

“Because of Apple, I didn’t make a whole lot of money on podcasting,” Trometer said. “The one thing they instantly prevented was people making money in podcasting, whereas, with third parties, we had talked about subscription-based podcasting. Because of iTunes, you can’t do that, or you can but it’s extremely hard.”

In September 2005, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs pulled out one of his famous “one more thing” tricks and launched the even more accessible iPod nano. The product was a runaway success, selling one million units in just 17 days. While iPod sales weren’t pushed by podcasting, making smaller, cheaper, and better hardware devices was certainly appealing to podcast fans. By the end of the year, ‘podcast’ was declared Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

A year later, in November 2006, the Pew Research Internet Project reported that podcasting grew significantly. Now 12 percent of Internet users reported they had downloaded a podcast, compared to seven percent just seven months earlier. This “better product-more people cycle” would repeat itself in another year. Apple released the iPhone in 2007, putting music and podcasts into the hands (and pockets) of more. By August 2008, Pew’s podcasting figure grew to 19 percent.

The niche niche—from public radio to comedy

Throughout 2005 and 2006, a number of American public radio shows began making their programming available as podcasts. Their impact was quickly clear. Today, of the top 10 most popular podcasts in the US, just two (Stuff You Should Know, The Nerdist) are not produced by public radio stations or networks.

Still, for many, podcasting didn’t really grab their attention until the modern wave of comedy podcasts—largely produced by professional comedians in Los Angeles—began to take shape. One of the first was Doug Benson’s podcast. I Love The Movies with Doug Benson began in 2006 (and thankfully eventually shortened to Doug Loves Movies). Other notable comedy podcasts now high in subscriber counts soon followed, including Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist (2010), Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird (2012), and Marc Maron’s WTF (2008).

Maron’s success, in particular, was spawned by another young producer and podcaster, Jesse Thorn. The native San Franciscan began his radio career as a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he started an interview show called The Sound of Young America (since renamed Bullseye). In addition to being aired locally, it was distributed as a podcast. Within a few years, it had some distribution across the US on Public Radio International. By 2009, Thorn helped Maron get his start, literally installing the microphones he needed to get going.

Both Maron and Thorn began earlier in their careers with more traditional live broadcast radio, but their fame has now soared to new heights as a result of their podcasting celebrity.

“I think that the bigger difference for me as a content creator between radio and podcasting is that radio is a linear medium, your goal is always to create a brand for a station that is identifiable and can tune in and get the thing that they expect,” Thorn said. “For that reason, since there is not a lot of appointment listening, it’s very hard to make something that has a deep connection for people with radio. It always has to be broad. The great benefit of podcasting is that you can find a really significant audience with something that doesn’t appeal to everyone.”

That’s something Adam Carolla, one of the most popular podcasters, has also figured out. For a decade, Carolla hosted the late-night call-in show Loveline and the morning Adam Carolla Show, which was cancelled in 2009. He told Ars that he’s met many colleagues who did well on radio in large markets, but they may not necessarily be able to succeed in the podcasting world.

“Why would someone who had a 20-year career in a major market not be able to get anything going?” Carolla told Ars. “You realize that stuff was sort of passive listening. The Dukes of Hazzard got 30 million views a week, not because it was a great show but because it was on. Today, the Dukes of Hazzard has taken it to the Internet, and people think ‘Now, I have all these different alternatives.’ It is survival of the fittest.

“Before, we all knew that if you were on a powerhouse FM station, and it was in a big market, and you were on in the morning, you were going to get numbers, pure and simple,” Carolla continued. “You’re just going to get numbers. Now there’s no lead-in, it’s all what can you gather on your own. I just talked to some guy who did a lot of advertising, and they were just running down the list of people that are trying to make the transition and not getting traction—it’s weird.

“Today, it’s the Wild West and you’re not competing with the next guy who’s doing morning drive, you’re competing with every comedian who has a podcast. You may be funnier than the guy down the dial, but you might not be funnier than Marc Maron, and you’re up against all of them now. Listen: you can start a podcast, everyone can start a podcast—but you got to get listeners.”

Evidently that last bit is advice Carolla knows well. In 2011, he broke the Guinness Book of World Records for most downloaded podcast ever, boasting 59,574,843 unique downloads from March 2009 to March 16, 2011.

Recouping a lost investment

All this leads to today, where perhaps the clearest sign of success for podcasting as a whole has nothing to do with one particular show. The podcast ecosystem is large and healthy enough to have drawn the attention of Personal Audio, LLC, a potential patent troll company that sued a few big-name podcasts last year for patent infringement. Personal Audio targeted the likes of the Adam Carolla Show and the Stuff You Should Know, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been leading the attempt to defeat the lawsuit.

Patent 8,112,504 claims to be a “system for disseminating media content representing episodes in a serialized sequence,” or what Personal Audio LLC itself refers to as the “podcast patent.” Despite the patent not having been issued until 2012, the company argues it has a “precursor to podcasting,” which was filed in a different form back in 1996 before eventually leading to this patent.

This would explain why the ‘504 patent refers to obviously outdated technology like Windows 95 and SLIP/PPP dialup. It cites infrared as “rapidly becoming a standard feature [on PCs]” and Mosaic as a “conventional Web browser.”

The podcasting community isn’t convinced. As Dave Winer wrote in February 2013 on Twitter: “How could a patent issued in 2012 cover podcasting, a technology that’s been around since 2001?”

This isn’t the first time Personal Audio has filed a potential troll lawsuit. Using various other patents, it has gone up against Apple, Samsung, Research in Motion, Motorola, and HTC. The company managed to win $8 million against Apple alone back in 2011.

In a June 2013 Slashdot interview, James Logan, the founder of Personal Audio, said that its patents “fall under a two-part incentive system.”

The first incentive gives the hope of a temporary monopoly to the entrepreneur. That hope fosters innovation by getting people to push the envelope and try new ideas, not just copy old ideas. The hope of creating a business protected by patents, like the one I had at MicroTouch, motivated me to create and move forward with Personal Audio.

The second incentive offered by patents, however, is to investors. During the life of Personal Audio, I invested $1.6 million, and lost it all. Personal Audio, LLC, the patent holding company, is the attempt by the investor, me, to get a return on that investment. When investors like me get our money back, plus some if we’re lucky, it means that startups are not as risky as they might otherwise be. To that extent, patents lower the “cost of capital” to startups, that is, make it easier in the long run for them to raise money. If you’ve shopped plans around to VCs, you will see that often they are very interested in the IP potential of the ideas being pursued. They are interested in both the monopoly power it might offer a startup as well as the safety net it provides in case things don’t go well.

So to answer your question, we are small players in a larger system, one set up to foster innovation by turning inventions into property. We are merely using our property as the system was designed. You may not like every outcome of this system, but in general it has served its purpose well over many years.

Ironically, podcasters like Carolla are fighting against Personal Audio for the same reason—to preserve what’s become a way of life in the last decade.

“There’s no merit to the lawsuit, but if we go down or if we settle, then they’re going to come after all the podcasts, or at least they should because that’s their business,” Carolla said. “They’re fools. Since there’s no moral compass and there’s no humanity to these guys, they’re just money makers. They’ll just go after whatever the next podcast is.”

Last month, Carolla famously decided not to back down when given the opportunity. A trial date is set for early September 2014.

Podcasting of the future

Presuming it survives the Personal Audio lawsuit—which many big podcasters and podcast networks are watching with great interest and trepidation—the podcasting industry seems set to have a “long tail”-style future. A number of pretty small audiences have been built, and these will continue to exist in parallel with the DVR-style function podcasts serve for nearly all traditional public broadcasters at this point.

Today, it’s easier than ever to get podcasts on practically any portable device. And with better mobile data, you can often listen before you’ve fully downloaded it. Stitcher Radio, and other apps, even make it possible to stream shows without taking up precious storage space.

And perhaps we haven’t even fully tapped into the best environment for podcast listeners. Presumably, as Bluetooth and Internet connectivity in cars becomes cheaper and more prevalent, downloading, storing, streaming, and/or playing a podcast in the car will be as common as those tasks are on your phone or computing device. For example, Pandora, the online streaming startup, has said that it wants to expand into spoken word content as more people tend to listen during long commutes or road trips.

“Music’s an important piece of radio listening in the car, but if there’s a place where spoken word is also equally, and more important, really, it’s in the car,” Pandora CFO Michael Herring said on a recent investors’ call.

So Adam Curry’s little audio-via-RSS experiment has come a long way from being a mere proof of concept. And so long as the Adam Carollas of the industry aren’t stopped through litigation, chances are that growth for podcasting—while inevitably different in nature—is nowhere near over within the next decade.

Image: Colleen AF Venable