By my count, we’ve already seen four prior waves of podcasting. The first was the quick growth of early adopters (like me). The second was when Apple integrated podcasts into iTunes. The third was when professional radio hosts, programs, and stations realized how easy it was to syndicate their content. And the fourth was when the press was shocked to learn that podcasting still existed after Serial caught seemingly everyone’s attention.
For most of the time during the Fourth Wave, I’ve seen a flurry of articles ignorant of the past accompanied by plenty of bitchy podcasters arguing “that’s not new!”… mostly amongst themselves. I’ve also seen a lot of smart people dabbling in the podcast-adjacent space who find their efforts largely ignored by podcasters who have a very narrow view of what podcasting is… and what it can be.
So with that rather unapologetic understanding of the landscape of the Fourth Wave, how can I claim that a Fifth Wave is upon us? Why am I confident this new Fifth Wave of podcasting is happening with a past so muddled and a present that can’t seem to get away from itself? It’s because the future doesn’t care. It’s already here. It’s just unevenly distributed, to quote Willam Gibson.
The immediate future — as in just a few weeks away — is Apple’s downright stunning support of serialized and/or seasoned content. But support isn’t strong enough a word. Podcast feeds will soon contain the data necessary for Apple (and any other podcatcher who cares to play with the future) to build a better podcast listening experience. I’ve only seen a few mockups of Apple’s new app for iOS 11, and I’m reticent to take any of those at face value since the tags have yet to be incorporated. But just for a moment think of how different (and much more pleasant) it is searching for something to watch in Netflix than scrolling through your TV’s channel guide. Consider why so many people choose to let Spotify play rather than sorting through their own overgrown music library. Or to get a little dystopian, recall how browsing and buying books online (thanks, Amazon) shuttered all but the most tenacious book retailers.
That’s what these changes — pioneered by Apple but usable by any other podcatcher, directory, or some as of yet unknown app — could have in store for the 13-year-old podcasting industry. If only we can release ourselves from the quagmire of the present. And stop crying foul when some article fails to show enough reverence or a comprehensive understanding of podcasting’s past.
Apple’s announcement just came out on Friday, and many of the responses I’ve seen from some of indie podcasting’s most powerful voices have rang a bit hollow to me. From poo-pooing the entire concept of “seasons”, to (again) vacillating between lamentations of and calls for revolution over Apple’s dominance, to fixation on the new analytics and how that might impact ad revenue (yawn); few have groked what a fundamental shift away from what’s working right now these new tags could bring.
What about the longer future of podcasting, like years from now? It’s no secret I’d rejoice seeing the the two-dorks-with-microphones* or the too-damned-long-interview** formats die in a fire so that better formats could emerge from their ashes. But I’m not predicting that will happen, as there’s always a market for low-quality, little-effort content — even if it’s a market of one. Instead, I firmly believe these new tags — simple as they are — will allow smart, forward-thinking audio creators an even greater chance to do something new. And I see the audience who decides to check out this thing called “podcasting” everyone is talking about finding themselves not with a polarizing opinion of the industry, but with a better understanding of the rich and nuanced possibilities of these things all (currently) classified as podcasts.
Now granted, I could be very wrong with my enthusiastic support of these new tags and their ability to influence current podcasters. I accept that. But here’s what I’m not wrong about: The current state of podcasting is going to change and become something nearly unrecognizable from how it started. That’s a certainty. The only variable is time.
* — I current host and have hosted my share of this format, so I’ve a pass to make fun of it.
** — I don’t hate interview shows. Just those that go on and on and on and …
About the author: Evo Terra (hey, that’s me!) was the 40th podcaster ever, though don’t hold that against him. He’s well-known for and quite proud of his contrarian opinion on all things podcasting. He founded one of the first not-really-podcasting-but-uses-podcasting-technology companies, is the author of Podcasting for Dummies and Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies, and currently hosts the Bangkok Podcast and This One Time. Occasionally he pontificates on the future of media here on Medium. Give him a follow if that sounds like your thing.