From Radio to Podcasts: Looking at Wu’s Cycle in the Medium of Audio

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Growing up, I never really thought about taking time out of my day to listen to the radio. The only time that I actually interfaced with this medium in my formative years, was when my parents would listen to music or the traffic and weather report on long car rides. That all changed a couple of years ago when I discovered the unparalleled experience of listening to podcasts. From the moment that I heard my first podcast, an episode of This American Life  called Status Update, I knew that I had found a storytelling medium that was distinct from any other.

 

While podcasts are essentially just canned radio, the fact that they are free to download, not regulated by the FCC, not subject to limited time slots, and able to be played on most any device at whatever time the listener chooses, makes them an entirely new medium. These distinguishing factors are what have allowed podcasting to become such an exciting and experimental format for audio storytelling. Podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron, where he conducts long-form interviews that are essentially an hour of him shooting the shit with various celebrity guests, would never have a place on broadcast radio because they’re too long, unfocused, and vulgar.

marc maron pod

Marc Maron Making WTF. Courtesy of Miss Critique

The podcast industry is currently in the open period of Tim Wu’s Cycle, which he discusses at length in his book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Wu 6). Wu defines the Cycle as: the information industry’s never-ending oscillation between periods of openness, where ownership is diffuse and there is a great amount of innovation, and periods of closure, which are characterized by consolidation under one corporate entity that profits off tried and true communications technologies (Wu 6). While radio has been in a closed period for many decades, it was once an open industry where the possibilities for its development seemed endless, just like podcasting is today.

According to Wu, radio broadcasting was started in 1912 by amateurs, who successfully transformed what was a two-way communication device into a powerful social networking system (Wu 34). The defacto leader of amateur radio producers at that time was Lee De Forest, who by 1916 was running his own radio station in the Bronx. De Forest was a visionary, who imagined all of the medium’s vast potential for information distribution long before it became mainstream. Wu quotes De Forest describing the endless possibilities that radio provided when he states:

‘In De Forest’s words, radio “is the coming Science, is moving ahead faster, possibly, than any other.” He urged young men to “take up Radio work because it offers a means of entertainment second to no other; gives useful instruction that can be made to produce tangible results later on; keeps everyone interested; enables you to get the news of the world by wireless and provides a pastime and hobby that will get the busy man’s mind into other channels.”’ (Wu 39)

As De Forest said, early American radio was revolutionary in a number of ways, as it: bridged the divide between individuals and government, brought culture concentrated in urban areas to those who live outside of cities, and allowed news to travel far more quickly. The development of innovations in radio during the early 20th century was a result of the medium’s low barriers to entry; meaning that almost anyone could buy broadcasting equipment and obtain a radio license with relative ease. This meant that almost any individual could host their own radio show, giving rise to an industry of widespread experimentation.

lee de forest

Lee De Forest. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Britanicca

The radio industry in the U.S. started to become closed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, meaning that the air waves came under the control of the three major American broadcasting companies. From this point on, radio was no longer a vast landscape of experimentation and endless possibilities, instead it became another communication commodity owned and controlled by a select few corporations who monetized it for everything it was worth.

This indeed is what I fear will happen to the now open and free podcasting industry. At the moment, the barrier to entry for podcasting is extremely low, almost anyone can buy the necessary equipment and editing software needed to make a podcast. In addition, the internet provides multiple free hosting platforms for podcasts, where they can be easily uploaded and shared to a wide audience, including Sound Cloud and iTunes. This has allowed thousands of independent podcasters to produce their own content that they can eventually monetize by getting advertisers on board. The abundance of podcasts has created a landscape of experimentation, where audio innovators are coming up with new ways of telling audio stories every day and getting their own audience to follow them.

My fear is that the now open and free podcasting industry will soon be transformed, like radio was, into one that is dominated by a small number of powerhouse conglomerates. The most obvious path that I see to this is the formation of podcasts companies that have so much success that they take all of the ad sales for themselves and buy out competing independent podcasts. I also worry that hosting platforms, iTunes specifically, will start making it much harder for amateurs to have their programs hosted.

Judging by Wu’s thesis, every information industry goes through the Cycle, the question is, when will this happen to podcasting and what will the implications be?


Works Cited

Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Atlantic, 2012.

 

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