On a sunny day in the spring of 2006, a friend introduced me to the concept of podcasts: pre-recorded internet radio shows that audiences listen to on-demand as new episodes are released. I was inspired. Finally, my childhood game of recording my own "radio shows" on cassettes and listening back to them would pay off! I just knew that some day, podcasting would be the new norm in spoken word audio. I soon started my own podcast and began releasing new episodes semi-regularly. My audience was small at that time, but the sense of reward I felt was immense. But for a long time, though I was producing my own podcast, I wasn't listening to any. None. I didn't have a long commute at the time. When would I listen?
By 2007 I was completely obsessed with the CW's Smallville. The thought occurred to me, "What if I recorded my thoughts about the show each week and released that as a podcast?" I searched iTunes, naïvely thinking I might have been the first to think of such a novel concept. I wasn't. I felt pretty dumb. But what happened next made up for that feeling. I discovered Starkville's House of El, the top podcast for fans of Smallville. Listening to that show taught me a couple of things. First, I had stumbled across a viable and reproducible template for reviewing a weekly TV series in podcast format. Second, it was possible to produce a weekly podcast with nearly radio-level production values.
That point was hammered home a few months later when I started listening to the TWiT network of podcasts hosted by TV and radio veteran Leo Laporte. TWiT was producing 15 or so weekly shows of varying topics in the realm of tech news (as of this writing, they've grown to nearly 30 shows) featuring the biggest names in tech journalism and using actual radio equipment to produce their shows. I knew this was what I wanted to do: run my mouth about things I found interesting and sound good doing it. I wanted to create quality audio content on a regular basis and find an audience of like-minded listeners who were looking for something that I had to offer. The question: what the heck was I going to talk about?
That question sat with me for a long time. Almost a year, in fact. The next summer I heard that Joss Whedon was working on a new sci-fi thriller series called Dollhouse that would be premiering in early 2009. This was my chance. I was a new Whedon fan, just getting my feet wet in the world of Firefly. I had a few months to get ready for the premiere, and I wanted to make sure mine was the first Dollhouse-themed podcast out there. I secured a co-host in my friend Andrew and started building a website to house our nascent podcast, which we dubbed Echo Alert.
By the time the show began airing on FOX, we weren't the first Dollhouse podcast to hit the scene, but we did become the most popular within just a few episodes. We soon found ourselves listed among the top TV & Film podcasts on iTunes and saw Echo Alert featured in iTunes' coveted "New & Noteworthy" section. Emails and Twitter followers started pouring in. This was more attention than I'd ever had! It was a wild ride. Though Dollhouse was canceled after just two short seasons, Echo Alert gave us exclusive access to cast members for interviews, sent us to three comic book conventions for Dollhouse-related panels and events, and best of all, introduced us to a community of loyal Whedon fans, many of whom I still consider friends.
All good things come to an end, and eventually Echo Alert had to fade away. I was still making guest appearances on podcasts run by friends, and for a short time I started a new tech podcast with my friend Justin, which we called Tech Ramblings. That particular show only lasted a few months, and never really gained the kind of loyal following Echo Alert had enjoyed, but it was a ton of fun while it lasted.
I spent the next four years consuming hours and hours of podcasts each week, but not producing any of my own. I still dropped in here and there when I was invited to be a guest on shows hosted by various friends, but I wasn't hosting any shows of my own. I always wanted to get back into the podcasting studio, and I had a couple of brief attempts that never quite got off the ground, but the reality was that my full-time job at the time made it difficult to sustain any real hobbies. So my passion took a backseat but never fully went away. I hadn't lost the podcasting bug.
For those four years I was .istening to anywhere from 10 to 20 podcasts a week, but it seemed like nobody else I knew was really into the medium. Lots of people had seen the word in iTunes, but lots of my friends really had no idea what it meant. I think they saw it as a kind of black magic that only the geekiest of super geeks knew how to use to summon mp3 files into their iPods and smart phones each week. The friends who did get it didn't share my passion; they might listen to 1 or 2 shows a week (usually This American Life and maybe the on-demand version of their favorite talk radio show) but they didn't quite understand my obsession. It seemed like podcasting was not going to catch on the way the tech community had hoped it would when it first gained popularity in 2005.
When I moved from New York to Boston in 2013 I took a new job that allowed me a little more free time. Being in Boston meant that I could see my friend Tim just about every week. Tim and I have always bonded over our love of comic books, science fiction, music, and so much more. We are total geeks, and we say it loud and proud. Earlier this year, Tim approached me about turning our weekly geek-out sessions into a podcast. I was thrilled! This was exactly the kind of opportunity I had been looking for! Once again I had a co-host and a pretty well-defined sandbox in which to play. And thus, Beer With Geeks was born! Each Tuesday and Friday, Tim and I release a new episode covering a geeky topic (usually from our childhoods or teen years) while we sip on a couple of beers. It's a really fun time for the two of us, and so far I'm happy with the way it's been received.
In the last year, podcasting has begun to flourish again. There has been a steady stream of comedians who realize that a podcast is a great way to reach a broad audience, promote their standup / book tours / TV appearances, and even make a few bucks doing it. Then, Serial happened.
Seemingly out of nowhere, in the fall of 2014, the team at This American Life unleashed a spin-off show that rocked the podcasting community: Serial. They applied their usual investigative radio journalism to a murder case from 1999, in an effort to uncover the truth about what really happened. Each week host Sarah Koenig digs deeper into the murder of Hae Min Lee. Was her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed really guilty, as a jury of his peers evidently thought? The case is so ambiguous, it's really hard to tell. In a world where CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order are topping the Nielsen TV ratings, it's no surprise that this accessible yet sophisticated story captures the attention of an audience that is now said to be over a half-million strong. Serial seems to have cracked the podcasting nut.
Part of me is annoyed that podcasts seem to be going mainstream. After all. I loved the medium before it was cool. But at the same time, this is what I hoped would take shape all along. I always thought podcasts were the future of radio, and 8 years later. It's finally looking like that might be starting to happen. I'm excited for what comes next. and I'm beginning to look at what my next show will be. Hopefully I'll be able to launch another podcast based on a popular TV show. We'll see. For the moment, I'm just enjoying the influx of new top-notch content that's out there.
What are your favorite podcasts? When do you listen to them? At the gym? While you do house work? Will this new wave of podcasts last?