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Insider May 13, 2022 — The iPod is dead — long live the podcast

Plus, a new audio outlet from Longreads founder Mark Armstrong

I am not sure what you were doing in 2005, but a 15-year-old Ariel Shapiro was spending a lot of time being moody in the woods listening to The Shins on a turquoise iPod Mini. When I moved on from it (how fickle youth are!!), my dad used it for another good decade so he could listen to KC and The Sunshine Band in the pool and also keep his smartphone dry. If nothing else, that Mini was a survivor.

Today, on how “podcasting” is part of the iPod’s legacy, a new short-form fiction podcast, and programming highlights from the Upfronts.

How the podcast outlived its namesake

Pour one out for the iPod, the beautiful little gadget of my teenage dreams. While Apple finally discontinued the last iPod model this week, the “pod” lives on in the digital audio medium we all love and obsess over. 

The iPod was never really the format where the podcast flourished (that would be the smartphone), but at the time podcasts were getting started, the iPod was pretty much the only game in town. In 2004, the iPod controlled 60 percent of the total MP3 player market. It was the default option for listening to audio shows on the go, if an inelegant one.   

“It was a terrible experience,” says Leo Laporte, founder of early digital audio outlet This Week in Tech (TwiT) and host of radio show The Tech Guy. “You had to download it to your computer, connect your computer via iTunes to your iPod, copy it over your iPod, and then you could listen to it.”

But with the gadget ubiquitous, the “podcast” name seemed like a natural fit for the scrappy online audio shows that were starting to emerge. So natural that two people claim to have separately merged “iPod” and “broadcast” together. The first recorded instance is in a 2004 Guardian article by journalist and technologist Ben Hammersley where he threw around potential names for the medium (“GuerillaMedia” didn’t catch). That same year, digital audio pioneer Dannie Gregoire named one of his software programs “podcaster” and registered domain names featuring the word “podcast,” then popularized it with the help of former MTV VJ and early podcast host Adam Curry. Gregoire says he had not been aware of Hammersley’s article before coming up with the name. “​​It’s an obvious word to come up with, given the technology,” he said. Hammersley did not respond to request for comment. 

Either way, it caught on. Apple not only let the word live, despite potential trademark infringement, but it embraced the medium wholeheartedly by creating a podcast directory in iTunes in 2005. That same year, George W. Bush began releasing his presidential addresses in podcast form. The New Oxford American Dictionary took notice of all the hubbub and made “podcast” its 2005 word of the year

Not everyone was thrilled. For years, Laporte has fought – and lost – the battle to rebrand “podcasting” as “netcasting,” arguing that the word tied the form too closely to Apple. Time has proven him right and wrong. Yes, the iPod was a fleeting phase in the run of podcasting. But the word outgrew its namesake to the point where Apple is just one part of the podcasting ecosystem and not even the dominant one. Spotify has taken its crown as the most-used platform for podcasting, and Apple’s podcast programming is minimal, at best. 

Even so, the word is inescapable. A few years ago, Laporte relented and finally changed the TWiT Netcast Network to the TWiT Podcast Network. “That’s the way language is,” he said. “You can’t fight it.”

EXCLUSIVE: Longreads founder to launch audio short story program this summer

Longreads founder Mark Armstrong revealed to Hot Pod that he will be launching audio company Ursa this summer with The Final Revival of Opal & Nev author Dawnie Walton. Ursa will focus on showcasing short-form stories from underrepresented writers, starting with a flagship podcast hosted by Walton and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies author Deesha Philyaw, who will serve as Ursa’s editor at large. The company also has some high-profile advisors attached, including Appearances host Sharon Mashihi and The Black List founder Franklin Leonard.

Armstrong founded narrative nonfiction site Longreads in 2009 and sold the company to parent company Automattic in 2014. Armstrong, who became Automattic’s VP of content after the acquisition, left the company in 2020. This is his first venture since his departure.

Ursa enters a busy, if not saturated, space of short-form audio fiction. Amazon’s Audible launched a slate of short stories in 2020, while podcasts have sprung up to feature short fiction like Radiotopia’s The Truth and The New Yorker: The Writer’s Voice.

Upfront programming highlights

This week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau held its annual Podcast Upfronts, where audio companies highlight their biggest hits and share new programming with advertisers. Although the event was virtual (not quite so glamorous as I am sure next week’s TV Upfronts will be!), the industry’s biggest players offered some new shows viewers and advertisers can look forward to:

  • In the mold of the Black Effect Podcast Network and My Cultura, iHeartMedia is launching a new LGBTQ+ vertical of shows this summer.
  • After four years off, WNYC is bringing back its Supreme Court show, More Perfect, with Julia Longoria as the host. Can’t imagine why the show might be relevant again!
  • Sony Music announced a slate of nine new shows, including Bedtime Stories with Adam McKay, in which the writer and director improvises soothing stories, and Réunion: Shark Attacks in Paradise, which is pretty self-explanatory. 
  • Slate is increasing the frequency of shows What Next: TBD, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and Working from once a week to twice a week.

And with that, I bid you a good weekend. I’m going to delve into some of my mid-aughts jams (the kids say indie sleaze is back, baby!).