The Boar: a microcosm for the incremental rise of podcasts

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Boar, our most recent print edition was themed around the 1970s, when the newspaper was founded. While other sections are able to publish articles about media from that time, podcasts were tragically not yet invented. In lieu of this, therefore,  allow me to walk you through the history of podcasts’ rise to fame, and detail how this has been reflected in the articles published here in The Boar. It may not encompass 50 years, but it’s probably slightly longer than you think. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when podcasting as a medium began. A portmanteau of iPod and broadcast, podcasts as a term was coined in a 2004 Guardian article by futurist and broadcaster Ben Hammersley. This was just one of three terms he threw out, along with “audioblogging” and “GuerillaMedia”. But things exist before they’re named – downloadable audio news stories were available from companies like i2Go as early as 2000, the same year Tristan Louis put forth the idea of attaching files to RSS feeds (which is how the majority of podcasts are distributed to this day). 

In the early 2000s, podcasts existed only in the minds of futurists and technophiles. It was years before the general public became familiar with the term. The first mention of podcasts in The Boar was in 2009. A Comment article casually acknowledged the existence of lecture podcasts as a way technology can supplement learning. Podcasts are namedropped again a year later – in a 2010 article about Birmingham Book Festival. It seems the festival was aiming for a broader range of artistic media, so podcasts were included in a vague list that also consisted of “social networking websites” and simply “the internet”. 

This is how podcasting was written about for quite a while. It’s not until a 2012 Arts article that podcasts are really talked about, rather than simply skimmed over. It’s an interview with Richard Herring, which asks (amongst other things) about the difference between his stand-up touring show and his podcast – presumably referring to Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (or RHLSTP). 

The Boar is a microcosm of the world at large (or at least the university-going UK Midlands), and podcasts at this time were rarely taken seriously

This apparent spike in podcast’s legitimacy is short-lived, evidence of it being a phenomenon very few were interested in at the time, and the medium quickly returns to the world of mere acknowledgement. A Sports article kindly directs readers to our colleagues over at RAW, who had released a podcast about the World Cup (the episodes no longer appear to be available, but you can read about RAW’s latest podcasting ventures in a recent Podcasts section article). A TV article about family vlogger Shay Carl mentions in its penultimate paragraph that he also has a podcast. I had high hopes for a Science and Technology article about how to pursue a career in science communication, but again podcasting got a mere mention as another tool this role can utilise. 

Podcasting being largely overlooked in this way is no fault of The Boar, nor of any of its writers past or present. The Boar is a microcosm of the world at large (or at least the university-going UK Midlands), and podcasts at this time were rarely taken seriously. It was only in the autumn of 2014, with the release of hit investigative journalism podcast Serial, that things appeared to pick up. 

With over 300 million downloads and winning multiple awards, Serial felt like a milestone in podcasting’s journey into the limelight. Was Serial a catalyst, or simply an early warning of the inevitable? Who’s to say (maybe somebody, someday, in an article in The Boar Podcasts)? But it is clear that, at this point in time, podcasts had skyrocketed into the public zeitgeist, suddenly becoming interesting to write and read about. It makes sense therefore that 2015 marks the first release of an article in The Boar entirely about podcasts. The piece, published in the Features section, is an interview with Victoria Brignell, one of the producers of the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, and provides a deep dive into how that podcast and radio show is made. It holds up as a fascinating article, and a worthy companion to the Podcasts section’s 2023 review of the show. 

This isn’t to say that writing about podcasts was an immediate hit from that point on. Even from a listening point of view, podcasting as an industry has had several small blow-ups. Consider this 2015 article a soft launch. Much of the following years provided nothing more than passing mentions.A 2016 Books article argues we didn’t need The Cursed Child because we have plenty of fanfiction, including podcasts. A 2017 Music/Features collaboration speaks in slight detail about Laura Marling preceding her album with a series of podcast episodes where she interviewed other female artists. 

This occasional mention of podcasts in The Boar articles resonates so much with me and how I remember people in my life thinking about podcasts at that time. It seemed like there was no such thing as a casual listener. You had either never listened to one or you were all in, as was the case for the writer of one TV/Features collaboration; in 2017, two years after the Features piece about In Our Time, The Boar published an article called ‘Listen Up: The best podcasts to try in 2017’. 

Podcasts had become too big to go unnoticed by broader society, and capitalism had come knocking with a wave of podcasts promoting toxic productivity

A year later, a Lifestyle article called ‘Conquering the commute’ recommended podcasts as a good way to start your day. To quote this article, by Emma Coles: “Whether you choose something educational, cultural or even an interview, listening to something you can enjoy gives you a head start for the day, sparking your creativity and mentally preparing you for the day ahead.” I want to be clear that I don’t disagree with this, but for me, this is a narrow idea of what a podcast is, indicative of the time it was written in. Podcasts had become too big to go unnoticed by broader society, and capitalism had come knocking with a wave of podcasts promoting toxic productivity. I remember attending a meeting during my undergraduate degree, around this time, for an employability award that rewarded extra-curricular activity. At the end of the session, we were asked to each share one thing we’d do to make ourselves more employable going forward. One person’s answer? Listen to a podcast. 

As someone who had already consumed four podcast episodes that morning and was sure at least three of them would make me less employable if a prospective employer found out, this idea was laughable to me. But to many, that’s what podcasts meant in 2018. Another Lifestyle article called ‘Three Perfect Podcasts for Procrastination’ shows promise but still dedicates a third of its word count to TED Talks. The Boar is as much a time capsule as any other media from the time.  

The detail regarding the capacity of each service to provide podcasts is so prevalent, I can’t help but again take it as proof that the demand for articles about podcasts has existed for years

Heading into this decade, mentions of podcasts in The Boar really start to pick up across nearly every section. Comment articles talk about Joe Rogan and Andrew Tate. Sports articles promote The Boar Sport Podcast. I write an article in the TV section about the end of The Walking Dead but am unable to go five minutes without mentioning podcasts. Lifestyle, ever the home of interesting writing with no obvious place to go, published several articles about how podcasts help people endure long commutes or days on campus. This culminated in 2020 with an article entitled ‘Popular, portable, and poignant: the beauty of podcasts’ – a beautiful piece where the author concludes: “I believe podcasts will continue to be a significant cultural medium in the 2020s, and we’re all the better for it.” Despite the controversy surrounding some podcasters these days, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. This writer, Noah Keate, also published several of the other articles mentioned here, as well as one titled ‘Literary podcasts worth listening to’. This is more evidence that the people who were into podcasts – Noah, me, Thomas Bartley, to name a few– are really into podcasts. Meanwhile the rest of the university populus was not quite there. 

In 2021, the Music section published a listicle of the best music streaming platforms, and the detail regarding the capacity of each service to provide podcasts is so prevalent, I can’t help but again take it as proof that the demand for articles about podcasts has existed for years — there just wasn’t an obvious avenue available to publish them. Rather than sneak mentions within unrelated articles, some writers boldly turned to the Arts section, which in 2021 published an interview with the cast of Three, Three, Three (a radio play distributed via many podcast providers) and a delightful overview of the comedy landscape and how celebrity comedy podcasts boomed during lockdown.

This brings us pretty much up to May 2023, when the Podcasts section was launched. This article you’re reading right now marks the 32nd instalment of the section, about half of which are podcast reviews, crafted by sixteen different writers. The Boar’s publication history, and its role as a reflection of the society it seeks to observe and comment upon, has aptly mirrored the gradual rise of the podcast. Not quite over the past 50 years, but at least the last 20, the humble podcast has developed from an obscure, barely-mention-worthy medium into a celebrated, if at times controversial, media commodity now consumed by millions. What might the coming decades of podcasting look like? Who knows, but The Boar will be here to write about it.


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