23 Feb Infographic: Uncovering the true history of podcasting
2014 was the year our whole office started talking about podcasting. The previously private exchanges of podcast recommendations—IMs between friend and the occasional “hey what are you listening to?”—became the unofficial but singular lunchtime topic of conversation. If you hadn’t listened to the latest episode of Serial yet, you were best off eating at your desk. Our open-floor-plan office was a constant minefield of unintentionally overheard spoilers.
Like everyone else, we struggled to hold all the Serial details in our heads long enough for them to make some kind of sense. One afternoon, I thought, “If there was only some way to see all the data together, we could probably solve this thing!” Turns out, creating visuals to better tell stories is exactly what we do, so we set out to make a Serial infographic that was going to break the case wide open. Like Serial host Sarah Koenig, we arrived at the frustrating conclusion that not only do the facts not fit together, but the facts we have cannot possibly be the actual facts.
Mapping the origins of podcasting with infographic design
Like Serial-mania, podcasts seemingly came out of nowhere, and then for a very solid moment, they were everywhere. I think we are still in that moment. We decided to take podcast-mania further and use infographic design skills to create an illustrated history of podcasting. He originally assumed he would simply Google-search a timeline and adapt the details into something visual. Turns out the history of podcasting is, for the most part, unwritten and difficult to assemble. Gregg asked for some help.
Together, we found the history of podcasting was piecemeal and far from definitive. We worked scattered details into a cohesive story, and Gregg designed this animated infographic that won some awards and was featured on our website. That’s where things sat, until very recently when I discovered an episode of Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything podcast called Secret Histories of Podcasting. I am an admitted fan of Radiotopia and their collective of podcasts (Theory of Everything is one of 13 Radiotopia podcasts). Benjamin Walker, the host, had been down a very familiar rabbit hole but with much better resources. First of all, he was there for and actually part of the history of podcasting. Second, he knows and interviews many of the key figures in the episode, including Christopher Leyden, Ben Hammersley and Roman Mars.
Benjamin Walker struggles with exactly what we did: there are multiple categories of contributions to podcasting, and many of the facts are debatable. Also, podcasting itself arrived as the confluence of many different idea and technologies. Other inventions, like flight, have a defining liftoff moment. Podcasting is a more complex story. Benjamin Walker says it best in the episode:
“There are at least three ways you can tell the secret history of podcasting. On the one hand, it’s a story about technology. But it’s also a story about money—a new business model for publishing. And it’s also a story about the birth of a new medium. And what’s really cool is that the whole thing is like a Rashomon narrative: you can tell all three versions using the same people.”
Our graphic timeline of this story, like any first draft of history, contains a mix of indisputable facts and interpretations. At some point, the Internet may agree on a singular narrative. Until then, hats off to Benjamin Walker and to everyone out there creating that very history in this present moment.
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