Note: When I finished the first draft of this, I sent Dave Winer a tweet asking what I’d left out. He pointed me to an article that Harvard’s staff paper published in October: The Podcast Revolution.
Some interview questions about my history-related podcast, Newspaper Heroes on the Air: JHeroes.com, got me looking for links about events back in 2003 and 2004 when the whole “podcasting” thing began.
This blog server with the unlikely address “blogs.law.harvard.edu” has a place in “broadcasting history” that may not get enough recognition.
The original server at this address played a big role in the dawn of what is now called “podcasting.” That server was launched by Dave Winer, co-creator and major evangelist of the RSS format for syndicating online information. He’s the one who gave RSS the ability to have “enclosure” elements — such as the audio files in podcasts.
The server ran Userland Manila, a group blogging program from Winer’s company. I used Userland Radio (or “Radio Userland”), the company’s combination blog-editor and RSS aggregator, for what was then my main blog.
Despite the “Radio” name, I don’t recall audio-broadcasting being mentioned prominently in the software promotion, but I’m pretty sure Userland’s Radio was the first program to be able to read those “enclosure” tags and automatically download the enclosed media files.
(It’s original name apparently was going to be “My.UserLand On The Desktop.”)
Another Manila and Radio user, Adam Curry, had suggested the “enclosure” idea a few years earlier, as discussed in Winer’s 2001 blog post about using RSS downloads to make it practical to deliver video files at that era’s relatively slow connection speeds by using the RSS feed to download them overnight.
When he got to Harvard, Winer issued an open invitation to his Thursday night blogging round-table meetings at Berkman Center. After I’d gone to a few of them, Dave authorized this blogs.law.harvard.edu account for me on what was then the Manila server so that I’d be using the same software as the rest of the group and would quit asking questions about Radio Userland. Having one more blog was great for my attention-deficit multi-platform blogging, since I kept using Radio Userland, and also had a Blogger account going. Around the same time, an earlier Manila blog host I’d been using went out of business, so this “Red Liner” became my place to keep learning about that software.
After both Dave and I left Massachusetts, the nice folks at Berkman let me keep the blog. The Harvard site migrated to WordPress just around the time that I migrated to Virginia, and to even more blogs. While I’d threatened to podcast for years, it took a very streamlined tool from WordPress — and freely available audio files at archive.org — to finally get me using the technology with JHeroes.com
LANDMARK: I’d argue that what is now called “Podcasting” was born in September 2003, when Winer created what he called a “special RSS feed” for another Berkman blogger, Christopher Lydon, and told us about it at a Thursday night blogger meeting.
I don’t think Lydon was even at the meeting that night. Former host of the NPR talk show “The Connection,” he had interviewed bloggers on the radio as early as 1999. Starting in March 2003 as a Berkman fellow, he had been interviewing bloggers, political figures and others, much the way he had done on radio. His Manila blog allowed him to include links to his interviews as MP3 files, but did not yet add them as “enclosures” in the RSS feed.
Instead, Winer created a new feed in September and announced his intention to release a few audio episodes from Lydon’s earlier blog posts each week until the two were in sync.
As Dave said at the time:
One every couple of days for the next few weeks, and then updated whenever Chris posts a new interview. This should be the chicken that lays the egg that finally bootstraps enclosures in RSS aggregators. So far (as far as I know) only Radio supports enclosures, and it doesn’t do it very well. Chris’s interviews are the perfect application for enclosures. All of a sudden Chris is interested, thanks to a post by Adam Curry. How can we increase the utility of these fantastic interviews? I’m on a mission.
Winer and others at Berkman organized two “Bloggercon” conferences that school year, one in October and one the following April. At one or both, CDs of Lydon’s interviews were passed around, along with word of the audio-attachment RSS feed idea.
Curry, visiting from England, I think, contributed to the idea. One of his blogs at the time sandwiched in a comment between obituaries for John Ritter and Johnny Cash, encouraging Winer to add Radio Userland style enclosure support to Manila.
Later, I remember a post in his blog that described his writing a script (either in Applescript or Frontier, I forget) that moved Lydon’s MP3 files from the Radio Userland downloads folder to the iTunes directory of his Mac, so that they could be synched to his iPod. As I recall, he named the script “ipodder” or “podcatcher.”
Other bloggers and developers created software with more sophisticated approaches to sending and receiving podcasts, and hundreds of “not exactly radio” programs started to appear. I remember Doc Searls doing some Google searches on the word “podcast” that tracked its usage — I even added links to them to an early Wikipedia page about podcasting. (Alas, they seem to be gone now.)
After my first ad lib draft of this item, Dave Winer tweeted back that my memory exercise here left out “big things and people.” Of course he and Lydon weren’t the only ones putting audio files on Web pages at the time. Maybe he’ll expand on his comment at Scripting News, his ancient blog. Or not. He’s talked about the topic there before.
Even before the Web took off, networking guru Carl Malamud had created Internet Talk Radio, broadcasting in 1993 as the first radio station on the Internet. He came to UNC and demonstrated it for us when I was in grad school. His “Geek of the Week” interview archive from back then is still a fascinating slice of history, housed at his Town.Hall.Org site.
However, Winer, Lydon and the Bloggercon sessions added RSS attachment syndication, high-quality content and visibility to the idea of sharing audio online, and along with faster Internet connections they certainly increased momentum for multimedia ‘casting in the blogging community. And they were the only folks doing that whom I’d met at the time, which is why I’ve gone on and on about them here. This is a blog-reminiscence, not a comprehensive historical essay.
Early in 2004, a British techno-journalist whose name escapes me interviewed Lydon and others about audio-blogging in general, and raised the question of what to call it. “Podcasting” was one of his suggestions. (Found him, and more in a blog post I’d forgotten about:My own 2005 Podcasting & Videoblogging essay; Updated link to 2004 Ben Hammersley story.)
Other fans incorporated the word into Web addresses, and “audio bloggers” everywhere instantly became “podcasters” — even if their sites were designed more for click-to-play access than the original “subscribe and automatically download each new MP3″ idea.
As more buzz and podcasting programs were developed, Apple itself picked up on the name “podcast,” and expanded iTunes and the iTunes Store to handle RSS-enclosure MP3 audio subscriptions. NPR programs and audio-bloggers, including old-time-radio experts, quickly filled my own “podcast” subscription list.
I suspect Jim Widner’s “Crime Photographer” or “Big Town” episodes on “Radio Detective Story Hour” and some Green Hornet episodes on an early “Superheroes” podcast at LibSyn were the ones that raised my interest in the wide variety of newspaper reporters and editors in old radio dramatic series.
As you’ll see from my category lists at JHeroes, or my list of more than 40 classic “newspaper film” radio adaptations, it turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg.
So… thanks to Dave, Berkman Center, Adam, Jim and all the old time radio collectors whose work made http://jheroes.com possible! I’m writing it using WordPress, posting blog items about radio episodes while I write longer pages (the menu at the top of the screen) about series and themes. With any luck, someday I’ll feel I’ve put enough thought into it to get a book publisher interested. Wish me luck.
Footnote: Christopher Lydon left Berkman to work on a series of blog-radio hybrid projects. As of this writing, he is doing his Radio Open Source at Brown University.