In the 1890s, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi left a lasting legacy when he sent a wireless telegraph message via Morse Code to a recipient. By the turn of the 1900s, Marconi’s innovation would give rise to an entirely new industry, one focused on creating new ways for people to communicate even across vast distances: radio.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, radio would not only play a major role in the international correspondence of countries fighting in both World Wars but it also became a widely popular phenomenon amongst the general public. By the mid-1920s, there were hundreds of licensed radio stations hosting news broadcasts, comedy shows, dramas, live music, sports programs and other forms of entertainment.
A century later, it’s not hard to spot the parallels between what made radio one of the most popular content mediums in history and the explosive growth of radio’s evolution in podcasting. Though there are some unique differences between the two mediums, I believe podcasters should still pay respect to how the evolution of radio gave rise to the advent of podcasting.
The Rise of Contemporary Audio Entertainment
On October 30, 1938 — the evening before Halloween — Orsen Welles hosted a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, “converting the 40-year-old novel into fake news bulletins describing a Martian invasion of New Jersey.” While Welles and his team reportedly had no intention to deceive listeners into believing the broadcast was in any way real, Welles would later go on to say in a 1960 court disposition about his desire to release the broadcast, “in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening…and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.”
Welles’ broadcast dramatization of Wells’s novel would inspire generations of future broadcasters and actors to script and release their own content in similar fashions, albeit perhaps not as intensely or realistically. Decades later, particularly during the internet boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, many technologies like sound design and broadcasting became digitized. This next evolution in tech allowed for hobbyist creatives to create and produce their own audio shows in an entirely new format: podcasts.
Nevertheless, marketing those shows and getting audiences to listen to them was still as cumbersome as it was costly. It wasn’t until two additional innovations were released — Apple’s iPod and its iTunes audio platform — that podcasters would find a cheaper, more accessible way to produce and release their audio content to listeners. Suddenly, all that was required to make a new audio show was a microphone, an internet connection and a message that connected with listeners.
Transitioning From Radio to Podcasting Through Technology
With the growth of digital technology in the 2000s, listeners opted for ad-free MP3 files they could listen to anywhere they could bring their iPod or other MP3 players. Although radio was still a prevalent content medium, it often relied on older audiences for its success. Newer, younger listeners less familiar with radio gravitated toward iTunes and other digital platforms to discover and share audio shows, fueled in no small part by the advent of social media in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
During this time, the broader concept of audio dramas in podcasting became entwined with elements first explored in television. Informal dialogue, multilayered sound mixing and episodic storytelling led to the immense popularity of podcast audio dramas like We’re Alive — A Story of Survival. Another podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, utilized these same elements but marketed itself as a surreal radio news show with comedic undertones. Both these shows were able to grow immense online followings through their reliance on newly available innovations in audio broadcasting technology, as well as through their blurring of lines between reality and fiction, just as Orsen Welles’ infamous 1938 broadcast had.
As podcasting continued growing throughout the 2010s, additional genres found dedicated listeners in younger generations of listeners. Shows like Serial, which blended storytelling elements of fictional thrillers with the draw of true crime, were scripted in such a way that listeners became as much a part of the stories they were listening to as the ones telling it. Now, at the time of this article being written in 2022, these elements have practically become the norm in thousands of podcasts that serve to entertain listeners.
When we think about the global impact radio broadcasting had on life and society throughout the 20th century, it’s difficult not to see similarities in the podcasting industry’s impact on us in the modern era. Listeners still possess a strong desire to be educated or entertained by the shows they listen to, and podcasters likewise must rely on a unique blend of technical knowledge and authentic storytelling to maintain their listeners as a loyal audience.
The history of radio set the tone for contemporary audio media like podcasts. It is on-the-go information, entertainment or education that listeners can consume in their own time. Both radio and podcasts are deeply intimate audio mediums most often listened to solo. Furthermore, audio media is one of the only mediums that listeners can engage with and consume while multitasking, which other content mediums (i.e., reading and watching) are unable to provide.
In this way, podcasting has almost come full circle since Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds nearly a century ago. Through a combination of technological evolution, captivating dialogue and immersive storytelling, every podcaster today can trace the roots of their success back to the advent of radio.