“Video killed the radio star,” as the early-80s synth-pop hit says. You might have expected the podcaster to succumb to the same inglorious fate — going out not with a bang but a whimper in the face of Netflix and Hulu. But you’d be wrong: this once-scrappy, now superstar medium isn’t going anywhere.
Written by Lucia Tang
In 2018, Apple hosted more than 500,000 active podcasts. A year later, and that number has already skyrocketed past 750,000. If there’s a single takeaway from these stratospheric figures, it’s this: there’s a show for everyone. Whether you’re an erudite stoner intrigued by the history of hallucinogenics, or a gym-nerd longing to dissect your favorite Simone Biles routine, there’s a podcast seemingly tailor-made for your commute.
Say Why to Drugs launched in 2016, and GymCastic’s debut came four years earlier. But literary podcasts have been there from the beginning. Since a tech journalist coined the term in 2004, bookworms and wordsmiths have used the podcast as a platform for telling stories about, well, storytelling.
In this post, we’ll take a look at how the literary podcast has evolved — putting it in the context of three watershed moments in the medium’s history, as pinpointed by media expert Nicholas Quah. From its fandom-rooted origins to its longform-focused present, here’s a short history of the literary podcast.
2005: iTunes brings podcasting out of the shadows
In February of 2004, British journalist Ben Hammersley smashed the words “iPod” and “broadcast” together to coin the word “podcast.” Hammersley was just trying to crank out a Guardian column under the threat of a deadline, but he inadvertently created a new media concept — one that quickly took on a life of its own.
Pay attention to the “iPod” part: Apple cast its shadow over the medium from the beginning, hovering over it at its naming like a corporatized godparent. But podcasting didn’t really take off until a year later — thanks, again, to Apple.
The tech giant added podcasts to iTunes in July of 2005. The move made 3,000 shows available for free — bringing this fledgling medium to the attention of digital denizens across the world. Fast forward to December, and the New Oxford American Dictionary was declaring “podcast” the Word of the Year.
A number of literary podcasts rode this first wave into mainstream discoverability, most of them rooted in fan culture. 2005 coincided with the height of Pottermania, so naturally, two iconic Potterhead podcasts launched on iTunes that same magical year.
MuggleCast, an offshoot of the popular fansite MuggleNet, began as a one-off discussion of news items that would interest fans of the Boy Who Lived — including the then hot-off-the-press sixth installment, Half-Blood Prince. PotterCast, meanwhile, spun off from another powerful fansite, The Leaky Cauldron. Its joyful, yet gimlet-eyed, analysis of the books and films was peak fandom, something J.K. Rowling herself clearly appreciated — it was the first podcast to which she granted an interview.
Soon, more general fiction- and craft-focused podcasts joined the fray. In 2006, journalism professor Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, started offering Quick and Dirty Tips to writers of all stripes — from the businessperson composing a high-stakes email to the newbie novelist prepping a manuscript for a contest.
Within a year, the storied New Yorker magazine launched their own fiction podcast, giving decorated writers a space to talk shop before a virtual audience. In retrospect, this foreshadowed literary podcasting’s institutional turn, as more and more glossy, venerable publications dipped their toes into a medium no longer quite so indie. But this trend would really explode in….
2008: New mobile technologies let you listen to podcasts on the go
That year, we see Apple’s intervention on the history of podcasting yet again. The iPhone 3G allowed a newly minted generation of podcast devotees to download episodes on the go. Of course, Android phones weren’t far behind: owners of the new G1 could take their podcasts running with them too.
Podcasting’s move to mobile exploded the industry. Branded shows popped up, indie casting continued to explod, and ad revenue started trickling in to help them all keep running. Literary podcasting was no exception.
On the branded side of things, Live! From City Lights (2009) came out of the famed San Francisco bookstore of the same name. Already a legend among Bay Area bibliophiles, City Lights quietly built up a national audience by sharing readings and interviews — live-streaming in-store events so bookworms everywhere could be there in spirit.
Meanwhile, indie literary podcasting turned increasingly towards genre and craft. Shows like SF Squeecast (2011) and Tales to Terrify (2012) took a broader approach to fandom than the MuggleCasts of yore — though they shared the same giddy enthusiasm for fictional worlds. On the craft side of things, Writing Excuses (2008) offered a sort of MFA in an MP3, perfect for scribblers theoretically plugging away at their books without making much tangible progress. For those a little further along in the process, thriller writer Joanna Penn started sharing book marketing and publicity advice in The Creative Penn (2009).
Podcasting continued to chug along in this fashion. Whether institutional or indie, they were popular — but still somewhat siloed, not quite as universal an experience as, say, watching TV. But that began to change in….
2014: Serial (and Apple) turn podcasting into a blockbuster industry
Like a deus ex machina, Apple seemed to be present at every turning point in podcasting history. The medium’s mainstreaming in 2014 was no exception: iOS 8 came bundled with a native podcast app, making new episodes more discoverable than ever before. But for once, the tech giant arguably played second fiddle to another cultural force: the first superpodcast, Serial.
An investigative journalism program helmed by NPR veteran Sarah Koenig, it elevated the decade-old medium to a new level of narrative refinement. Serial brought nonfiction stories to life with deft storytelling and rigorous reportage, diving deep into a single case. It reached 5 million downloads, a first in podcasting history. And advertisers with deep pockets began to take notice.
What did this newfound visibility mean for the literary podcast? In some ways, it was business as usual. Fandom enthusiasts continued to dissect their treasured texts on the air — including a couple of Ivy League Potterheads semi-ironically reading Rowling as scripture in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text (2016). At the same time, bookish organizations — from Penguin (2015) to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (2017) — kept raising and maintaining brand awareness with their podcasts.
Yet Serial’s influence didn’t leave literary podcasting untouched. On the contrary, its longform, story-focused format helped shape a bookcasting landscape increasingly more seasonal than episodic in scope, unspooling a single, cohesive narrative over the course of a whole years’ episodes. The Bestseller Experiment (2016), for instance, followed two writers as they tried to grind out a chart-topping book in just 52 weeks. Similarly, Bestseller by Reedsy (2018) tracks a different indie author’s self-publishing journey every season.
The history of the literary podcast is, in some ways, about a powerful corporation’s ability to shape culture. But it’s also a story of grassroots ingenuity and indie grit, of venerable lit mags and legendary presses braving the risks of a strange new medium. Bookstores or book bloggers, Potterheads or publications, podcasting was — and is — for them all.
About the Author
Lucia Tang is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Reedsy also provides tools to help authors write and format their books, as well as free learning courses and webinars to help them learn more about writing and publishing. In Lucia’s spare time, she enjoys drinking coffee and planning her historical fantasy novel.