Robin Williams and the Shazbot Over the First Podcast
Histories of technology have politics. The way we discuss the emergence and development of media technologies implicates the priorities and interests of those telling the story, and how we understand a technology’s meaning and potential.
Among podcasters familiar with the history of the medium, Dave Winer– the developer behind the RSS feed –is usually credited as the progenitor of the form. This past summer, however, this narrative was challenged by Podnews editor James Cridland–(good naturedly, I presume)–who suggested that the comedian Robin Williams may actually have been the first podcaster, predating Winer’s RSS (“Rich Site Summary,” or “Really Simple Syndication”) distribution model by a few months. These origin stories have important technical differences that lead to political repercussions: the Winer narrative envisions podcasting as open and decentralized, and therefore theoretically an inherently emancipatory technology. The Williams narrative, in contrast, locates the birth of the medium within a closed, corporate-controlled platform – which just might mean there’s nothing inherrently open or democratic about internet-distributed audio content at all.
Though both perspectives are undoubtedly “great white man” visions of the medium’s history–or more precisely versions of Susan Douglas’s “inventor-hero”–what’s particularly interesting here is how both views implicate a politics of what podcasts are and what they ought to be. Although this quarrel was a dispute between colleagues that was ultimately abandoned, I argue it’s well worth a deeper examination, as the ideological conflict at its center isn’t just about the past, but rather competing visions of podcasting’s future – over the continued flourishing or gradual eclipse of RSS.
Indeed, debates over the technical definition of a podcast, and over who was—and who was not–the first podcaster based on that definition, reveal anxieties among long-time podcasters and developers about corporate consolidation in the industry as well as the apparent irrelevance of technical distinctions to listeners and creators who may not appreciate the way in which walled gardens negate the very thing that makes podcasting so special. Likewise, to suggest that podcasting may have first emerged as a proprietary form may retroactively justify corporate platform enclosures in the present. And, though I’m just as suspicious of corporate hegemony as the next person, nuancing the early history of the medium can help us think through the distinctions between technology and cultural form.
In the consensus version of podcasting’s history, the emergence of the medium is typically traced to software developer Dave Winer’s publication – with significant contribution from the former MTV VJ and Internet entrepreneur Adam Curry– of RSS (“Rich Site Summary,” or “Really Simple Syndication”) version 0.92 in December 2000, which allowed for the distribution of digital audio files. The first podcast feed followed in January 2001, and, with the launch of Curry’s iPodder podcast aggregator and his program Daily Source Code in 2004, podcasting began to coalesce as both technology and cultural form. In the 20-odd years since, the medium’s technical infrastructure has remained essentially unchanged: RSS continues to be the predominant format of podcast syndication.
So this past July, when Podnews editor James Cridland cheekily suggested that it was not Dave Winer, nor “the podfather” Adam Curry, but comedian Robin Williams who had actually been the world’s first podcaster, industry graybeards were quick to push back on his claim.
Cridland’s argument went like this: As an early investor in Audible.com, Williams launched a bi-weekly talk show called RobinWilliams@Audible in early 2000 (several months before Winer’s pioneering RSS), which listeners could download onto their mp3 players. Subscribers who owned an Audible Mobile Player could even have RobinWilliams@Audible automatically pushed to their device. “Of course, that’s what the first podcast was, too,” Cridland noted, “something you downloaded to your computer, then synched to your mp3 player.”
The crucial distinction, however, was that RobinWilliams@Audible was not distributed via RSS. For some, this meant that the show was definitively not a podcast – and Cridland’s claim patently absurd.
On The New Media Show, for instance, Todd Cochrane, founder-CEO of Blubrry, and Rob Greenlee, VP of Libsyn, spent nearly eighteen minutes on the subject, recounting the early history of online file sharing and concluding that a podcast could only be a podcast if it used RSS. For Audible to suggest that they had been the first in podcasting (Cridland’s post relied in part on Audible founder Don Katz as a source) was ego-driven revisionism.
On Twitter (an ancient social media app where people used to go to eviscerate each other), Cridland’s article provoked a squall of exceptions, which generally argued that downloadable audio without RSS does not a podcast make; and though Audible’s platform may have been innovative, and even shared some characteristics with podcasting, the fact that its programs were limited to the company’s proprietary platform meant that they were definitively not podcasts.
Rob Greenlee, for example, replied to Cridland’s article by clarifying that Audible was a precursor platform for RSS, but that its audio programs were definitively not podcasting. When Cridland pushed back, noting the automatic download feature on Audible, Greenlee’s co-host Todd Cochrane replied that this feature still did not make RobinWilliams@Audiblea podcast; and he insisted that he wasn’t going to budge on this point. A minor flap ensued, which ended with Cridland resignedly saying that he wished he had never written the article in the first place.In the end, even Dave Winer got involved, arguing that a piece of downloadable audio media had to have an RSS feed and be open to anyone, using any client, to qualify as a podcast.
To get a sense of the response to Cridland’s article on Twitter, and to let participants speak for themselves, I have selected a sampling of replies to Cridland’s original tweet teasing the article and reproduced them below. The conversation is arranged roughly in chronological order.
Admittedly, this was a very niche dispute – a handful of predominantly white tech dudes arguing over which white dude(s) had been the first podcaster. After a day or two, they all moved on.
But however minor (and however much Cridland may have wished he hadn’t written the article), the flap over RobinWilliams@Audible is a useful lens with which to understand contemporary debates over the future of podcasting: about whether the decentralized and open RSS-based ecosystem will long endure, or whether walled gardens—“limited set[s] of technology or media information provided to users with the intention of creating a monopoly or secured information system“—will prevail.
To better understand, however, let’s back up a bit.
By the fall of 2000, Dave Winer had earned a reputation as a pioneer of web syndication – he had been credited with launching the first blog – and someone who, according to the podcaster and author Eric Nuzum, “believed in making systems open, democratic, and easily accessible,” pushing back against the trend toward centralization and proprietary control of Internet infrastructures.
On a trip to New York that October, Winer met up with Adam Curry, who had been closely following his work. Over several hours in Curry’s hotel room, the entrepreneur attempted to convince Winer that web syndication technologies could be leveraged to distribute audio and video files – a vision of the Internet as “Everyman’s broadcast medium” – if only the so-called “last yard” problem of slow DSL connections could be resolved. By his own admission, Winer at first didn’t quite understand what Curry had in mind, but he was open experimenting with using RSS as “virtual bandwidth” that could deliver large media files during off-peak hours. In January 2001, Winer successfully used an RSS enclosure tag to distribute a single Grateful Dead song (it was U.S. Blues), inaugurating the first podcast feed – though what he had created wouldn’t become known as a “podcast” for some time.
Though interest in RSS-delivered audio files was slow to develop (indeed, even Winer and Curry pursued other projects for a time), “it was not lost on … early adopters,” as Andrew Bottomley has observed, adding “that the technology shifted power to the audience and also opened up opportunities for more democratized radio production” (111-112). The days of corporate gatekeepers exercising oligopolistic control over the production and distribution of audio content seemed numbered; no longer would broadcasting be subject to an economy of scarcity. Theoretically anyone with web hosting, a microphone, and an RSS feed could set themselves up in the radio business.
Since those early days, RSS has become “the currency of podcasting,” to borrow a phrase from Dave Jones, Adam Curry’s Podcasting 2.0 collaborator. Indeed, as Cridland himself wrote in his primer, “What is a Podcast?,” technically speaking, a “podcast” is comprised of an audio file, without DRM restrictions, that is available to download, and is “distributed via an RSS feed using an <enclosure> tag.”
But RSS is not without its detractors. Last July, for instance, Anchor.fm co-founder Michael Mignano argued that while technical standards like RSS (or HTTP, or SMTP, or SMS) provide a “common language” that allows for the rapid spread of new technologies, standardization inevitably stifles growth. “The tradeoff,” he wrote, “is that a lower barrier to entry means more products get created in a category, causing market fragmentation and ultimately, a slow pace of innovation.” The consequence of this “Standards Innovation Paradox” is that even as podcast listening apps proliferate, because they must conform to the RSS standard, the differences between them are superficial. Proprietary systems, Mignano argued, offer an alternative, allowing developers the flexibility to build – and rapidly improve – dynamic user experiences.
Naturally, Mignano pointed to Spotify – which acquired Anchor in 2019 – as an example of how closed systems could break the “curse” of standardization: When the company began to expand from music to other forms of audio content, he wrote, there was some speculation that the company would launch a dedicated podcast app. But, “if they had done so, they’d have to contend with the aforementioned ocean of podcast listening apps which were all offering users roughly the same features that were limited by the standard.” Instead, “Spotify used their existing music user base inside of the existing Spotify app to distribute podcasts to hundreds of millions of users.”
But this framing soft pedals Spotify’s aggressive attempts to steer podcasting away from RSS and toward platform enclosure. As John L. Sullivan argued in a 2019 paper, Spotify’s emphasis on exclusive releases (which has included the removal of content previously available via RSS, like The Joe Budden Podcast), and its $340 million acquisitions of Anchor and Gimlet are all part of an effort to control distribution and “maximize the ‘winner take all’ functions of platforms.” More recently, Anchor has stopped automatically generating an RSS feed at the time of publication, making it an opt-in function (meaning that creators have to know what RSS is to have their podcast distributed to directories otherthan Spotify). “We’ve been able to replace RSS for on-platform distribution,” noted one Spotify executive at a recent investor event, “which means that podcasts created on our platform are no longer held back by this outdated technology.”
Given the challenges that platform enclosure poses to RSS, its defenders’ insistence that “it’s not a podcast if it doesn’t have an RSS feed, and it’s not a podcast app if you can’t add your own RSS feeds,” as an episode title of Curry and Jones’s Podcasting 2.0 puts it, is understandable. Or, as Cochrane declared on The New Media Show, “until you tear my RSS feed through my dead hands, podcasts technically are podcasts that are delivered via RSS.”
And understandable, too, is the prickly reaction to Cridland’s alternate history: To claim that RobinWilliams@Audible may have been the first podcast is to suggest that RSS – and the open and democratic values which it represents – are inessential; and more troubling, that proprietary systems are deeply rooted in the history of the medium.
Of course, there’s also the sticky fact that RobinWilliams@Audible premiered before the word “podcast” entered the lexicon. But even this history is messy. In his original coinage, the technologist Ben Hammersley applied the term to a variety of different forms of downloadable audio media, including Audible originals like In Bed with Susie Bright. According to this early conception, in other words, podcasting described a cultural practice rather than a specific distribution infrastructure.
It is likely, too, that technological distinctions are irrelevant to listeners. Citing data from Edison Research showing that a significant percentage of listeners use Spotify and YouTube to access podcasts (even though content on these platforms don’t meet the strict technical definition of a “podcast”), Cridland has suggested that, for most people, podcasting is simply “on-demand audio. Like a radio show, but on-demand.”
Likewise, the question of whom the first podcaster was is of narrow interest. “Who cares?” an exasperated Cochrane finally concluded.
But reviewing the pre-2004 history of downloadable audio media can open up questions of the interpretive flexibility of technology (how technological artifacts come to have different meanings for different groups of users) and rhetorical closure (when the need for alternative designs diminish) that the late Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker identified as key concepts in the Social Construction of Technology.
And so, rather than arguing about whether RobinWilliams@Audible – or, for that matter, Cochrane’s audio file sharing on FidoNet in the early 1990s – was the “first” podcast, further examination of this complex genealogy suggests the more interesting questions of how and why online distribution of audio files was such a desirable goal that there were severalpaths to its development.
The flap over Robin Williams and the question of the first podcaster also gives us much needed insight into current discourse about corporate influence in the podcasting space. Also It provided a way for proponents of the decentralized Podcasting 2.0 movement to make a technological distinction between a desire for freedom and a desire for control. While the scuffle itself was short-lived, its dust is far from settling.
Featured Image of Robin Williams (2008) by Flickr User Shameek (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Andrew J. Salvati is an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications program at Drew University, where he teaches courses on podcasting and television studies. His research interests include media and cultural memory, television history, and mediated masculinity. He is the co-founder and occasional co-host of Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast, and Drew Archives in 10.
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In advance of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! finishes a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Past posts have examined Gimlet Media’s Fiction Podcast Homecoming, Amanda Lund’s The Complete Woman? Podcast Series, and how podcasts position listeners as “stoic.” Today’s entry examines how country music podcasts do–or do not–consider the sound of the music itself in their episodes. Enjoy! –JS
If you’re a country music fan, you might be aware of the genre’s central contradiction: for all the references to classic, traditional, “real” country music, most of this music has not been preserved. The genre’s history is disappearing. Many of country music’s best recordings will never make it to digital archives or streaming services, save for a few generous YouTubers who upload their personal record collections for public enjoyment. Just try to find Stoney Edwards’ 1971 classic Down Home in the Country or Patti Page’s 1951 collection Folk Song Favorites on the streaming platform of your choice. These albums didn’t even make it to CD.
Books about country music history are even more rare, and some of the most insightful publications are long out of print. If you’re lucky enough to score a copy of Philip Self’s Guitar Pull: Conversations with Country Music’s Legendary Songwriters, for instance, the book will set you back over $70. A search of the nation’s university libraries reveals just four copies available in the entire United Sates.
Within the academic world, though, a new generation of scholars is bringing country history to the forefront, all while complicating the inaccurate racialized mythos perpetuated by the industry. Among other exciting work, Amanda Marie Martinez recently published on the intersection of punk and country in Reagan-era Southern California, and Francesca Royster has an innovative piece of the power of country artist Valerie June (and dropping new book in October 2022 called Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions!) . The recent essay collection The Honky Tonk on the Left brings together a diverse cast of professors to challenge the received wisdom that the genre is solely home to political conservatism.
Beyond traditional academic channels, podcasting offers a new way of studying music history. The medium is both popular with the general public and tailor-made for sonic analysis. One of the best examples comes from Cocaine and Rhinestones, a podcast about the history of twentieth century country music. Hosted by Tyler Mahan Coe, the show examines forgotten or misunderstood country history while placing this history within the structural contexts of gender, race and class. Episode 2 of Season 1 breaks down country radio’s sexist gatekeeping, for example. Episode 7 of the first season covers Linda Martell, the first black woman to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, along with the racist label head who kick started her career. In Episode 3 of Season 2, Coe bluntly explains how the “sounds we associate with country music came from poor people working out techniques to produce art on cheap, low quality, often damaged, sometimes straight-up broken instruments.”
The obvious advantage of podcasting as a medium for telling music history is that you can listen to a given song as it’s being discussed. Traditionally, a music fan had to read a book or article, then go track down whatever recordings were discussed. Prior to the internet, this could easily be a multi-year endeavor of parsing through record stores, flea markets and garage sales. Now a fan can search for a song right after they read about it, and with a podcast like Cocaine and Rhinestones that research is already done.
In his 2014 SO! piece, “DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past”, Andrew Salvati argues that “podcasting can help us conceptualize an alternate cultural model of history – one that invites reconsideration of what counts as historical knowledge and interpretation, and about who is empowered to construct and access historical discourse.” While this DIY approach does not overturn elite control over podcasting, it opens space for history as an oral tradition, one which is more intimate and more empowering to listeners than, say, a university lecture or a high-budget, corporately sponsored program. Cocaine and Rhinestones is as DIY as a podcast can be; Coe writes, records and edits every episode himself.
The show’s power is most evident when compared to other recent attempts to bring country music history to a general audience. These popular histories tend to avoid critical analysis of the genre, repeating official narratives without scrutinizing how these narratives became official in the first place.
One example is Ken Burns’s PBS series Country Music (2019). Working with some of the biggest stars in the business, the documentary is more or less a retelling of long-known stories. Despite its $30 million budget, the series doesn’t manage to break new ground, all while smoothing over more complicated portraits for the sake of narrative ease.
The documentary’s most glaring failure is its treatment of race. As Kimberly Mack observes in her article “She’s A Country Girl All Right,” the first episode focuses “exclusively on the black and white origins of country, instead of the racism that obscured this shared history.” Even though the documentary interviews Rhiannon Giddens, an acclaimed musician and expert on the racist obfuscation of country music’s black roots, the documentary employs selective editing and voice-over narration to avoid confronting how these black roots continue to be ignored. Acknowledging the importance of figures such as DeFord Bailey, for example, the first person to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and the first musician to ever record in Nashville, is important, but a simple acknowledgment does not explain how the contributions of such a crucial figure are suppressed through an inaccurate racialized conception of the genre’s history.
In the world of podcasting, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History offers a disappointing rehash of country’s manufactured white southern roots. The episode “The King of Tears” (Season 2, Episode 6) seeks to reveal the secret behind country’s embrace of sad songwriting, but Gladwell ultimately fortifies an already whitewashed history.
Unlike Ken Burns, Gladwell does not approach country from within the industry. His episode is just one in a series of other, non-musical episodes. Like Ken Burns, though, Gladwell uses selectively edited interviews and voice-over narration to shoehorn a simplistic analysis of country music. Worse still, Gladwell doesn’t even acknowledge the genre’s multiracial origins. The episode presents a two-part theory. First, country music songwriting focuses on sad, autobiographically specific stories. Second, the only reason this sadness is communicable is because country music’s writers, performers and listeners are all part of the same social group. “It’s white, southern Protestants all the way down the line,” he says while discussing a list of critically acclaimed country performers.
The show is well edited and funded through corporate sponsorships. The podcast hops between Gladwell in the studio, on-sight interviews, and lush music clips. There is little discussion of the actual music, however. We hear next to nothing about instrumentation, production decisions or even singing style. When Gladwell wants explain why a particular song is sad, he just plays the song and talks over the recording. Take his analysis of “Golden Ring,” a 1976 duet from Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Gladwell introduces it as “a weeper,” but offers no explanation as to how the song conveys sadness.
A clip of the song starts playing at the 8:17 mark of the episode. The song fades but keeps playing in the background as Gladwell butts in to summarize the plot. He gives an anecdote from the songwriter, then the podcast cuts to an interview with the songwriter. The music stops while the songwriter speaks about a specific lyric, then comes back at full volume so the listener can hear the lyric in the final recording. We then go back to the interview sans music before hearing the final phrase of the song at full volume.
The transitions are smooth, and cutting between three sources of audio keeps the listener’s attention. Only later does the listener realize that very little was actually said about the song. In total, the section is just under a minute and a half, and barely thirty seconds is devoted to listening to the song. All we know is that it deals with divorce. We have no context for the recording and no explanation of why the song is uniquely sad.
Cocaine and Rhinestones offers the inverse––lower production quality with richer analysis. Compared to Coe’s better-funded peers, the show’s audio quality is sparse, especially in the first season. 128kps files in mono can only do so much sonic justice. Such limitations never hinder the historical message, though, and they might even enhance it. Cocaine and Rhinestones does not build a world with sweeping soundscapes and audio effects. It is Coe in his basement, more or less monologuing. There are no interviews. Music clips and the occasional radio or television broadcast are the only other thing you hear aside from Coe’s voice. For some, his voice takes getting used to, namely in the first few episodes of the series. You can hear Coe try to figure out how to talk within the context of a one-man show. His own family apparently chided him for the awkward initial performance, but he quickly found his groove, and by the mid-point of the first season he sounds clear and comfortable.
Coe was able to upgrade to stereo for the second season, allowing for more detailed sonic analysis. Just look at Episode 14 of Season 2, where Coe walks us through the writing and recording of George Jones’ 1970 hit “A Good Year for the Roses.” His analysis starts around the 1:23:28 mark.
As Coe explains, the record “opens with a rhythm section panned to the right and, in the left channel, a mysterious low-end swell, like a heavy dirigible lifting into flight, probably provided by a pedal steel player running their signal through a Jordan Boss Tone unit and a tape delay to mimic a cello.” Coe cuts out so we can hear the effect by itself. He then goes on to describe how those production choices pair with the lyrics to create one of the saddest recordings in Jones’s discography.
Whenever he discusses a moment in the song, he lets it play without voice-over. The transition between Coe’s voice and the song is less smooth than the transitions we hear in Gladwell’s podcast, but the comparatively abrupt cuts allow the listener to give their full attention to Coe, then to the song. By the end of the analysis, which runs significantly longer than Gladwell’s discussion of “Golden Ring,” we’ve listened to a combined minute and thirty seconds of “A Good Year for the Roses.” The setup takes longer, the observations are more detailed, and that patience lets the listener appreciate the devastating impact of specific artistic decisions.
While Cocaine and Rhinestones tackles everything from minute production choices to centuries-long historical arcs, the format of the show is simple. The first season covers a different artist every episode, while the second season is devoted to the life of George Jones. Episodes typically start with a historical anecdote––this could be the origin of the word ballad or the history of drag––then Coe details a given artist’s life, showing where they came from, what they contributed to the genre, and how their work is embedded within larger historical structures. Coe displays an impressive command of a range of topics, not just related to music but to a variety of historical subjects.
This attention to detail is a testament to Coe’s ability to not only listen but to help others listen with him. Even when episodes cross the two-hour mark, the main takeaway is that you have only scratched the surface. Sources are discussed in the show’s unique closing section, known as the Liner Notes. Coe explains why he chose to tell one story but not another, how a given book is useful (or useless) in relation to other books, and sometimes he will include asides that would have disrupted the episode’s main narrative. This is my favorite part of the show. It’s one of the best examples of annotated citation in any discipline (see season 2’s library here).
By openly discussing sources, not just sharing the books he read but detailing why, for example, a commonly cited source is not as accurate as previously assumed, Coe takes the extra step that big budget country histories won’t take. He shines a light on a suppressed history and explains how that history was suppressed in the first place. Cocaine and Rhinestones doesn’t just cherry pick a few examples to make a point––the show offers a patient, detailed analysis of how we came to understand what we now think of as country music and how the genre can be understood in new ways.
The second season recently ended, and a third is in the works.
Andrew Clark is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied physics and French. His undergraduate thesis, “Time, Space, and Capital: Walter Benjamin in Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ and René Clair’s Paris qui dort,” examined utopian imagery in early twentieth century Paris. He currently lives in Cincinnati, OH and works at a local brewery. You can contact him at andrewclark.me.
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