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.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“I am Thinking Of Your Voice”: Gender, Audio Compression, and a Cyberfeminist Theory of Oppression: Robin James
DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past: Andrew Salvati
SO! Podcast #2: Behind the Podcast: Building Intimate Venues on the Internet – Andreas Duus Pape
The Top Ten Sounding Out! Posts of 2020-2022!
It’s baaaaack! For your end-of-the year reading pleasure, here are the Top Ten Posts published within the last three years (totals as of 12/8/22). Read and re-read this brilliance today–and often! And please do listen out for us in 2023– our Racial Bias in Speech AI series co-edited with Johann Diedrick is already in the works for May 2023 and a new CFP related to a print edition (!!) of Sounding Out! just launched! Please take good care, stay safe and well, and we’ll see you in January. Thank you for your readership and continued support. We’re here because you are here. –JS
10). A Feast of Silence: Listening as Stoic Practice
. . .Over the past decade, Stoicism, which teaches that self-discipline, moderation, and emotional equanimity are key to overcoming hardship and living a good life, has had something of a revival as a self-help paradigm – and Holiday has been one of its most energetic evangelists. Articles in Vice, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Guardian, Forbes, Wired, and Sports Illustrated have all taken note of his influence among Silicon Valley tech workers, corporate executives, professional athletes, military personnel, and celebrities to whom he markets the philosophy as a “life-hack”; his six best-selling books on the subject, meanwhile, have positioned him as perhaps the most commercially successful author in a mushrooming genre of Stoic literature; and The Daily Stoic’s A-level guest list, which has included Malcom Gladwell, Camilla Cabello, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlamagne Tha God, has established Stoicism’s cultural cachet as a practical guide for living, and positioned Holiday as its authoritative interpreter. . . [Click here to read the full post!]
9). Voice as Ecology: Voice Donation, Materiality, Identity
I first heard about voice donation while listening to “Being Siri,” an experimental audio piece about Erin Anderson donating her voice to Boston-based voice donation company, VocaliD. Like a digital blood bank of sorts, VocaliD provides a platform for donating one’s voice via digital audio recordings. These recordings are used to help technicians create a custom digital voice for a voiceless individual, providing an alternative to the predominately white, male, mechanical-sounding assistive technologies used by people who cannot vocalize for themselves (think Stephen Hawking). VocaliD manufactures voices that better match a person’s race, gender, ethnicity, age, and unique personality. To me, VocaliD encapsulates the promise, complexity, and problematic nature of our current speech AI landscape and serves as an example of why we need to think critically about sound technologies, even when they appear to be wholly beneficial. . . [Click here to read the full post!]
8). Broadcast Kidnapping: How the Rise of the Radio led to the Fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier
On January 23, 1973, Jean-Claude Duvalier, only 18 months into his life-long appointment, received a call that threatened to profoundly destabilize his nascent presidency. On the other end was Clinton E. Knox, a close political ally and advisor, who also happened to be the US Ambassador to Haiti. Knox, Jean-Claude was informed, along with US consul general Ward Christensen were being held hostage at a residence just outside of Port-au-Prince. To secure the safe return of two high-ranking US officials, the captors demanded the release of political prisoners, a hefty ransom, and a plane to facilitate their escape. The kidnappers “meant business,” reported The Washington Post, Times Herald on Jan 26, 1973, and during the call, Knox warned Jean-Claude of the severity of the situation, that they ”threatened to blow my head off, if they didn’t get what they wanted” . . . [Click here to read the full post!]
7). “Vous Ecoutez La Voix du Peuple”: The Kreyol Language Pirate Radio Stations of Flatbush, Brooklyn
‘A lot of these stations, especially the Haitian stations, they have such an extensive music library that a song will come on the radio and all of a sudden my mom is like, ‘Oh my God! Your grandma used to have this record and she played it every Saturday!’ says Joan Martinez, a young Haitian-American born in the US and a former program host on some of the unlicensed Kreyol language stations. “Now she’s transported back to being on the island, with the big radio that’s a piece of furniture in the living room. People are chatting, little drinks are flowing about, my grandmother milling about in a gorgeous dress. It’s kind of like that whole nostalgia era that unfortunately was probably lost because of the political turmoil in Haiti. So it’s harkening back to a good time, to a simpler time, a better time, a more carefree era.” . . . [Click here to read the full post!]
6). “One Scream is All it Takes: Voice Activated Personal Safety, Audio Surveillance, and Gender Violence
María Edurne Zuazu
Just a few days ago, London Metro Police Officer Wayne Couzens pled guilty to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by, a 33-year-old woman he abducted while she walked home from a friend’s house. Since the news broke of her disappearance in March 2021, the UK has been going through a moment of national “soul-searching.” The national reckoning has included a range of discussions–about casual and spectacular misogynistic violence, about a victim-blaming criminal justice system that fails to address said violence–and responses, including a vigil in south London that was met with aggressive policing, that has itself entered into and furthered the UK’s soul-searching. There has also been a surge in the installation of personal safety apps on mobile phones; One Scream (OS), “voice activated personal safety,” is one of them. . .[Click here to read the full post!]
5). Teaching Soundwalks in a Course on Gentrification, Black Music, and Corporate America
Rami Toubia Stucky
On May 5, 2018, the C-ville Weekly, a newspaper based out of Charlottesville, Virginia, published an article titled “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: new apartment complex promises at least one of those.” The headline referred to the complex being built at 600 West Main St. in Charlottesville. The complex has since been completed and studio bedrooms currently cost more than $1000 a month. As the C-ville Weekly headline shows, the developers were using the term and connotations of “rock ’n’ roll” to sell exclusive – and in many ways unaffordable – housing.
After reading this headline, I began to develop an idea for a summer course at my institution, the University of Virginia (UVA). I ultimately titled that course “Black Music and Corporate America” which I offered online during the summer of 2021 (syllabus available for download via the link above). Although the course discussed varied content – from the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-gendered histories of rock and roll to the endorsement of conspicuous forms of consumption in hip hop – I wanted to spend one unit focusing on the interrelationship between music, corporate America, and gentrification. I strove to solidify this connection by assigning two related articles. The first article, by geographer and sociologist Brandi Thomson Summers, argues that black residents in Washington D.C. adopt go-go music as a form of reclamation aesthetics to combat their city’s increasingly rampant gentrification. In the second article, ethnomusicologist Allie Martin conducts a soundwalk of D.C.’s Shaw District to forefront the experience of a black woman in the city and help displace white hearing as the default standard of interpreting sound (see Sounding Out!’s Soundwalking While POC series from Fall 2019). These two articles served as a foundation for one of the assignments the students had to complete in class: conducting a soundwalk of their own in which they had to walk around a field site of their choosing and think critically about the sounds they were hearing. . .[Click here to read the full post!]
4). Archivism and Activism: Radio Haiti and the Accountability of Educational Institutions
For four years, I spent forty hours a week in a cubicle in a converted tobacco warehouse with noise-cancelling headphones over my ears, listening to and describing the entire audio archive of Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haïti-Inter. Though my title was “project archivist,” I am not an archivist by training. But I am compelled to compile, assemble, and preserve stories from lost people and lost worlds. Sound is more intimate than printed words or video. With sound, voices are inside your head, as close as another person can be. As I processed the Radio Haiti collection, I would forget that many of the voices I heard every day belonged to people I never knew in life. Sometimes in my dreams I would see the station’s director, Jean Dominique, alive and laughing. . . [Click here to read the full post!]
3).Listen to yourself!: Spotify, Ancestry DNA, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century
Alexander W. Cowan
If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like? A few answers, at random: In 1986, the biologist and amateur musician Susumo Ohno assigned pitches to the nucleotides that make up the DNA sequence of the protein immunoglobulin, and played them in order. The gene, to his surprise, sounded like Chopin.
With the advent of personalized DNA sequencing, a British composition studio will do one better, offering a bespoke three-minute suite based on your DNA’s unique signature, recorded by professional soloists—for a 300GBP basic package; or 399GBP for a full orchestral arrangement.
But the most recent answer to this question comes from the genealogy website Ancestry.com, which in Fall 2018 partnered with Spotify to offer personalized playlists built from your DNA’s regional makeup. For a comparatively meager $99 (and a small bottle’s worth of saliva) you can now not only know your heritage, but, in the words of Ancestry executive Vineet Mehra, “experience” it. Music becomes you, and through music, you can become yourself. . . [Click here to read the full post!]
2).Sonic Lessons of the Covid-19 Soundscape
Sarah Mayberry Scott
It’s understandable to resist reading or thinking about Covid in late-2021, even as the Delta variant’s new surges are making headlines around the world. Covid has surrounded and overwhelmed us for over a year, and many people’s reluctance to engage meaningfully with it at this time is fueled by feelings of fatigue, mental exhaustion, and frustration. However, I urge in this post that we have a continued responsibility to sustain our sonic engagement and listen to what the Covid-19 soundscape teaches us.
Covid-19, as most of us now know now, is a virus caused by the coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2. While the symptoms of Covid-19 are many and varied, one symptom seemed most vital and censorious—a nagging and persistent dry cough that became referred to as the “Covid cough” in everyday vernacular. The Covid cough became an intrusive and yet all too familiar presence in the Covid soundscape—an isolated acoustic environment that allows us to study its characteristics. For instance, investigations within the Covid soundscape have studied the noise annoyances of traffic, neighbors, and personal dwellings; have recorded the quieting of the usually bustling streets of New York City; have researched whale stress hormones linked to less noise pollution in our ocean waters; and have analyzed the reception and aural imagery of sirens. I seek to add to this research by bringing the sounds of the Covid body (or a body perceived to have Covid) into the larger soundscape conversation . . . [Click here to read the full post!]
1).A Day on the Dial in Cap Haïtien, Haiti
Fabrice Joseph is a mender, set up on a street corner in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. He shows me a red plastic toolbox filled with supplies — thread, wires, scraps of fabric—which he can use to fix a jammed zipper or stitch up a torn backpack strap. I stop because he’s cradling a radio set in his hands, tuned to the city’s most popular station: Radio Venus.
We meet on a quiet day; Fabrice has been sitting on the stoop for five hours already with no work. Another day he’s engrossed in assembling a large umbrella—the kind food vendors use for shade—but the radio is still on, now propped on a ledge just behind his head. He replaces the batteries almost weekly, because the radio is always on. In the morning Radio Venus plays news, Fabrice tells me, followed by music as the day heats up. Then in the afternoon he’ll hear sports or perhaps a religious program, before the station returns to music in the evening.
This arc Fabrice describes is designed to follow the arc of his day. In this post, I trace that link: between the rhythms of radio programming and the rhythms of daily life, to show how formatting choices create a heightened sense of ‘liveness’ on Haiti’s airwaves, with all content located in a specific moment: the present moment. . .[Click here to read the full post!]
Featured Image: “New Years, about to unfurl” by Flickr User Darwin Bell, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Top Ten Sounding Out! Posts of 2019!
The Top Ten Sounding Out! Posts of 2018!
The Top Ten Sounding Out! Posts of 2017!
The Top Ten Sounding Out! Posts of 2016!