Updated on 30/09/2022

Spotify has published “#2021WRAPPED,” the annual year-end list that ranks the things users listened to most around the world. In a year where the consumption of streaming audio content has increased exponentially as a result of the pandemic, there is one fact that jumps out at once: in 2021, many more people listened to a podcast for the first time compared to the previous year.  

“Podcast” is one of those buzzwords that have been circulating on the web for years now but around which there is still some confusion. What are podcasts? What contributes to making them an object of entertainment that is particularly appreciated by audiences all over the world? What are the main characteristics of podcasts? And what are the most successful Italian podcasts? 

In this post, we will try to provide an answer to some of these questions. We’ll also tell the story of a revolutionary format, and to do so, we’ll start from the beginning, from the moment the “podcast” format appeared for the first time, even though it wasn’t yet called that and many of its distinctive features already existed. 

Podcasts defined: origins and how they evolve 

To explain what podcasts are, let’s look at some definitions. 

According to Treccani, a podcast is any “digitized audio or video piece, diffused through the telematic network using the Rss data coding protocol.”  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “a program (as of music or talk) made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet.” Ipsos Digital Audio provided this definition: “unedited audio content, available via the internet that can be both streamed and archived and listened to offline. In other words, editorial content that is natively digital and created for listening, not the transposition into audio of content created for other platforms.” 

The term “podcast” is one that is destined to be easily memorized and quickly enter common usage. It is made up of the nouns pod (pod, container), also present in Apple’s iPod and cast, from broadcast, (diffusion, transmission).  

 The birth of the podcast is attributed to Ben Hammersley, a journalist from “The Guardian,” who in a 2004 article,” Why online radio is booming,” wondered about the nature of a certain type of audio content that had quickly acquired “visibility” (and newsworthiness) and identified the ingredients of its success in: 

  • the spread of MP3 players (such as Apple’s iPod);
  • the availability of low-cost audio production software;
  • the habit of weblogging .

 The name “podcast” won over other alternatives such as “GuerillaMedia” and “Audioblog” that were less able to capture the specificity of what needed to be described.


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A brief history of podcasts 

In an article published in the Italian magazine Il Tascabile, the author and radio producer Jonathan Zenti identifies three great technological innovations that, at the end of the 1990s, created the conditions for the rise of podcasting: “the distribution of an internet network capable of transferring a significant amount of data the commercialization of the first portable MP3 players, and the digitalization of the tools for audio production.”

At the beginning of 2000, the RSS format, based on XML, is now one of the most popular formats for web distribution. Simple, extensible, and flexible, it allows you to get up-to-date feeds on new articles or comments posted on sites of interest without having to manually visit them one by one. Dave Winer, the inventor of RSS Feeds and former MTV DJ Adam Curry managed to create and exploit a variant of RSS Feeds to include audio content as well (repubblica.it).  

In 2001 Apple launched the iPod, which would soon become the object of desire for entire categories of consumers. This is a key step in the history of podcasts: from now on, content producers can count on a particularly economical means of expression that users can use on-demand and on the move

In 2007, smartphones arrived and became immediately popular. That same year, Apple created a section dedicated to podcasts on the iTunes app, recognizing both commercially and symbolically, the official birth of the podcast phenomenon.  

In 2010, the Spreaker platform was established, allowing anyone to record, publish, monetize, and distribute their own podcasts. The result is the proliferation of amateur content. 

 The year 2019 saw a succession of strategic moves by some of the biggest tech players that, while gaining more and more control over an incredibly promising market, also set the stage for increasing penetration of dedicated audio content, including podcasts. Google created a dedicated app (Google Podcasts), Spotify launched the podcast section following the acquisition of Gimlet Media, and Amazon and Google released smart speakers, the home voice assistants, which entered 200 million homes, worldwide. 

The content of podcasts: true stories, series, professionals enter the picture

Up to this point, we’ve seen the technological stages of a journey that has known no stopping points or slowdowns. But what are podcasts if not, above all, content? 

The first podcast dates back to 2003, when journalist Christopher Lydon (The man who invented the podcast, according to “The Guardian”) discovered how to distribute MP3 files online with the help of Dave Winer, his colleague at Harvard: his was the first voice to be released as an MP3 file that could be downloaded on an RSS feed. A former journalist for The New York Times and National Public Radio, Christopher Lydon recorded web interviews with bloggers, innovators, and politicians, and commented in real time on the American presidential election campaigns. Combining the intimacy of voice, the interactivity of a blog, and the convenience and portability of an MP3 download, Lydon’s work produced a creative mixture of multiple worlds: his podcasts also use some of the codes of radio programs but in no way coincide with them. 

In the years that followed, in a phase that we could say was pioneering, those who tried to produce a podcast were above all those who already worked online with words, especially written ones: journalists, blog authors, writers, or aspiring writers. Even radio stations were beginning to familiarize themselves with the new format. 

Gaia Passamonti, in her Podcasting Marketing (HOEPLI, 2020, p. 5) indicates 2012 as the year in which we finally moved “from amateur production with open microphones to professional ones.” From that moment on, there was a “progressive detachment of podcasters from the world of radio and the web and at the same time the need to finance independently their own productions.”  

According to Passamonti, the turning point coincides with the 2014 release of Serial, a famous multi-episode podcast in the true crime genre, now in its third season. In Serial, according to Passamonti “all the elements necessary to make a successful podcast: a true story, a strong narrative, a professional technical realization, and the use of a series format.” 

What about Italian podcasts? Sustained growth, not only because of the lockdown 

The first Italian podcasts mature from a narrative and technical point of view are Veleno by Paolo Trincia (la Repubblica, 2017) and La Piena by Matteo Caccia (Audible). 

According to data released by NIELSEN during the third edition of the United States of Podcast, (the annual conference held in Milan on November 21 that involved the main players in the digital audio content market) there has been a steady increase in podcast consumption in the media diet of Italians. In the last 12 months, also because of the lockdown, nearly 14 million people in Italy have listened to a podcast at least once. Last year, listeners numbered just over 12 million. This is significant growth: +15% over 2019. 

In an article from May 5, 2020, Rossana De Michele, founder of storielibere.fm, the most important Italian platform for the creation and distribution of free podcasts, said that they had average of more than 80,000 listeners per week in the weeks of forced shutdown (Source: TgCom24). In the first two months of lockdown, the listeners of storielibere.fm podcasts grew by + 35% and in the first five months of the year, the platform achieved revenues four times higher than in 2019. The exceptional situation imposed by the virus not only grew the audience of listeners, but also changed the listening habits of an at home audience: in Italy, the use of smart speakers grew 18%.  Today almost 10.2 million Italians listen to podcasts. 

Podcasts: how to distinguish them from other types of content  

In order to clearly define podcasts, let’s look at the features that distinguish them from other types of content. In terms of how it differs from other audio content, we refer this comment from Gaia Passamonti: “The podcast differs technically and formally because: 

  • it is asynchronous, i.e. usable independently from a prearranged stream of transmission, like radio; 
  • it is on-demand; listeners decide which podcast to listen to and when; 
  • is offline: the audio file can be downloaded and listened to on one’s own device (computer, app, cell phone, media player, etc.); 
  • it’s nomadic: it can be listened to anywhere, even on the go and while doing other things at the same time. (Podcasting Marketing, Gaia Passamonti, HOEPLI, 2020, p. 2) 

Hammersley, in the article mentioned above, saw in the phenomenon “a new boom of amateur radio,” yet failed to grasp the fundamental differences of podcasts compared to radio programs. 

The real distinctive feature that has always characterized the podcast is the voluntary nature of its listeners, who must engage in research to find podcasts of interest, and who often discover them through word of mouth. Users must be proactive and productive: they have to seek out the podcasts they are interested in, to subscribe to services that automatically collect their favorite podcasts via RSS, and, if they want to listen offline, download them. 

Podcasts at the service of brands: Reasons to integrate them into marketing strategies  

On the one hand, the audio content of podcasts can be easily and immediately accessible. In fact, the technology used provides for absolutely intuitive modes of interaction: all you have to do is go back to the desired content, click on the device, and listen. On the other hand, the nature of audio content is not total (not to the extent that, for example, radio is): podcasts require not only interest in the topic of the story but also a predisposition to listen. What is really interesting is that the amount of attention required is perfectly foreseen in the profile of the ideal listener who is already qualified, because they are already mobile. Moreover, the degree of involvement created by the human quality of the narrator’s voice represents a further key for how to approach and participate in the narrative world built in the podcast. 

In light of this, we can then understand why brands are so interested in this new format and why integrating digital audio content into marketing strategies will become increasingly necessary in the near future.  

Gaia Passamonti writes that marketing podcasts are particularly effective content because: 

  • “they create an immediate sense of intimacy with the storyteller. Audiences become attached to his or her voice; 
  • they spontaneously generate very close-knit and motivated communities of listeners, similar to those who follow TV series; 
  • induce a very strong sense of loyalty, also by exploiting the episodic mechanism; 
  • they can develop in-depth, long-form content that is not only appreciated but requested by listeners; they can be enjoyed when you aren’t in front of a screen.” (Podcasting Marketing, Gaia Passamonti, HOEPLI, 2020, XIV) 

Among marketing podcasts, an increasingly important role will be played by branded podcasts, original audio content created by and for companies. We have talked extensively about this type of podcast, in which narrative tension merges with the company’s need to tell its story, here.