On BBC Radio 4 last Monday morning, while plugging the Today programme’s associated podcast, presenter Nick Robinson said: “I had a letter recently from someone who didn’t even know what a podcast was.” There was amusement in his voice, but though a glance at the calendar revealed the date to be April 1, this was no joke.

So the all-conquering podcast has by-passed at least one listener to the station. But it doesn’t alter the fact that in 2024, 20 years on from the term being coined and a decade on from its breakthrough moment, the podcast is the 21st century’s most vibrant media format.

In a strange confluence, podcast history turns on two dates exactly a decade apart. The first is the moment in early 2004 when British journalist Ben Hammersley cottoned on to a new trend – essentially downloadable radio – and christened it podcasting, a mash-up of iPod (currently the latest thing) and broadcasting.

A year later, at the All Things Digital Conference held near San Diego in May 2005, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that new iPods would support podcasts, though few if any people in the room had heard of them at that time. “Podcasting is the next generation of radio,” Jobs insisted. “Users can now subscribe to more than 3,000 free podcasts and have each new episode automatically delivered over the internet to their computer and iPod.”

The Herald: The Whisky SistersThe Whisky Sisters (Image: free)

Back then, this sounded like the future. Today it sounds like a statement of the obvious. So too the boast of 3000 available podcasts, laughably few by current measures. According to the latest figures from Podcast Index and ListenNotes, respectively an open database of podcasts and a podcast search engine, there are now anywhere between 4.1 million and 3.3 million podcasts available to users, clocking up around 190 million episodes in total. Other Podcast Index figures show that in the first three months of this year alone there were 464,000 new podcasts.

The second notable moment was the release on October 3, 2014 of the first episode of Serial, an investigation by journalist Sarah Koenig into a potential miscarriage of justice: the jailing in 2000 of Adnan Masud Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old high school student Hae Min Lee. Published under the imprimatur of syndicated public radio show-cum-podcaster This American Life, the slowly unfolding serialised narrative became a word-of-mouth hit. By November 2014, Serial had been downloaded or streamed five million times, smashing Apple’s iTunes record and topping charts in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Today, you can multiply those five million downloads by 100.

Other landmarks would follow. In 2016, podcast producer Gimlet Media sold its scripted psychological thriller Homecoming to Universal Studio Group (USC) for adaptation into a TV series for Amazon. As proof of the growing power of podcasts, Homecoming already had a stellar cast – Katherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer starred – but USC upped the ante considerably when it announced the lead for the TV remake: none other than Julia Roberts.


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By 2018, music streaming company Spotify had begun a podcast investment programme which has now seen $1 billion (£854 million) ploughed into content creation and acquisition. Among its prizes is The Joe Rogan Experience, signed for $200 million (£158 million) in an exclusive deal. A typical guest for the controversial presenter might be Kanye West or Elon Musk, and the show has had such an influence that it has been said to affect America’s political gravity. In 2019, meanwhile, the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for American journalism announced a new category for what it called Audio Reporting – podcasts, basically. The first award went to This American Life for a report into asylum seekers in a refugee camp on the Mexican side of the border with the US.

Boom time for the podcast was the Covid-19 pandemic. The subsequent lockdowns left millions of people with time on their hands and looking for either in-depth analysis of the crisis and background information on it – or the exact opposite, an escape from the present reality through comedy or drama or a history of gnomes (there is a podcast for that, as there is for most things).

But as its third decade rolls around, and ahead of the 10th anniversary of its most celebrated title, how does the podcast look today and where is it headed in the era of TikTok and Instagram?

On one hand, it seems healthy. Serial, described as “the grandaddy of podcasts” by one reviewer, has just returned for a fourth series and statistics show that nearly a third of Britons currently listen to at least one podcast a month. In the US it’s nearly half, and that figure is up five percentage points on last year, the biggest increase since 2019 when there was a six point rise.

But not everything in the garden is rosy. Around £16 million of that Spotify podcast spend was on a deal with Archewell Audio, the company founded by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. It was intended to create what Spotify called “programming that uplifts and entertains audiences around the world” but it ended ignominiously (and prematurely) in June 2023 with just one show delivered. The Sussexes were just the highest profile casualities of a cost-cutting exercise which saw Spotify lay off 200 staff in its podcast division and cancel a slew of shows, including award-winners such as Stolen and Heavyweight.

The Herald:  Sophie Toscan du Plantie Sophie Toscan du Plantie (Image: free)

Elsewhere, downloads of podcasts are falling, though some blame a new iPhone operating system and counter by pointing out that listening is increasing overall. On April 2, meanwhile, Google turned off its podcast app. It will instead direct users to its YouTube Music platform in future.

And what of that future? Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have a say. With its near flawless text-to-speech cabilities, it could change content creation (for better or worse) while also making it easier and quicker for listeners to find exactly the right podcast for them.

But the biggest expansion is likely to be one which makes those people more than consumers of audio. It turns out Steve Jobs was only half right when he said the future of radio was podcasting – he should have added that, 20 years down the line, the future of podcasting would be video, with cameras capturing the studio action as the podcast is recorded. Audio can capture a winning quip, but it’s the accompanying eye roll which might make a clip go viral.

The point isn’t lost on Will Page, former chief economist with Spotify and now an author and podcaster in his own right specialising in the music and digital media industries. Before long, he said recently, “we will be watching podcasts, we will be skipping chapters and you’ll be commenting on them at the end.”

As they seek to turn their thousands or millions of listeners into a number ten times that, the best of today’s podcasters will become the videocasters of tomorrow.



Launched in February, this podcast by Scottish journalist and film-maker Anthony Baxter follows on from You’ve Been Trumped, his award-winning 2011 David and Goliath documentary about the local people protesting the building of Donald Trump’s luxury hotel and golf course at Balmedie in Aberdeenshire. Baxter has made two more films on the subject, and in this podcast he brings it all together alongside new interviews. A great chance to be outraged all over again.

West Cork

Premiered in 2018 as an Audible Original, this 13-episode podcast delved into the brutal 1996 murder in West Cork of 39-year-old Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan du Plantier, who had been living in the area for some years. Louis Theroux, no less, called it “possibly the best true crime podcast of all time” and in 2021 it was announced that it would be turned into a TV drama series – to join the two documentary versions which have also been made on the back of the podcast’s success.

The Herald: Witches Of ScotlandWitches Of Scotland (Image: free)

Witches Of Scotland

Claire Mitchell QC and author Zoe Venditozzi are your hosts for this podcast looking at witchcraft and allegations of witchcraft in Scotland and beyond, and telling the stories of some of the 3837 people (mostly women) who were tried for it. The podcast has a political edge too: its mission statement is to press for an apology, a national memorial and pardons for all those convicted. One episode is an interview with Edinburgh author Jenni Fagan, whose novella Hex is set in 1591 in a condemned cell holding a young woman who is due to be burned at the stake the following day. Others look at modern witchcraft or dip into the witchcraft stories from other countries and regions, such as Ireland, Lancashire and Catalonia.


Described as “the grandaddy of all podcasts”, the investigative Serial premiered in 2014 and its fourth season dropped just a few days ago, this time examining the troubled history of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Series two, a collaboration with Oscar-winning Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, covered the case of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl who was deployed to Afghanistan, held captive by the Taliban for five years and then court-martialled for desertion. Series three took a deep dive into the American criminal justice system in Cleveland, described by Serial creator Sarah Koenig as “the least exceptional, most middle-of-the-road, most middle-of-the-country place we could find.”

Whisky Sisters

Inka Larissa and Jennifer Rose are the siblings of the title and each episode of this podcast sees them sticking their noses into a glass or two as they talk drams, distilleries and, as they put it, “every corner of the whisky universe.” And it isn’t just Scotland’s finest malts which come under scrutiny – series three ended in December and as well as looking at some Japanese whiskies the pair jetted off to Finland to sample the best the Teerenpeli Distillery had to offer.