A Brief History of Audio Innovation
From a certain distance, the concept of recording your own podcast might seem simple enough—stick a few friends in a room with a microphone, hit record, and slap the results up online. But for every do-it-yourself production, there are just as many rich and experimental shows being created, pushing the podcast world into the future. To compete in a scene chock full of cutting-edge audio, you’ve got to return to the medium’s roots—experimentation and innovation.
According to our founder and CEO, Michelle Khouri, audio has always been experimental. In 1877, when Thomas Edison first invented the phonograph, the simple concept of hearing a human voice played back by a machine was revolutionary (“Mary had a little lamb” were the first-ever recorded words, according to legend). From that point on, audio was all about seeking innovative solutions to unexpected problems. “People got weird!” exclaims Khouri. In the late 1880s, Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Tainter took Edison’s tinfoil design and created the far-more durable wax cylinder as an innovative way to etch audio, and in 1887 Emil Berliner developed the gramophone, featuring the flat, turning discs we still picture when we think of vinyl records today. By the turn of the 20th century, brothers Will and Fred Gaisberg traveled the world collecting wax masters of opera arias to publish back home in America. With the invention of the radio, complex and experimental radio dramas were created, sometimes bringing an entire live ensemble into a studio to record audio together.
When video recording arrived on the scene to “kill the radio star,” experimentation slowed in the audio world, according to Khouri, as cinema stole the stage and monopolized innovation. After the 1950s, when the number of American households with a television jumped to 50 percent, signaling the end of the Golden Age of Radio, nothing much changed for audio.
But with the birth of the internet, we’ve found our way back to the forgotten medium of audio. Once they became accessible at the touch of a button, podcasts and other forms of audio content experienced growth and diversification on a scale akin to the Cambrian Explosion.
The long-stagnant medium found its own spotlight again.
Returned to the spotlight, the gears of audio innovation have once more begun to turn. According to Matthew Ernest Filler, our Lead Audio Engineer, the most interesting conversations circle around the concept of 3D audio. The basic concept of 3D audio—also known as “Binaural Audio”—is to recreate the genuine sound and feel of inhabiting the space where the audio was recorded. The goal is complete immersion. Engineers can accomplish this by using specially designed microphones modeled after human biology (the shape of a head, the architecture of an ear) such that the sound enters the microphone the same way it would enter your ear if you were standing in the room, witnessing the audio as it was recorded. When played back through headphones, the effect is recreated—a sort of digital surround sound. You might have seen this innovation advertised by Apple with their AirPods or by podcasts like Darkest Night, which describes itself as a “binaural audio drama.” This level of deeply immersive audio seeks to pull the listener into the subject matter even more deeply, transcending the limits of their own four walls to enter the conjured space of the story. Three-dimensional audio is to traditional audio what virtual reality technology is to a flatscreen TV.
Khouri draws a direct connection between the early days of radio dramas, when audio was captured live from a room filled with actors producing dynamic sound within a single space, and the modern drive toward 3D audio, with the ability to stitch together a digital space from pieces recorded all across the globe.
But immersion can be achieved even without venturing into the third dimension of sound. Discussions about the future of podcasting also revolve around audience participation and other forms of social audio. Social audio is a term that arose to describe social media apps that focused on bringing people together not with text, still images, or video, but with the voice alone. Digital spaces like Discord’s Voice Chat and Twitter’s Spaces, and Clubhouse all spiked in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. As IRL life gradually returns, some predict social audio will wane in popularity, but others think it’s here to stay because it offers more freedom, flexibility, and genuine connection than communicating via text, while remaining more anonymous and less intimate than video.
In the case of podcasts, social audio and audience participation can help break through the one-way window of parasocial relationships that develops for dedicated podcast listeners. Many creators employ subscription services like Patreon to invite their most invested fans deeper into community with the creators and each other. Many shows have their own social media spaces, sometimes just for subscribers but often free to their entire listener base. In those community spaces, listeners provide feedback, ask questions, and offer ideas that often drive the show’s ongoing development. FRQNCY Lead Strategist Jessica Olivier sees these developments in audience participation as the future of podcasting. “I think we will see podcasts creating content that invites listeners to a more interactive experience,” Olivier says. “The podcast landscape is expanding consumption opportunities beyond the traditional passive form of listening.” This transition from passive to active listening may very well define the next phase of audio innovation.
I think we will see podcasts creating content that invites listeners to a more interactive experience. The podcast landscape is expanding consumption opportunities beyond the traditional passive form of listening.– Jess Olivier, Lead Content Strategist
Another cutting-edge development in audio technology is the idea of “geofenced” or “locative” audio. Making use of GPS data, different areas overlying the real world can be assigned different data, such that phones and other devices can only access certain elements of the digital world within specific locations. This is the same technology used for augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go, but in this case, used for audio rather than visual cues. Companies such as ECHOES employ sound mapping and spatial audio to create audio tours for museums and tourism groups. Could geofenced audio have a role to play in the future of podcasting?
Innovation? In My Podcast?
Listeners as a whole have come to expect higher audio quality from modern podcasts. Partially as a result of an increase in funding put toward podcast production, with the emergence of popular branded podcasts such as Intuit TurboTax’s Friends With Tax Benefits (produced and published by FRQNCY Media), and partially due to prior innovations in sound design and production, the bar for podcast quality has been rising. Part and parcel with innovation is tackling the challenges of creating a sound that is clean, immersive, and unique.
Even if your podcast doesn’t have access to innovative technology like binaural microphones or sound mapping, there are plenty of other ways to experiment in the audio world. Despite the number of podcasts out there (around 2 million), a need for further diversity in genre, form, hosts, and subjects remains. Up-and-coming genres, especially fictional podcasts, have plenty of room for experimentation. How can we create immersive worlds in new ways with sound? In 2021, High Fidelity published an article describing the growing popularity of short-form audio podcasts. Apps like Beams, Riff, and Racket all center the production and distribution of user-generated short-form audio. While most podcasts range in duration from 30 to 90 minutes, there is still plenty of room to experiment with bite-sized audio. Centering hosts from historically marginalized groups—those who are BIPOC or LGBTQ+, or those with disabilities—who can present their own experiences and stories also plays an important role in the future of audio.
When it comes to bringing these and other audio innovations into your own podcasts, the most important advice offered by Khouri is to be intentional. Experimentation with audio shouldn’t be done just for experimentation’s sake, she says. The goal should always be to craft an emotionally richer listening experience and to invite the listener closer to the audio. She reminds us that “the most innovative thing you can do is let the voice reach the speaker.” Despite all the complexity inherent in innovation—3D microphones, strategies to encourage engaged and active listeners, geofencing, new forms, and genres—at the heart of it, that’s as simple an aim as you could ask for. One voice, reaching one pair of ears, speaking with as much passion and clarity as technology allows.
Will Cagle is a writer with a passion for magical realism, environmentalism, Shakespeare, and unanswerable questions like, “Who really created the cave art at Altamira?” or “Will the world ever recover from the one time that big boat got stuck in a canal?” He received a Bachelor’s degree in both Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and is currently completing an M.F.A. in Speculative Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. As a writer for FRQNCY, Will brings his many years of experience scribbling scripts and telling tales, as well as a nigh-indefatigable sense of wonder for our weird, bewitching world.