How do you define a podcast?

As technology evolves, the boundaries have become blurred

What defines a podcast? 

It’s a question that I’ve returned to regularly over the last few months, and the answer will vary depending on how much of a purist you are. It’s becoming trickier than ever, as the increasing popularity of video podcasting means that old definitions are becoming less and less relevant.

It used to be much more straightforward - a podcast was audio content, delivered via RSS feed. Nice and easy. Now, it’s a lot more complicated. Platforms experimenting with exclusive content mean that not all shows are available as an RSS feed, and some of the most popular shows in the world are best known as video content - often via their YouTube channel.

Is a podcast still a podcast if it also includes a fully-fledged video element? Do we have to specifically distinguish between the two flavours with terms like ‘video podcast’ or (God forbid) ‘vodcast’? What about if a show uses all the conventions of podcasting, but only exists as a YouTube channel, with no RSS feed at all? Does that even count as a podcast in the first place?

A simpler approach, one might think, would be to focus the definition of podcasting on the content and format, rather than the delivery, but this isn’t without its problems either. For instance, it falls apart a little bit when you move beyond interview-based or chat podcasts; what separates a documentary video podcast from a TV documentary? Is there a meaningful distinction between the two?

Another interesting element is the growing move into podcasting from linear radio broadcasters. Repackaged radio shows have been a staple of podcasting for many years, but are they ‘true’ podcasts? I’d argue that it’s the level of care taken in adapting a radio show into a podcast that makes it a ‘proper’ podcast, but not everyone will share that opinion.

This is important for a few reasons, beyond settling arguments among some of podcasting’s more pedantic corners. For the most part, advertisers are still unfamiliar with podcasting, and as podcasts adopt more and more of the conventions of YouTube (which advertisers most certainly are familiar with), I worry that the two channels will become more and more synonymous in the minds of brands and agencies, with more ‘traditional’ podcasts somewhat overlooked. 

It also makes it harder to build an industry supply chain when the definitions are so vague and woolly - the skillsets involved in production and hosting for video and audio differ quite significantly, and being experienced in one doesn’t necessarily mean those skills will transfer to the other.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers to this issue - I still haven’t made my mind up about which method of definition is most effective, and the reality may simply be that there is no viable blanket approach. On the other hand, maybe we don’t need to create a set of guidelines or some kind of flowchart to determine whether something is or isn’t a podcast: maybe the best solution is to let creators be the judge of whether or not they’re making a podcast, and simply take their word for it. 

Ultimately, I think this something the industry is going to be arguing over for a long while to come, and while the debate isn’t going anywhere, it’s worth remembering that ultimately, it’s the content that matters most. After all, podcasting is a state of mind as much as anything else.