Happy Birthday, Libsyn!
[updated with notes in brackets by Elsie 11/9/2014]
Liberated Syndication turned 6 today.
It’s sometimes immature for it’s age- throwing tantrums from time to time, getting in fights, and driving its parents crazy.
We’ve given up a lot of our lives to nurture our baby and watch it grow. Today we tip our glasses and celebrate the company that we have built and thank all those who let us wake up every day and make a living at keeping it going.
We haven’t taken a minute to reflect on the events leading up to libsyn in a while.
2005 was the last post about it http://soundoff.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=31160 [sorry that link no longer leads anywhere].
The libsyn story
The story of how it all started has been told time and time again (at least in my head to the faux reporters that have asked me) but since it has been years and many of you who are reading this may not have heard them, I’ll spin the yarn one more time.
It was a warm Columbus Day (Thanksgiving to our friends up north) in 2004 when I was driving back to Baltimore, MD that I got a call from an old friend near and dear to me.
Dave Mansueto and I met in college at the University of Pittsburgh. We helped each other out on our mutual vision quests over the years we spent together in Pittsburgh, but I had moved to MD in 2001 and we hadn’t spoken for a while.
In typical fashion Dave was anxious and excited to tell me about a new thing going on involving radio and the internet and a whole movement we were missing out on. He wanted to do it and needed help figuring out all the technical pieces to get it done.
We had started Emayhem together around 1998 or so.
It was an art collective / publishing platform created for Pittsburgh artists and musicians to share their work online. It was myspace without the friends -about 5 years before myspace.
Emayhem was the thing that got me bad grades and introduced me to some of my lifelong friends and future business partners.
At the time it seemed like the thing you just did in college- which now sounds like a cliche.
Anyways, experimenting with emayhem.com in 1998 eventually led myself along with my roomate and co-computer engineers Matt Hoopes and Paul Vitiello, to team up with a guy a met through emayhem Marty Mulligan to start a web design firm in 2000. We called it webmayhem.
Over summer break that year we leased our first web server, incorporated the company, and purchased a laptop with the proceeds from my collection of Transformers which I sold on Ebay.
We were on our way.
We failed to notice the bubble or the burst as we were chugging along doing small websites for small businesses while we finished up college.
By 2003 the burden of operating as a C-Corporation in the state of PA while Matt, Paul, and I lived in Maryland and Marty in NY became too much. We had all kind of went our own ways with full-time jobs and doing the occasional web design job here and there to keep paying for the web server we were leasing wasn’t making enough to keep the webmayhem dream alive.
In the late summer of 2004 the four friends and founder of webmayhem met in my apartment one last time to dissolve the corporation. I would remain the sole share holder through the rest of the fiscal year and then in 2005 make the decision of what to do next with our remaining customers (who I failed to bill regularly) and our leased web server.
I remember using a little bit of the petty cash we had to go the grocery store and buy wine and some steaks. Marty cooked up a dinner which to this day I still recall as one of the top 5 meals I’ve ever eaten. We all shook hands after dinner and everyone went home.
Emayhem.com was still up and running through all of this and going strong.
My old friend Dave was living in Pittsburgh doing all forms of theatre and performance. He had a talk show which we filmed every week live from a bar and aired on public access.
He is the kind of guy you can’t walk down the street with if you are in a hurry because everyone stops him to say what’s up, or ask him to guest MC their event, or hook something up. He is also a self-taught engineer who read everything he could get his hands on regarding computers, audio recording, video editing and encoding.
Dave became obsessed with getting his talk show online- in some form or another- and was constantly building onto his collection of antiquated Apple computers to get the job done.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he was at the time /the/ archetypical podcaster.
Right around the time we were closing the books on webmayhem inc, we started to notice that our server bill was including this line item called bandwidth.
For the 4 years leading up to this we had never seen any charges for this and upon further inspection of our contract and digging around the account portal we discovered there was a cap on the amount of information that could be transferred between our web server and the people accessing it on the internet.
It was an outrageously high level (we thought at the time) and the fact that we were starting to go over it, now, as we were winding things down seemed outrageous. With some help from our ISP we discovered these things called web logs and started to look at what files were being accessed.
Low and behold, the media files which users of emayhem.com had uploaded where kinda large and when they got downloaded it started to cost us money. This sucks. Just as our site and our friends are starting to get popular, we’re going to go broke and will have to shut emahyem.com down.
So back to the columbus day drive.
Dave was poised to start the Emayhem Radio Podcast and was asking me to help get him up and running.
When I got home, I installed the blog engine bloxum and helped create my first ever RSS feed. I told him we could use the webmayhem webserver for a little while, but it was going to be shut down soon and was costing me too much money.
Come 2 weeks later we would be on the phone every night talking about what else we could add to the feed, a new website just for the podcast, and that we should renegotiate the server lease for another year and get a better rate on bandwidth.
I didn’t see it at the time, but I was finally becoming business partners with Dave. Emayhem was never incorporated and we never wrote for those grants we had talked about or became a non-profit. The business model there was never clear, but as the month of October, 2004 came to a close we were rapidly seeing a need for a hosting service catering specifically to this podcasting thing.
I started to think up names for this venture.
To me, nothing can start if it doesn’t have a name- and a name needs to have a meaning. “Desktop publishing” had been around for a decade and I had been using the Internet since around 1992.
Blogging was pretty mainstream by now and Winer had penned Really Simple Syndication years ago.
The new twist, though, was this concept that the feed was now “carrying” media and anyone could syndicate a show- not just a written story.
A major hurdle, though, was that unless you were part of a university or had access to large servers that you could host relatively large files for free- it was still cost prohibitive to really do it. This is when we first learned about these things call Content Delivery Networks. CDNs, as they were, were networks of servers which distributed the demand for files by keeping multiple copies of the same file across all the servers.
This was like putting a bunch of batteries together to make a big spark. Even if you had cheap no name batteries, wire enough together and you can jump start a career.
It was Dave’s idea (the theatre student who rewired guitar amps for fun and would school my EE and CS friends on how micro-processors worked) to try and lease some cheaper servers and lace them together- instead of 1 larger, more expensive one. Pulling this off would allow us to make the service be really cheap and liberate everyone from the cost prohibitive nature of self publishing.
Liberated Syndication was a really cool sounding name to me, and late one night I found libsyn.org and .com hadn’t been taken yet, so I registered them.
The spark was there, but the fire didn’t’ start for a few more weeks.
I had been doing the leg work of keeping the Emayhem Radio Podcast’s RSS feed up to date while working with Dave on ideas for libsyn here and there, but I had a demanding full-time job and a few other projects spinning around my head. I had just celebrated my 1 year wedding anniversary and was finishing up a guerilla filmmaking feature.
Starting a hosting company just didn’t seem that important at the time.
I definitely wouldn’t say I was really following politics at the time. Living so close to DC it’s hard to avoid, but I hadn’t seen the 2004 DNC speech Senator Obama had given (a video which later would end up being hosted by libsyn).
I vaguely remember John Kerry’s campaign and everything leading up to November 2004. But I do remember a lot of my friends being very worked up about everything.
Like many of my generation, come election day I didn’t vote. That evening, after all the smoke had cleared a sinking feeling set in, and a shameful embarrassment which felt like I had let everyone down over took me. I remember an email thread between Dave and some mutual friends who were involved with the podcast. Everyone was depressed.
The next day didn’t feel the same. It felt like a sobering moment of clarity (which was a strange feeling for a straightedge kid) and a sense of regret and resentment started to grow.
Over lunch I checked my email and Dave sent me a link to a post on the Guerilla News Network. The Day After … Tomorrow so eloquently summed up everything I was feeling. And most of all it ended with a call to action:
Never before has the security of our world been so reliant on the freedom of independent, investigative voices to unite the people against those who have nakedly seized the mechanism of American democracy. As the world’s dominant superpower, we have the enhanced responsibility of ®evolutionizing our media system because it is not only framing the debate at home, it is also doing it globally, and for good reason. The economic and political elites in America know that their survival depends on the rapid absorption of the propagandist media by the nations they seek to dominate and exploit. Fortunately, we have a new generation of independent journalists and citizen muckrakers who will use the unharnessed power of communications technology to fight and win this information war.
What are you waiting for?
There isn’t really anything more that I need to say after that.
That night it was clear that liberated syndication needed to be born and for the last 6 years we have put the majority of our efforts and focus into answering the call and doing what we can to level the playing field for a democratized media.
How we got from there to here is another long story, and maybe I’ll document all the ups and downs for the future web startups someday.
For now, I’m going to drink a beer and smile about the good times (retaining a straightedge lifestyle through a web startup, reverse-triangulated merger, and becoming a public company is futile).
Here’s to you, libsyn.