Category: Articles


Has Podcasting Arrived?

I'm not feeling happy about podcasting having settled into stone..

I’m not feeling happy about podcasting having settled into stone..

Podcasting has been going on for over a decade now — has it finally arrived? How can we tell?

There was once a time when the word itself was new, and you inevitably has to explain to multiple people what you just said. The word has the benefit of having a certain level of familiarity, flowing well like it’s always been part of the English language, despite the fact that it’s very new. It was quickly recognized as “legitimate” by venerated institutions like Oxford (2005), and most of us set to using the word, flawed as it might be.

And there was a point when podcasting transitioned from being “amateur hour” to being flooded by seasoned media pros, from traditional media makers like terrestrial and satellite radio to people who had prospered in the predecessors to podcasting, like YouTube stars and live streaming Internet stations.

It was a very strange period of time, with traditions developed from within the existing podcasting community clashing with the long-established behaviours of traditional media. It was also a blossoming of numbers, when podcasts went from the few you could list on a page to the multiple attempts at directories and to the current explosion across all of the web.

(That shouldn’t have been unexpected, given we’d already seen this pattern in a similar genre of online communication, the blog. Still, it took many by surprise.)

There was also a gold rush amongst established podcasters and those who sensed a new media in which to make money. “Monetization” became a big buzzword, with companies like Mevio suggesting strongly that many would “give up the day job” and do media communications full-time. Some managed to do that, but the vast majority never realized the numbers on levels similar to traditional media that traditional advertisers considered significant.

Networks and aggregation tried to accumulate those numbers, but podcasting remained either a niche advertising industry or a side-effect of some other form of profit — often being the loss-leader for traditional media which sought money elsewhere.

Along came crowdfunding, which has created an interesting return rush to comments about monetization. Granted, people are much more cautious these days, but it seems to be more stably growing. Crowdfunding is the kind of “trickle-in” fundraising model that comes from lots of people giving a little bit, and giving it directly to the producer (as opposed to indirectly through sponsors), and that seems to promise a kind of stability that is easier to manage than the “make it rich, quick” feeling the earlier era promoted.

But has podcasting arrived?

No, I don’t think so.

It’s largely chaotic, directionless, unguided and yet subject to corporate interests. It’s dependent, fractured into multiple directions, and resting on its laurels. It lacks conventions of behavior, expectations of normalcy and consistent patterns.

It succeeds, of course, despite all of these things. In a way, because of the way it was formed, the chaotic nature has been its strength before. Now, it doesn’t help, but it doesn’t exactly hinder, either.

From the consumer point of view, podcasting is a mess. There are multiple ways to get a podcast, and they are all contradictory, fragmenting your experience rather than regularizing it. In a way, it feels like podcasting has given up on trying to even present a uniform platform, content to simply allow people to experience to content without any regard to how they can normalize that experience.

There are multiple apps, each providing a different organization, management and playback scheme. Many of them are situation-dependent, they often seem to be unaware that users are often in different contexts or have different needs based on content, time or category of podcast.

And forget about trying to tie these experiences together in any coherent whole. You may be one person, but every playback method (and sometimes even different instances of the same method) considers you to be an entirely different person, and doesn’t seem interested in what you’ve done elsewhere.

In an era when we are supposedly all working “in the cloud”, with our preferences and personal options consistently available across platforms, locations, times and contexts, it seems somewhat laughable that podcasting is so disorganized.

Perhaps more confusingly to me, it often appears as though no one else has noticed.

Academic papers appear to focus largely on using podcasts as an educational tool, something I think extends from a desperation to engage with their increasingly social-media-distracted students.

Books on podcasting focus on providing introductory material about the mechanics of podcasting, dealing as much with the use of particular audio software as they do about the philosophy of organization or potentiality embodied in a new medium.

Both of these are forgivably narrow foci, dealing with immediate needs within established and known parameters.

But they are also not enough. There needs to be more dialogue about potential, more attempts at shifting the medium to be useful, more consideration of alternative ways to organize podcasting, from both consumer and producer perspectives.

My fear now is not that podcasting is a passing fad. It was, once, but once traditional media discovered the usefulness of an Internet-distributed program, it was secure.

Instead, my fear is that podcasting, as a medium, will settle. I worry that the sorry state that it exists in now will be the best that it gets, for a long time. There was a tremendous push for innovation in the early days, and while some vestige of that still exists, it is coming from narrow, self-interested companies rather than open, intellectual group forums.*

(* Admittedly, this might be my own limited vision of what exists. Feel free to let me know where such discussions are taking place, and I’ll join them.)

All of this, I suppose, is my way of attempting to reinvigorate my own sense of why I started this blog in the first place. Something is missing, and if no one else is going to start rocking the boat, I suppose I’ll have to.

I like leaving the audience with a final question, a challenge to respond (even if sometime unrelated to the topic at hand). In this case, I’d like to suggest that you consider the limitations of podcasting in your own usage. Where does it fail? What makes it hard to use? What makes it hard to explain? Where is there a short-coming that, if only it were overcome, new vistas of podcasts would suddenly be available?

Headhost In The DarkDragon*Con 2014 was a very busy, very fun convention, and I’m very happy to have had the chance to participate not only as a wide-eyed viewer but also as a big-mouthed podcaster & presenter. :)

I was one quarter of the “Podcasting: Present, Past and Future” panel, along with good friends Chuck Tomasi and Kreg Steppe who collectively come from Technorama and individually podcast with Freestyle and Look What I Found, respectively. Also on the panel was someone I was not really familiar with, but will definitely change that in the future, the host of Nobody’s Listening and creator of the NLCast Network, James Kennison. The panel was set-up and moderated by Charles McFall, who I met last year.

Here’s the audio recorded by the good folks at Alpha Geek Radio, who were also live-streaming the entire event. I’m very happy to see this kind of support for the podcasting track, so they have my own thanks as well as bigger and better kudos.

We could have easily spent an entire panel on any one of these time eras, past, present or future. I think we spent a little too much time talking about the past, but it’s also the easiest thing to talk about. We gave some advice about podcasting, lessons learned and supportive slogans, but that was probably more effectively covered in Podcasting 101-type panels (which I did not attend this year).

About the present we spoke only a little. There are eminent things on the horizon of significance to podcasting, like the podcast patent wars, the release of new devices like smart watches, the rise of the fourth (or is it fifth?) wave of podcasters (who think they invented everything), the influx of professional radio and television productions being released as podcasts. Despite all this, we moved quickly into the future, in part (I believe) because there is some sense of frustration and urgency, and it always feels more useful to be a bit ahead of the current activity rather than reacting only to the present.

The future of podcasting is somewhat in question, and generally has always been. We’ve had some great leaders who have contributed those initial steps, and some great innovators along the way, but we are in a period of plateau. We, the podcasters, have become complacent with what has become established technology, and have ceased to truly innovate.

Instead, we see some motion in the bigger players like Apple. Despite my love-hate relationship with Apple products, they largely lead in podcasting support, from iTunes and its introduction of podcast “station”, to the Podcasts app for IOS, to the directory at the heart of iTunes which dictates certain rules, regulations and guidelines upon podcasts.

I’m not comfortable with the podcasting medium being defined by corporate or government interests. As a technologist, it offends me that we would not seek the best technological solution and possibility. As a broadcaster, it offends me that we might stifle the exciting prospects of a brand new medium by indifference. As an academic, it fascinates me that we have something which its own unique features and surprises me that we haven’t studied it properly.

So, I am revisiting this blog and podcast. The perpetual danger that always accompanies people who cry out “Why doesn’t such a thing exist?!?” is that someone will point the finger back at the speaker and say “But why don’t you do it?”.

I am not alone in this journey, and I’m going to need more time than a single hour to do it. So I’ll be blogging here, podcasting when I can, and enlisting others along the way to answer, from a philosophical standpoint: What Is Podcasting?

Are Podcasts Dying?” asks a blogger for Stuff online.

The evidence (paraphrased):

  1. The New York Times is getting out of podcasting.
  2. People the author’s age (youth?) aren’t listening to podcasts (but his parents love them).
  3. Most people listen to podcasts of shows that they missed on radio.
  4. Podcasts are hard to make.
  5. Podcasts are hard to monetize, and have “smallish” audiences.
  6. Podcasts are hard to get/manage.
So, let’s look at this closer…

Where’s My Remote?

You car radio can be randomly accessed; you can tune into any station along the dial, although you generally have a few favourites. Rather than wear your dial out, and to save on car accidents, car stereos developed presets. Now, in the digital age, we still tune in somewhere along the spectrum from one side of the frequency bands to the other, but we still float back and forth and jump to faves.

Television grew quickly from just a few channels to many. I remember the dial on my mother’s most advanced TV was still only rated for about a dozen channels. We propped a cable box on top and the little 2-number LED display could suddenly get all the way to 99 channels. Obviously, it made no sense to flip through the channels linearly, so it came with a number pad.

Even more significantly, it came with a remote control.

(Yes, this is eventually about podcasting..) View full article »

Managing: time, podcasts, life

Podcasting is not really a profession, as such — and neither is pontificating about podcasting.

That means that it really falls into the hobby category, and that means that other things take priority, sometimes.

Obviously, I’ve had a few priorities to deal with, but I’ve kept this blog set up and paid for the hosting to make sure that I remind myself to come back to it, when I have time.

And then I realized: I will never have time, just free-floating time that is free of all obligations.

I have to do what people have been telling me for years: I’ll have to make time.

For all those years, I’ve bristled at that term, feeling myself surrounded by obligations that don’t have any room to wiggle in. I’ll still do, but I’m starting to realize the real essence behind the phrase. It’s not about “making” time, it’s about deciding not to waste it.

With the multitude of things to distract, amuse and work at, it’s no surprise that time rarely feels wasted, but rather just consumed.

Ah, but what does this have to do with podcasting? If anything?

Actually, I think it has something very fundamental to do with the emergence of the podcasting medium. I think podcasting is one of the ultimate expressions of people wanting to organize their leisure time, to take control over the schedule of entertainment that, for the majority of its modern timeframe, was out of our control.

View full article »

How Do Podcasts Propogate?

How do podcasts propagate?

If you listen* to podcasts, think about how you came to listen to them. I suspect that the most popular answers, based on my own experience and discussions with others, are in roughly this order:

  1. I knew someone working on the podcast
  2. Someone I knew recommended the podcast because they listen to it.
  3. I heard a promo played on a podcast I already listen to.
  4. The podcast is attached to some other media product (TV series, movie, book series, video game, music, etc.) that I already consume.
  5. I did a web search for specific keywords.
  6. The podcast was recommended by iTunes.
  7. I looked in a podcast directory at the most popular podcasts (possibly within a specific category).
  8. I searched through a podcast directory.

Any others? (I suspect there are; please leave your additions in the comments.)

Now, look at the list again. The order is admittedly somewhat slanted to make a point, but I think it still accurately reflects the sentiment that I’ve heard from the people I’ve talked to, with a bit of reflection on my part.

Let’s simplify the list a bit, to make my point more clear:

  1. Social networking
  2. Commercial enterprises, advertising and prominent search results
  3. Directories

View full article »

Been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that — life has become busy (as if four letters really encompasses it!).

Still, I remain committed to the open question which started me down this path: What should a podcast be?

Of course, in order to understand the desired future, we really need to understand the present, and that comes from understanding the past first. Fortunately, this is one of the few historical events where I can say “I was around during the whole thing”, and it’s still early yet.

So, let’s look a the present, shall we? I admit that my view might be limited, as I haven’t been as active myself in recent months, so if you don’t agree with my observations and have other data to add, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

This was originally a post with several points, but after starting to elaborate on them, I discovered that each one is an essay. So, rather than bury you on my return, here’s the first of them:

Directories Suck (except iTunes.. maybe)

View full article »

Schedules, Seasons, Hiatus and Podfading

In more traditional media, the notion of schedule is very strong. The origin of this is likely bound to the requirements of publishing, whether it be the minimum profitable cycle for printing and delivering magazines or newspapers, the advertising expectations of television broadcast or the audience location expectations of radio broadcast.

Over time, people who consume and produce media come to regard that schedule as a necessary part of the media. They rely upon it, particularly when there is little media to choose from, or the cost of having lots of media means that limited choices must be made.

But is that still true? Or more accurately, does it apply to newer media, particularly digital-based, globally-accessible media such as podcasts?

View full article »

Breaking (and Using!) the Chains That Bind Us

Due to my recent Internet connection issues, I won’t be able to publish any sort of podcast for the next couple of months. Naturally, this stalls the progress of this podcast, but I’ll try to capture my thoughts with a few more regular blogposts (and concentrate on the other work I need to get done!).

In this case, I’ve become acutely aware of the fragility of receiving and uploading podcasts, given that both aspects of it are being blocked by the fascist administrators running the IT department of my lodgings (in the name of “bandwidth management”; lots of bandwidth available when no content is delivered!).

(I’ll try to keep the vitriol to a minimum, but this issue has my dial cranked up to “really annoyed”. Hey: if I weren’t passionate, I would be less worthy of listening to, right? ;))

So, back on topic: fragility. When libsyn.com got blocked, I was aghast: suddenly, I realized how much dependence I had on a single company, both for receiving podcasts and for producing them. When apple.com got blocked, I realized I depended on them for finding podcasts, or at least for finding out more information about podcasts.

This is a problem of single point of failure, an appalling heavy dependence that computer science graduates are very aware is a distinct form of sin.

Imagine if the power to your home were dependant on a single, easily-interruptable wire? It seems that way, ultimately, but it’s not easy to interrupt. And anyone who’s had a simple power outage knows that, while there might be temporary interruption, power is usually restored in short order, automatically, as the network reorganizes.

There are other podcast hosting providers out there, and podcast directories, too, but the market is still small. Rather, the ability to easily choke off the consumption or production of podcasts from a few rules seems improper — maybe even illegal.

I’ve tried to suggest that the blocking policies are incorrect and inappropriate, but I’ve met with no sympathy and no movement. Not knowing what avenues I have for recourse, I decided to think of it differently.

Is there a technological solution to this?

Some podcasts can be delivered by Bittorrent, which decentralizes the source, meaning that delivery is no longer dependant on a single place.

But Bittorrent can be blocked, and fairly easily. So we are dependant on a single protocol, as well! And while it can be used to bring podcasts in, it doesn’t (as far as I know) do anything for uploading podcasts.

It’s not just to defeat petty and/or moronic adminstrators that we need to think of this, either, but as a general robustness problem. A plurality of solutions is the way that the web survives — it is built into the very fabric of the Internet, in fact — and we should embrace that in every facet in order to fully be modern.

One method of avoiding these sorts of blocks is through proxies. Since HTTP is the only sort of general-use protocol that seems to be allowed on almost every Internet service, we should consider it our carrier. Since it is easy to block any given name or IP address by rule, we have to have the capacity for a large number of sites — both direct and indirect — that will simply be too big to block.

Alternatively, of course, we could “simply” have so much money that we pay the administrators not to block it, or find the political power to make such blocking illegal. (I, for one, would welcome a “Universal Internet Bill of Rights”, which properly casts it as the immoral act that I feel it is, and makes such blocking internationally illegal.)

But, short of that, consider this: what if your podcast host or web host participated? The power of podcasting seems to be in the community that it builds. What if we can make this not a problem of individuals, but a solution from the collective?

If every podcaster put up a proxy — somehow specifically for podcast transmission (up and down), at least in this initial context — then the number of avenues would grow immensely, and the blocking lists would not be able to keep up.

We would take the community to a whole new — and meaningful — level.

What do you think?

  • Am I just acting out of my own bitterness in my local situation?
  • Is this sort of thing feasible?
  • Is there a better solution?
  • Should the communication of podcasting be considered important enough that blocking it is immoral?
  • Are there technical reasons why this cannot be done?
  • Was I too emotional? I admit, having this particular problem has infuriated me, but also highlighted what must be — or could be — a very big problem.
  • Was this article meaningful? Have I strayed too far from my topic?
  • In case you are wondering, I’m looking into solutions like proxytunnel as a potential avenue for relief.

Podcasting Community Grand Central Station

"Phone Me" by spierzchala@Flickr; used under CC license“The community of podcasting” reminds me of an old-fashioned party line telephone. For those too young to know what that is — and I am just on the cusp, having experienced this technology at my grandparent’s place, never my own — back only a couple of decades ago, it wasn’t feasible to give everyone in a rural area their own phone line. Switching technology wasn’t as advanced as today, and it simply wasn’t worth stringing additional lines or putting up additional boxes or whatever they needed to do to get everyone their own line for customers that lived far enough apart, and didn’t really talk on the phone as much anyway. (No ordering pizza when you are 30km down a winding, possibly unpaved, possibly dirt/mud/rock-strewn roadway..)

Now, for each person to get their calls, they each had their own special ring — one long, two short, that one’s for Martha; two long, that was for the Demerchant farm; three short, that’s for you! This sort of open ringing system meant that, once you got to know the ring, you could see — or rather, hear — who was getting calls.

Since it wasn’t a dedicated line, there was another wrinkle: anyone could pick up the phone and hear and possibly interact in the conversation. The term “party line” probably didn’t refer to the idea that groups of youngin’s could get together and “party” on the line, but I’m sure that it eventually co-opted the term. Imagine: easy conference calling was once an accidental feature more available for rural customers!

Ok, so my (probably inaccurate but hopefully illustrative) history lesson is over. How do I draw the analogy to the podcasting community? I think it has to do with them both being open, rural, evolving, neighbourly and having distinct rings. View full article »

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