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?