Category: Podcasting Is…

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…

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)

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I’ve struggled to define podcasting properly before. I’ve seen people (including me) use an enormous number of words, but I seem to have hit upon most of the key elements with this startingly short definition: “automated digital downloaded media”.

Let’s look at that definition in detail — in reverse.

  • “media”: We’ll be throwing this term around quite frequently. The basic meaning is one of conveyance: “media” is the truck on which our information is delivered. We could get that information in other ways (newspaper, TV, web site), but each medium tends to shape its content, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly. The question of how podcasting shapes its content will be a separate discussion on its own — perhaps many. Note that “media” doesn’t really imply that much about content. Podcasts are typically used to deliver video or audio content — although some occasionally deliver PDF texts — but might conceivably deliver any kind of media. This, too, will also get (at least) a post of its own.
  • “downloaded”: There are two different facets described by the term “downloaded”: method and asynchronicity. When we use the word “downloaded”, we silently add “from the Internet”. (At one point — and on rare occasions — we also talk about “downloading” from a computer, but most often we really meant “sync”.) We don’t talk of our newspaper being “downloaded” to our doorstep in the morning, or the act of transporting a DVD box-set from the store to our home as “downloading”. There’s also a sense that we initiated the action — we went and got the content, it was not delivered to us. The other facet, asynchronicity, gets implied by the past-tense of the word “downloaded”. It was an act we already did, a precursor to consumption. It implies that the time at which we get a podcast is different from when we consume it. I think this is a pretty important distinction: it pretty quickly separates podcasts from streaming media, where you consume it while it is coming to you, like live TV or uStream or radio.
  • “digital”: As a computer scientist (and what does that term mean, anyway?), I find the widespread use of the word digital to be somewhat amusing. The origins of the word are meaningless here — who really cares that it relates to fingers? — but it has become a catch-all term for anything which is not analog. There’s not much that really is an analog experience — not much besides real life, that is! — so this distinction isn’t quite as big as it once was. Primarily, it ties us back to the computer again, and suggests that it isn’t exactly part of real life, in a way. Digital media live in an imaginary, virtual world that isn’t exactly here or there, but somewhere else. (Or maybe this is really a definition fitting of the content of all media: it doesn’t exist unless it is experienced.)
  • “automated”: Downloading digital files (media) predates podcasting. I remember downloading and listening to episodes of some Internet-only shows long before podcasting, but it was a pain. When a new episode came out, I had to go check myself (or hopefully catch a notice in my churning email, if they sent one out), then find the link, download it, copy it to my portable device, then listen. When it was finished, I had to then take it off the device manually. The automation and streamlining of these tasks was a fundamental and tremendously important step in making podcasting important and widespread. Before, it was akin to having to tune a TV manually to a station, rather than just flipping between known channels and telling the PVR to “get me that program when it comes out”.

Whew! This definition contained a lot more information than I expected. What’s your definition?

Some things we learn because someone told us what they are. Other things we learn from experience, and we give that experience a name — in fact, the people who told us what things are might have learned them this way.

The question at hand, of course, is “what is podcasting”? What do I mean when I ask that question? Why does it seem even interesting?

First attempts at answering this question are usually something like what Wikipedia currently cites (and the first definition I cited in my presentation):

A podcast is a series of digital media files (either audio or video) that are released episodically and often downloaded through web syndication.

A later section cites work that I’ll look into further where a four-part definition of podcast is used:

A podcast is a digital audio or video file that is episodic; downloadable; programme-driven, mainly with a host and/or theme; and convenient, usually via an automated feed with computer software.

I have a problem with these definitions: they don’t actually answer the question — except in a very surface way.

Or, as I have come to call it: these things are the mechanic definitions of podcasting.

It’s understandable, really; from what I’ve learned about learning styles and the process of cognition, humans generally move from the more concrete descriptions of the world to the symbolic and abstract. It speaks not to the skills of the definer that these definitions lack any sort of real meaning, but rather to the newness of podcasting itself.

But this mechanical definition really gets us very little, and it’s not the question I’m asking anyway. One could have made a similar description about a car, describing the elegant dance of hardware, instrumentation and control that gives this hunk of plastic, metal and chemicals its forward mobility. It would be accurate, at least for a while — when the technology changes, this mechanical description either gets broader, changes, or simply gets abandoned.

But the “real” meaning of “car” is far more than the particular make and model, the parts and the construction, the history and the price. A car means providing vast mobility in a world previously ruled by rail and horses. A car means transforming cities to wrap them in ribbons of concrete towers to allow traffic to flow in a semi-orderly manner. A car means giving independence to millions who would have otherwise depended on the services of others to provide them with goods, and choices of where goods and services can be bought. A car means an increase in the use of and reliance on fossil fuels — or at least some energy supply. A car means having a portable office to some, a mobile house to others.

I could go on, but I think my point becomes clear: it’s much more than simple mechanical definitions that I’m after here: it’s that deeper meaning that I’m curious about. What is the impact of podcasting? How has this very young medium already shaped things (if at all)? How can it continue to do so? What should we seek to do with it, and how can we bring about such a future? Does podcasting deserve a seat at the big table with older, more established media, or is it resigned to the kid’s table alongside Youtube, flickr and Twitter?

That said, I will probably cover the mechanics of podcasting, both in a basic way (“here’s how a podcast is created, delivered, consumed”) and in a more explorative way (“how can we deliver podcasts differently?”).

But I see podcasting as much more — or at least, potentially so. Podcasting has, for me, entirely changed my pattern of media consumption. Podcasts are probably close to 80% of my media intake on any given day. (That’s a rough guesstimate; I’ll try to actually work out a proper number later.)

Have I answered my own question? Probably not. 😉 You may find that my inquisitive nature tends to raise more questions than it answers…

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