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)

Podcast directories aren’t working — except iTunes. Just out of curiousity, I thought I should look at two of podcast directories I could still name immediately, to see if they were still active: Podcast Alley and Podcast Pickle. Both of these were once the most important places one could list your podcast, the place to get exposure. Now, I’m not so sure… I’m sure they are still made by the earnest people (and the scripts written 5 years ago..) who think they are doing something really good for podcasting, but have no ideas what that should be. Of the two, the Pickle has tried the most things, but seems to garner less attention. The Alley was famous for getting podcasters to grovel to their listeners and direct them there to vote, thus getting them a temporary accolade.

But I look at them now, and I weep a little.

They’ve grown stagnant. Podcast Alley seems permanently frozen in time. The “top 10 podcasts” list seems to have no current podcasts — checking each of them reveals no “recent episodes” beyond early last year, despite the fact that some of the podcasts have definitely continued.

Podcast Pickle looks like it has been on a severe diet, all of its features removed in favour of something slender but ultimately weightless. It still seems to keep current, in some ways, but also has an abandoned feeling — the predominance of spam posts as the most recent activity in the forum is a definitely disturbing sign.

I get the feeling that these are now only automated systems, like some sort of creepy post-apocalyptic horror movie where the heroes have crossed the world searching for the source of a hopeful signal, only to find dusty skeletons seated in front of humming automated systems.

Where’s the passion go? Was it the lack of reward? The desperate monetization phase of podcasting was worrisome at the time, filled with vague dreams of “quitting the day job” and a few — a very, very, very few successful examples. This created a bubble of expectation that burst all over those who ventured, seed money in hand, into this new territory.

It didn’t pan out — at least, not that way. Frankly, the question of monetization is one that plagues everyone once they start working harder on producing good content. The transition from something which was fed from a person’s cognitive surplus to something that requires actual capital has destroyed more podcasts than computer crashes, legal battles or personality conflicts ever will.

And yet…

Podcasts still get produced.

Podcast still are appreciated.

People still want it, and people still do it.

The best analogy I can draw right now is with music. Most bands don’t generally seem to make much of their money from the sales of CDs. They make it from performances and dedicated fans. They don’t need a large slice of the pie, just a big-enough slice. Not everybody commands the superstar status and paycheck of U2 or Adam Curry — and I think that podcast producers should stop thinking that way.

As for directories.. They were necessary when podcasting began, but the swell of social media and the ease of web search makes them largely redundant. The same social network which can deliver news and podcast recommendations across the internet and spread it to the people who want it most may also lead to the ultimate survivability of podcasts, but that’s another topic.

Oh, and iTunes? It has the sycophant’s chance of glory, riding the unstoppable whale of Apple, successful not necessarily because it has any particular merit (although I’ll admit that it’s got some reasonable worth) but because it is an integrated part of a very popular vertical ecosystem.

That seems a bit negative, given that I use iTunes daily, but it hasn’t been doing any really positive things for podcasts for a while, either from the point of view of consumers or producers. As a massive podcasting consumer, I find no real way to organize podcasts properly. As a producer, it suffers from regionalism for its comments (as a Canadian, I don’t easily see non-Canadian — e.g. US or UK — comments and ratings!) and end up largely in the same bucket as every other podcast.

What can be done about this? I mean, it’s fine for me to criticize, but what would I do better? Alright, I’ll accept that challenge!

How’d I’d Make Directories Better

Tags, Not Categories

The days of simple categorization are over. Or rather, categorization is only useful when simple. For more complicated searches, use tags. Encourage people to tag shows — both their own and others. This free-form method of organization is best suited to the always-changing collection of podcasts.

Important Stats: Update Rate, Average Length, Length Deviation, Recency

I don’t really care that a podcast has a thousand episodes — I don’t have time to listen to them (unless they are really, really good!). I care that the podcast has been updated in the last month, or that it tends to update once a week or once a year, or that it has episodes that average 15 minutes in length, or that the deviation of episode length is +/- 60 minutes (shows can vary from week to week by as much as 60 minutes).

Popularity Scores That Age Well

I don’t care if this show is the most popular of all time, if that time stopped in 2008. It’s an amusing statistic, but not helpful. I also don’t care that people voted last month for a particular podcast, because votes are the result of campaigning — especially if you can only vote for one podcast in a group each month.

I care about how many people “like” a podcast — or rather, how many people tend to like each episode, on average.

I care that the subscriptions are stable.

Stop Advertising Crap Repeatedly

I know you have costs to cover, that you hope to make this into a viable business. These are laudible goals. But you are turning me off if I see the same banner ad on four places of each page.

Strip down the advertising, chew up some of the costs, find more advertisers or stop advertising altogether.

Stop crushing the content into small parts of the page and making the auxiliary stuff dominate. Free the space up a bit, tear down the ugly bulletin boards and skyscrapers, put the parks back in..

Oh, and please refresh your look from time to time. Stagnant water doesn’t breed involvement, it breeds flies..

Grow A Community, and Give It Sunshine And Water

No one can afford to fully staff a proper directory. Podcasts come and go too quickly, too numerously. There’s too much work to be put on a few people. But a community is different: it spreads the work.

Wikipedia can’t be done by 5 editors at a major publishing company. It couldn’t be done with 100 of them. It’s done by thousands of volunteers, providing a proper service, a participatory service.

Podcasting is already a participatory community. This doesn’t just mean forums and polls, this means rolling up sleeves, doing things.

Faint Hope Clause

Podiobooks.com impresses me. It’s taken a different route, and it gets better. Constantly. Yes, it’s a specialized place, and it’s as much a content host as a directory, but it actually grows. It does more to advance the fledgling cause of podcasting in a year than any directory has in the last 5 years.

The Last Word

It’s been a while, so perhaps some pent-up vitriol has surfaced. I still have a firm belief in the power of podcasting and that the medium is special and should be advanced, but I grow weary, fearful and bitter when I see it squander the attention and power it already has. At one point, podcast directories were needed to get some grasp on the vast growth of available content, but they never seemed to progress.

What Do You Think?

  • With the sudden ubiquity of podcasts, are they now simply just another thing you Google? Are collection points like directories redundant, like the hierarchical directories of the early web (where Yahoo! came from)?
  • Are specialized directories the way to go? Or is it all down to the power of social media now, with people cross-linking? Is it all decentralized now, or is there something centralized that is still needed?
  • Are directories something like the YouTube of podcasts? If that’s the case, why does YouTube work? Is it because they can play and host them there?
  • Are there examples of really good podcast directories out there? I haven’t heard of any lately, but then again, I haven’t really been looking hard. What about defunct directories that had good ideas that should be resurrected?
  • What other models from other areas could be applied to podcasting? I mentioned YouTube, but what about others?
  • Is the purpose of a directory is promote, expose and allow consumers to find producers? If not, what is it?

As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.

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