"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.

Podcasting happens out in the open

Podcasting does not happen behind closed doors. Ok, so the creation of podcasts usually does, but podcasts are presented to the public, on blogs and open RSS feeds. We chat about them openly. Podcasters are some of the most open people in the planet, I’ve found. They almost universally have a blog, Twitter account, public email address and, of course, their podcast. You can approach them at conventions. You can swap war stories of podcast production, share tips, often get involved in their podcast or ask them if they would be involved in yours. They are people with voices who want to share, who don’t mind sharing — and they don’t mind if the world knows it.

There are exceptions of course: private, paid podcasts exist — although all the ones that I can think of all act as additional material to a public podcast. The ultimate try-before-you-buy approach.

Podcasts sometimes feel like a conversation between a group of friends, too, with their own language, their own culture, their own community. But you can eavesdrop on these conversations, get familiar with the community and, if you feel brave enough, you can leap in and participate.

Big city media types can’t get it — it’s happening in the rural countryside

There is sometimes talk of how “podcasting is taking over mainstream media”, but the truth is probably close to “podcasting is drowning mainstream media”. I don’t think that the point should be to become mainstream media — centralized, mass-marketed, least-common-denominator-to-capture-all-people mass media — but rather to offer what is not offered by mainstream media. It serves small communities very well, and I think people are starting recognize that the world is really made up of numerous, distinct-yet-crossing-over, smaller-than-Neilson-can-measure communities.

Podcasting can happen in the major centres of media. In fact, some savvier companies are leaping on-board — although they often don’t seem to be able to distinguish between “advertising” and “content”, and between “region” and “audience” — but they don’t really have much success in adapting. They’re market is “sell the widget that everyone wants”, with their money coming from convincing advertisers that they have the biggest audiences.

That hasn’t worked so far in podcasting and frankly I can’t see it ever working. Podcasting is about niches, because it provides the best advantage to the smaller producer. By keeping their productions basic but their content good, the “amateur” producer can provide to their niches of interest for virtually no (material) costs. The big companies can’t do that.

Podcasting is also ridiculously hard to really judge audience size. Sure, people point to their server statistics as an indication of audience size, but then have to aggregate on-web embedded plays (if they even count them), and try to account for other distributions outside their control.

And what’s a big podcast audience? What’s a small one? How big does it have to be to advertise on?

With the ease of podcast production, the audience will be perpetually saturated. There are no networks, no broadcast restrictions (at least not inherent in the system), no restrictions (aside from music..). Because they have lost their advantages of scale and control, big players can’t make it in this market; only small ones can.

Podcasting ain’t what it used to be — ain’t what it’s gonna be, either

The technology behind podcasting is dead simple: maintain a list of where you can get episodes, and people can get a program to check the list periodically, note what’s changed, and download it. That’s it, really..

Of course, we also add on top of that blogs, forums, podcatchers, portable devices, embeddable chapters, multimedia, (ID3) tagging, media formats, comments, album art, email, phone lines, etc..

But this notion of community came out as a by-product of podcasting technology, a side-effect of it being out there and not a planned part of the idea. It’s flourished as more tech gets added, but the emergent properties aren’t defined by the tech. We need to see what we’re doing right, and try to be more deliberate about it, take advantage of it and leverage it to do more and better.

If podcasting is to survive, it must do this. It must evolve and change, try things — many things, some of which will fail — and try to not stultify, become staid or worse: alienate the very audience it is trying to satisfy.

I’ve seen corporate attempts at expanding podcasting. Some of them work, but many seem to be just applying old media, closed-world, control-and-mass-market approaches. There are some successes (Libsyn and Podiobooks, for example), but we need more, and forward-looking, open technologies.

Can I borrow a cup of sugar?

The podcasting community is made up of friends and neighbours, with a common interest in podcasting and a generous attitude toward the community. I think we recognize this generally, but we should probably keep it in mind, especially when we choose to make it into business.

But where is the community support? Where do podcasters gather to swap stories, seek advice? In a mirror of podcasting itself, the communities seem to be scattered and cliquish. We don’t have one space where things come together, we have a lot of spaces where things are spread apart. There seems to be some need for a more central set of decentralized-but-connected resources, some bringing together of the community — or at least a promotion of what we already have.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of podcast novel sites out there — but what Podiobooks does well is bring them under one roof, which increases crossover of audience between books. This is vitally important, and something we should probably consider for other genres of podcast.

The most prominent common spaces we seem to have are the undersubscribed and somewhat quiet Yahoo! Podcasters mailing list and the numerous podcast directories out there. General directories are lifeless places, really, no more current and interesting than telephone books. Specific directories, at least minimally curated and organized, with a shared space for niche participants to discuss their craft, interests and discoveries, these are the lifeblood of community. Witness the Audio Drama Directory or Audio Drama Talk.

One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy! Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

One last comparison to the party-line: the distinct ring. This one has a more direct analogy: podcast promos. Specifically, the swapping of podcast promos spreads knowledge about other podcasts, is a community-building and community-serving activity. It lets people who are just casually observing them be aware that there is another conversation going on, and that maybe they might want to be interested in it. It is a signal that over there, on that distant hill, in the little lit house surrounded by wide open fields, something might be happening.

And now, a word from our Audience!

Well, my community, what do you think?

  • Is there really such a thing as a “podcasting community”? Or is there a better label for it?
  • How do we help the community thrive? Or should we do anything at all, given that it is an emergent feature of podcasting?
  • What hurts this community? What helps it?
  • I’ve drawn a separation between “big media” and “podcasting”, as far as community is concerned. Is this unfair? Is this distinction real, or necessary?
  • What other examples of podcasting community do you know of?
  • One criticism of the podcasting community is that it is an “echo chamber” – it only echoes it’s own (positive) voices. Is this true? If so, how do we fix it?
  • Another criticism of podcasting is that it is too cliquish. I would argue that this is a strength, and not a weakness, a merit and not a problem. What do you think about that? Is clique a natural by-product of a tight-knit community, or a barrier to healthy community growth?
  • There are a lot of podcasters out there — estimates place the number of podcasts between 80,000 and 120,000. Does the sheer number of podcasters prohibit any kind of coherent community?
  • Do you know of a good estimate of the sizes of podcasting (number of shows, number of listeners, number of genres, averages, etc)? I’m dying to find some.
  • Is this article any good? Where have I gone wrong? What other sources or web sites should I consider?

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