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..)

Now, every TV comes with a remote. Heck, some TVs don’t have any manual controls at all any more. But the number of channels grew again, but not everyone liked all of them. The “Favourite Channel” sub-list was created, allowing you split a small group from the huge morass of video goodness.

Surprisingly, I haven’t seen many systems which are much more sophisticated than this. At least, not for televisions. YouTube (and many other video sites, I’m vicariously sure) has multiple favourites lists, all of which are arbitrarily named by the consumer. Many other mediums and domains have adopted this simple trick to allow consumers to manage the flood of things coming at them.

And yet, my podcasts are still delivered as a lump.

Podcasting quickly moved from the few channel to the million-channel universe, far more rapidly than radio (which never did, as local markets never have that much space) or TV (which arguably is there, but local markets seemed to be capped out at the 500 level).

The web is built of information, and all successful things on the web are searchable. We haven’t quite gotten the hang of how to organize the web in a personal way yet (we seemed to have stalled out at bookmarks, and now assume Google will find it for you), and we’ve had even less success with podcasts.

At least we moved beyond the simple concept of “consumer manually finds and downloads individual episodes” to “consumer has a tool to subscribe to podcasts to download them on their behalf”.

But what’s next?

I’ve lamented that the market for podcatchers seems remarkable and inexplicably small. There is so little competition in this space that iTunes wins almost by default. And yet iTunes hasn’t done much to really make podcasting any better for a while.

One can argue that it is not actually in Apple’s best fiscal interests to make podcasting better. After all, podcasts are likely free, they are largely unregulated, sometimes contain infringements, and no one profits from them.

(Well, not “no one”, but I would suggest that the number is statistically insignificant..)

iTunes is there to make it easy for you to consume stuff you’ve paid for. Granted, they’ve been removing DRM from the process, but even the presence of DRM suggests controls for economic — and not logical, functional or useful — reasons.

The one saving grace from newer versions of iTunes is the growing sophistication of Smart Lists, allowing people with some logical mindset to build cascading collections of Smart Lists to manage our podcast collections. In this way, they’ve essentially outsourced the feature of podcast management to the consumer.

Alternatively, I’m seeing more and more movement to end-device podcast management. You can subscribe and order podcasts on your mobile phone or tablet, for example. This sounds like a good idea, but it’s a lot like sorting the books on your desk while the books on your shelves are in random order: local changes which don’t help the larger context.

So, where do we go from here? What’s the next step?

I think part of what needs to be considered is how podcasts can be organized. I will share in another article how I organize my podcasts for listening, and how I’d like to be able to do it. Feel free to suggest how you might do it.

Some questions to ponder:

  • Do you know of alternative podcatchers? If you have any experiences (positive or negative) with them, please leave a comment.
  • Why is the podcatcher market so small, despite the steady increase in interest in podcasts?
  • Is there an increase in interest in podcasts, or are on-web players and manually downloadable files where the majority of interest lies?
  • How do you organize your podcasts? How would you organize them, if you had the tools?
  • How many podcasts do you listen to? Is there enough to organize?
  • What meta-data do you wish podcasts came with? Frustratingly, podcasts within iTunes are automatically labelled with the genre “Podcast”, which is redundant when the more formal “Media Kind” metadata also labels things as “Music”, “Video”, “Audiobook” and “Podcast”.
  • What organizational tricks do you have?
  • What analogies from other organizational groups can be useful? Is it useful to consider the card catalogue or Dewey decimal system, or the subscription super-pack model?

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