(This is the second part of a two-part series of posts inspired by the #podcrit discussion on Twitter of 2010-06-05/06. The first part is here.)

The second factor is largely a technological one. Podcasting hasn’t really changed since it began, despite the fact that it has grown so big. For the most part, I think podcasters have largely rested on their laurels, content to simply put out podcasts in the form that exists now, rather than innovating to make the form better. For most, that’s a reasonable notion. But podcasting needs to innovate, or it will drown in its own success.

There are a “huge” number of podcasts out there. It’s very easy to create a new podcast, and a lot of people do it. Not every podcasts lasts, but enough do to make it a constantly-increasing field. This is a good thing, as it gives some assurance that podcasts will continue to be made, that the medium will self-sustain. Even if all the “big” podcasts out there jump out — those that are just big within podcasting, and those which represent arms of traditional media — there is a good chance that podcasting will survive.

Podcasting addresses niches. The distance between a “podcast producer” and a “podcast consumer” is very short, and gets crossed over all the time. When a podcast consumer makes a comment — whether written or phoned in — that makes it into the show, they become part of the show, they are bridging that tiny gap between consumer and producer. Sure, they may never contribute again, but it counts.

This is one of the remarkably interesting features about podcasting. It borrowed it from blogging, of course, but takes it even further: blogging doesn’t roll the comments from a previous episode into a future episode, which is exactly what podcasting does. (One might also point to magazine letters and op-ed pages in newspapers as similar notions, which is true, but they are somewhat ghettoized, pushed off to a separate section that can be more easily skipped due to the random-access nature of paper over the linear-access of podcast audio/video.)

These are good things, but they also contribute to what some have called the “echo chamber effect”, in that we only hear comments and promote ourselves to those who are already within the chamber. I think we are super-saturating the consumers already within the podosphere, and not doing enough to bring more listeners in.

I believe the fault is largely technological. I believe the fault lies with podcast directories. (And some related things…)

Name a current podcast directory. Now, name a second, and a third. Can you name a fourth? How about a fifth? (I got to 3, then had to go look one up. Mine were, in order: iTunes, Podcast Alley, Podcast Pickle.)

Now, which one did you check last?

And did the last podcast you subscribed to come from a directory find, or a personal recommendation?

What about the first subscription? The tenth?

Now, think about the last video you watched online. Where did it come from? Did you read a reference that someone embedded in a blog post? Did you follow a link shared by a friend? Did you follow a link from a previous video, and another before that?

One of the articles I have brewing is a comparison of podcasting and YouTube, by the way.. They are vastly different, but here are a couple of highlights:

  • Podcasting is largely long-term; YouTube is largely short-term.
  • Podcasting can’t be “previewed” easily today; a YouTube snapshot says a lot.
  • YouTube is easily embeddable; is your podcast?
  • YouTube has central ratings, comments, recommendations; does you podcast?
  • YouTube can be browsed by anyone on the web (within some country restrictions); iTunes cannot. (Not entirely true, but the real architecture of iTunes on the web really tries hard to drive you back to the iTunes application, and isn’t friendly for other podcatchers, or your website.)

So, one thing that becomes much more clear is the notion of shareability. YouTube videos are generally one-off experiences that last <10 minutes (an informal experiential figure; please feel free to point me at actual statistics). That’s a different market than most podcasts. (I am primarily discussing audio podcasts here; video podcasts can largely fit within YouTube’s model, I believe.)

Most podcasts are long-term experiences. You subscribe to them to hear it from that point onward (and sometimes from the beginning to that point as well). You build a relationship with a podcast; it’s intimate, like radio used to be.

You should be able to share that experience and that passion — share it everywhere, but also in a public directory.

iTunes has some great features. Being everywhere isn’t one of them. Innovating is also not one of its great features.

The other directories are falling behind, stopped most of their innovation a long time ago. Podcast Pickle, for example, looks much better than it did a few years ago — but it’s “what’s changed recently!” link is over a year old. Podcast Alley still looks the same as it did 4 years ago, although at least it’s blog is only 3 months out of date — although every search I seem to do brings up dead podcasts that last had an episode several years ago.

This is killing podcasting for new listeners. You know what isn’t?

  • Cross-promotion: I hear NPR, CBC and the BBC all making references to their podcasts. Books are starting to recognize podcasts as promotional and supplementary tools. Bands also sometimes recognize that getting their music onto podcasts can be at least as effective as creating a crappy MySpace page.
  • iTunes: despite it’s very limited capabilities, at least it changes from time to time — although not nearly enough, and not in any sort of leading way. It does put podcasts right beside music, and since they have the number 1 music player in the world, there is hope that some enticement will be there.
  • Personal recommendations: most of the last 100 podcasts I’ve listened to have come from things people have recommended to me in person, people I’ve met, things mentioned on social networks (for me, primarily Twitter).
  • Random searches: sometimes, people just do a search for something and a podcast turns up. Suddenly, they are a click or two away from consuming it, and that subscribe link better be only 1 more link away.

Notice that only one of those three really is a directory? Shouldn’t that be one of the places for discovery? And that directory isn’t even really public, or friendly with anything but Apple’s ecosystem!

The human part of this seems obvious, even if it is a lot of work: tell people about podcasting. Tell your friends, tell your relatives, tell your social groups. Put up posters on open bulletin boards that are tailored to that area — put a list of gaming podcasts up at your local gaming/comics shop, a list of philosophy podcasts (and maybe comedy podcasts) outside the philosophy student lounge at your university, a list of fiction podcasts up at the local library. Make those little tear-off tabbed sheets that have a single, short, easy-to-remember URL on them. Leave business cards with a URL on one side and a podcast description (not even your own!) on the other. Volunteer to give talks about podcasting. Drop podcasting into casual discussions about baking or haircuts or what might living in your drain.

The technological solution here is to build better, more useful directories, and add the things that we need to make them useful.

Here are some ideas for what a new directory (or a refashioned directory) should have:

  • relevance: some podcasts might be classed as “evergreen“, which is to say, their content never grows old. Most do not. If you don’t have at the very least sorting by last update, you should at least include the search option for “current” podcasts or some note of the last update of the podcast.
  • tagging: each podcast feed and each podcast episode should have a descriptive set of freeform tags which can be searched on. This is meta-data beyond even the shownotes that every episode should have, and this is something that has to be a through-line from producer to consumer. (Aside: here’s a wacky idea: use voice-recognition to drag out the tags from your episode, aided by your show notes..) In order to work properly, we need better tagging tools. I don’t know about other producers, but I load my podcast up in iTunes to see if the tags are correct (and inevitably correct them). This is the wrong tool.
  • critics and critical recommendation: there should be a specific area set aside to highlight and feature criticisms of episodes, as well as a blog where critics can talk about the process of criticism, standards they apply, etc. Critic feature ratings (not just a summary rating!) and a summary should appear with each podcast listing.
  • personal recommendation: a consumer should be able to make a personal recommendation for shows, both with ratings and with commentary. A consumer should be able to create their own page, and have them list and comment on their podcast favourite.
  • channels and niches: a collection of hand-picked podcasts satisfying a particular theme or niche. Anyone who uses eMusic is familiar with their Lists of recommended albums. (Well, I suppose there are top lists all over the place, really…) Imagine creating a channel which expresses some continuity, a theme or a niche representation. Imagine being able to have all those subscriptions in one place, with hand-picked best episodes, best episode by ratings, best critically-acclaimed episode, most recent episode playable widgets. (Aside: ultimately, imagine being able to manage your podcasts within your podcatcher as channels as well, being able to treat them as a logical group. This is a feature I, as an avid podcast consumer, really wish I had..)
  • exportable widgets for a podcast’s own site: a podcast should be able to proudly display their ratings and recommendations from the directory. I think directories see themselves as end locations too often. They are not: they are really just connecting spots between podcaster producers, between podcast consumers, and between podcasts. As such, they should reach out more to provide a bit of their content for the podcast producer’s page. It will only help both.
  • genres: we need real genre information in podcasts. This issue deserves (and will get!) it’s own post and episode, but right now podcasts do not have even the slightest bit of proper genre classification. The genre tag in MP3/ID3 was created with music in mind (and even there, falls short..), but it must be either extended to include a suitable set of podcast genres or a separate tag should be created for that purpose.
  • connections between shows, wikipedia style: in the description of a podcast, it should be extremely easy to reference other podcasts inline in the text, as well as podcast producers. The power of Wikipedia’s interconnection should be harnessed to make this as easy as typing.

I’m looking forward to more discussion on this. Some of this I tried to communicate via Twitter last night, but it has grown in the interim and in the writing of it.

If you are on Twitter, use the #podcrit hashtag to become part of the conversation; I’ll continue to monitor it. Otherwise, feel free to comment here, email understandingpodcasting (at) gmail.com or telephone 1-206-203-2292.

Here’s a repeat of the questionnaire from the first part, with some additions:

  1. What technological changes do you think should be made? Do you think there is a need for better podcatchers? Do you think there needs to be better tools for podcast production or tagging?
  2. What other features should a new directory have? Do we need to have something visual to attract new audiences? What about the mobile aspect of smart phones and apps?
  3. What other modern social web experience techniques can and should be brought to bear on the spreading of podcasting?
  4. What genres would you list for podcasting? (This will be in an upcoming post/episode of its own.)
  5. Did you find this post to be well written? If not, where do you think it needs improving?
  6. Did you find this post to be factual and coherent? If not, where did the author make mistakes or make giant leaps of logic?
  7. Did you find this post to be too long or too short? Where did the author write too much, or where should the author expand on their ideas?
  8. There were no illustrations in this post. Do you feel that it could have used an illustration or two? What sort of illustrations would have helped?
  9. Have you subscribed to the Understanding Podcasting podcast? If so, how did you find out about it? If not, you can find the subscription button on the right hand side.
  10. Do you know of other blog posts or podcasts which are discussing this material? If so, please list them — specific links are really helpful, but general Google-able information also works. If not, what other material in this area do you think should be addressed?
  11. This questionnaire is largely a repeat of what I used in the first post. If you were me, what would you be seeking feedback on? What questions would you ask?

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