19 February 02006

Is the dust settling on podcasting?

Is it just me or are all the bubbles in the podcasting lather turning into a thin layer of slightly manky detergent on the surface of internet pond life? There was a spell last year, after iTunes first included podcast subscriptions, where the response to everything seemed to be "The solution is to start podcasting — now, what did you say the problem was?" This year there seems to be some sanity creeping into assessments of what podcasts might actually be good for.

Apparently the Ricky Gervais Show on Guardian Unlimited is going into the Guinness Book of Records as the most downloaded podcast. I subscribed to the podcast a few weeks ago, so I've helped contribute to the record, but I didn't get round to listening to one of the episodes until a couple of days ago. It was crap; like the Wayne's World cable broadcasts, but without the irony. As with most podcasts, I didn't get to the end.

Gervais's name alone draws an audience. Hitch a big name to a new technology fad, make it free, and watch your downloads go through the roof. The same thing happened when the BBC gave away free Beethoven downloads last year. But how many people actually listened to the Beethoven downloads all the way through? Is Beethoven really seventy times as popular as U2 at Live8, as the download comparisons suggest, or are people just downloading free Beethoven for the fun of being part of the digital generation? And then the 'success' of the Beethoven downloads backfired on the BBC. Just as Gervais's Guinness record will backfire on his reputation if all his downloaders actually listen to those podcasts.

But the nature of podcasts means that, happily for Ricky, they won't. The idea of podcasts — linking audio enclosures to RSS feeds — was intended to do for audio what RSS feeds did for aggregating text from multiple sources. But the ergonomics of text and audio mean that you can't just apply the same techniques from one to the other and expect them to work in the same way. Aggregating RSS text feeds via bloglines or a newsreader gives you a quick and convenient way of keeping up with a large number of blogs and other dynamic sources. You can skim the extracts quickly and home in on those that interest you.

The trouble is you cannot skim audio in the same way. There is no reliably quick way of telling whether a podcast is going to cover topics that genuinely interest you or not. The first thirty words of a blog article will normally give you some idea of whether it might be interesting: you can skim them in two seconds or less. The first ten seconds of a podcast, however, usually repeat the same standard introductory guff: "You're listening to the dooby-dooby podcast, brought to you by dozy-dozy, in association with [cue jingle] www.blah, blah, etc", leaving you none the wiser.

As a consequence, my podcast area of iTunes feels less like a way to keep up with the world of ideas and opinions, and more like just another email in-box, piling up with stuff that may be clamouring for my attention, but — and this is the clincher — it doesn't really need it, because it'll still be there later if I really want it. Unlike email, none of it needs a reply. So I can postpone listening to all the podcasts I've subscribed to, indefinitely. Which is just fine, because I'm busy now (probably sussing out another podcast to subscribe to).

In the case of podcasts like Roger McGuinn's Folk Den, there's really little point in me even downloading the podcasts, because, as long as McGuinn keeps his site there, I can get the files on-demand when I finally decide to listen.

One of the things that gives me some satisfaction in this procrastination is keeping an eye on those podcasts that started last year in the middle of the lather about "the solution is to start a podcast". Slowly they realise that it's quite a hassle recording new podcasts, and they haven't had so much feedback recently, so the new podcasts become less regular, and then they quietly curl up and hibernate. When they do, that's a good indication that their podcast was more a product of producer hope than listener desire, and I can cross them off my "must get round to listening to one day" list, making it slightly shorter for a change.

The Xfm Sessions podcast may be one such example. I have to say the sessions I've heard have been pretty good (and each one is focused on a particular artist or band, making it easier to determine whether I might be interested in them). With their mix of interviews and full-length tracks, I can listen to these all the way through — about twenty minutes — which is longer than I've ever managed to listen to Xfm's radio station. However, there was one podcast on 28th October last year, three on 10th November, and then it looked like the lights had gone out until a fresh podcast appeared last week, over three months after its predecessor. From a different domain, but showing an equally sporadic frequency of updates, the Connected Marketing Update published it first podcast in the middle of December, and then nothing until five more appeared in one day at the end of January. I know it's part of the beauty of RSS that you can go quiet for ages and then subscribers will still get updates when you start again, but it's still inconvenient for listeners if content delivery is so 'lumpy'.

The podcast I'm listening to most at the moment is Alan Watts' recordings. (Now that you find out I like hippyish ramblings about zen, your perspective on my comments here may alter.) Alan Watts has been dead for over thirty years, so clearly he's not making new recordings available week by week, and these podcasts could all be posted at once for people to choose whether to download one-by-one or just grab the lot. But the nature of Watts' material lends itself quite well to the twice-a-week update with the space between to digest. Must be a zen thing.

The serious point I take from this is that podcasting is a good technique for getting niche content to people who are committed to that content (because they're big fans, or part of a training course, or for any other reason). Personally I think it's less good for people who are just casually interested in a topic: simple on-demand downloads or streams are better suited to their needs. I'm also doubtful about podcasts as derivative material from more mainstream audio content, either in the BBC music radio model that just gives you the chat between the songs, or in the Ricky Gervais model that demonstrates that some people work better with a well-prepared script.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Human-Computer Interaction, Podcasting, Radio on 19 February 02006 | TrackBack

"Is it just me or are all the bubbles in the podcasting lather turning into a thin layer of slightly manky detergent on the surface of Internet pond life?"

Beatiful, just beautiful.

Posted by: Dave Hodgkinson on 19 February 02006 at 5:26 PM

"Is it just me or ..."

It's just you.

The past year in podcasting was the overture. Now that we understand the technical capabilities, more and more are building more and better infrastructure to support podcasting - ESPECIALLY in education. See www.classcaster.org where 50 law faculty are podcasting their courses (recording the classroom or creating weekly summaries). None of these folks knew much about blogs or podcasting before the project started.

As for reasons to love podcasting? See my post on this very topic ...



Posted by: John Mayer on 19 February 02006 at 6:35 PM

I'm with you on the murkiness of the podcast soup. Last November, I wrote about my problems with Podcasting -
and felt I had yelled the emperor has no clothes! I mused, "Is anyone listening to this stuff?" You've helped to answer that question!

Generally, I've been pleased with the quality of the podcasts I've found time to listen to - most in the Education Technology genre (you can review a sampling of my feeds here: http://www.gigadial.net/public/station/22554 - just to add to your unlistened to collection ;-)!! ) but I'm still frustrated by the inability to capture the thoughts or links whizzing through my ears on these things since I'm mostly listening to my podcasts while I walk or drive.

Happy swimming in the podcast lather on the internet pond (I love that!)!

Posted by: S. Lister on 19 February 02006 at 7:19 PM

Thanks to all concerned for their comments.

Just to be clear — particularly in respect of John's comments — I was not meaning to make a sweeping rejection of all podcasting as over-hyped. I was just meaning that, if the hype has died down a bit, perhaps we can reach a more sober assessment of what podcasting is well-suited to.

John, I can't reach your sites at the moment, but I will check back another day. It sounds to me like your educational applications may well fit what I said in the last paragraph of my post about "getting niche content to people who are committed to that content". That assumes that your students are committed to their course work, obviously (if they're not committed then automatically filling their hard disks with MP3s of educational material isn't going to help them become committed).

But what you're talking about is professionally prepared material targeted at a small, tightly defined audience — which is quite different from cut-up radio shows or comedians being less funny than they usually are.

Posted by: David Jennings on 19 February 02006 at 9:28 PM

I think you made the point.

Podcasting works fine for training (there's people successfully using it for language training and probably should work for doing soft-skills) and I think works pretty fine too as on-demand radio.

In Spain it's working nice with thousands of downloads for late-night radio shows... perhaps podcasting is the future of radio in the same way as TiVo could be the future of TV.

Posted by: Alvaro Gregori on 22 February 02006 at 5:01 PM

Great Article! I am an indie musician and love meeting like minded folks. Music is my passion in life and it reflects in my work. I will be back here often to read your new posts!

Posted by: John C. Michelson on 10 September 02011 at 12:17 AM
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