Is the Dust Settling On Podcasting?

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by: David Jennings

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.

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