First World Podcast Problems
Stan Alcorn wrote a really brilliant piece about why audio isn’t as omnipresent in our online experiences as video is. He conducts interviews with many people responsible for sharing video, and audio, to dissect the reasons non-musical content is so seldom shared.
I agree with the points of many of the interviewees in regard to podcasts. Many of the things holding podcast-listening back are things that I see podcasters lament on Twitter. There is a lot of consternation over SoundCloud from some people, and a warm embrace from others. Their program is in beta, and appears to have some quirks. People want searchable, legible, text versions of hour-long podcasts to spread links about the really good stuff. Even the ability to jump to a specific moment in playback as part of a URL has been bandied about.
There is one thing Alcorn doesn’t elaborate on and that is for listeners willing to go down the full Podcasting Rabbit Hole, we are left without easy ways to change where, and when, we playback. We are trained by the podcast players to become creatures of habit. “Is it Tuesday? Can I listen to Back to Work live today? Well… I can listen to half… Should I wait?” “I need to force Downcast to refresh before I get off WiFi or I can’t listen to today’s Your Daily Lex because he has no web player.” “I streamed half this episode of Bionic in the browser… Where did I leave off?” Those all sound silly, but they are the minor annoyances that dedicated fans fret over.
Podcasting really relies on making listeners jump through these silly hoops; over-and-over, week-to-week. They are trivial, of course, but if fans need to think about these minor things then I imagine they must be part of what’s keeping the unwashed masses away from podcasts. Live listening is particularly annoying because you need to contort your schedule to get your happening-right-this-second dopamine fix. The 5by5 network has their own mobile, streaming-player apps, but there is no way to pause and record it like a DVR. There is no way to bookmark that location and shift it to your podcast player when the episode is available for download.
A huge improvement will come when people can pass time codes as arguments for players. Not because I want to manually format those time strings, but because I hope apps will helpfully offer to do that for me. They will say, “Here’s the bookmarklet to save your position to Downcast, or anywhere else.” Then I will drop to my knees, weeping tears of salty joy.
I could add the podcast to my podcast player, but that is often a commitment to a show you may only be trying out. Something that was linked to off of Twitter which may, or may not, suit your taste.
YouTube is, in any meaningful sense, everywhere. Likewise Vimeo. You can watch their short, burst-like content in one sitting, stack up URL’s for later, or sign in with your account and add it to a list.
It’s really that last thing that is crucial. Think about the other long-form media providers. Instead of YouTube, and Vimeo; think Netflix, and Hulu.
I can sign in to NetFlix on a toaster oven, or TV, and it will remember what I was watching and where I left it. Many podcast playing applications offer ways to sync, but they are extremely clunky and almost totally unreliable. Worst of all, your sharing, and syncing, is confined to that one application. Many apps let you export data about your feed as OPML to take in to another app, but that’s not syncing those player apps, that’s moving. SoundCloud is trying to work in this space, but their beta isn’t refined enough, and if it ever is, then it’s SoundCloud instead of iTunes with leverage over the podcasters. Multiple, federated, interoperable players should really be the goal instead of lining up behind one.
No Way In
Another way audio contrasts with video is that if we take an average, hour-long podcast and put it up against an hour-long TV show we start to see a huge difference in time. Podcasts don’t have the same series runs each year because they are mostly released weekly. How can you convince a friend to catch up on a podcast with 52 episodes? More than 52? This isn’t a podcast player problem at this point. Where’s the in point for a new listener? Are we all standing around in comic shops talking about how no one can start without starting at the first comic? There need to be starting points for people that aren’t
comic podcast geeks.
It is very easy to lay the blame for podcast-listening’s technical shortcomings on the developers, and on Apple’s iTunes Store, for basically stagnating, but the content creators should really feel empowered by this. They can really take charge of their platform for themselves. If a creator can make content more easily digestible, then they drive up their listenership. If they can make it easier for loyal users to share segments, wiki-transcribe bits, and push context-shifting, then they will be able to exponentially increase their reach.
If Merlin and Dan have a really great talk, and it’s 3/4 of the way in to the episode, how do I share that with the uninitiated without disclaiming, “Oh just skip all this because you won’t get it”? Only fans get that.
I have the flu, so I was trying not to say something silly about viral content but: viral, viral, viral, viral…
Update: Andrew Clark, Zac Cichy, and Bradley Chambers discussed many of these things in an episode of The Menu Bar that was released after my post went up. Enjoy this attempt at trying to share it.