Podcasts at this point in their development are most often radio-like segments that feature either a single voice, or a voice over music, or maybe, a couple of people talking to each other. The value in that, I suppose, is hearing those voices gives additional context (through inflection and tone and emphasis) beyond the transcript. But I think the potential for podcasts is much higher, particularly in relation to interactive digital storytelling. When working in conjunction with other modern means, such as hypertext and digital video and clickable photos, these little seeds of audio could be a powerful narrative engine to add to the mix. Like the package/briefcase/note in every mystery story that just begs to be opened.
A few have seen the value in digital audio production that virtually brings us back to the heyday of radio, when The Mercury Theatre ruled the airwaves with its presentations of fascinating and provocative stories, including its infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast. What has been lost in the rise of television and movies is the pure energy that sound on its own provides, and the side effect has been a video-induced laziness that has lured our culture into predominately using only one of our senses, funneling every experience through the lens of sight.
Podcasts can do virtually anything radio can do, except reach people unexpectedly. Like the best of the modern media, they can relate news, opinion, guides, journals, features, sports, statistics, reviews, etc.
National Public Radio right now, and The BBC have taken radio empires and adjusted them to this new delivery system. But the world is so much richer by not relying only on the companies that can afford large towers and FCC licenses. Try out any of the podcatchers around, such as MediaFly (others include iTunes, Juice, Nimiq and FeedDemon), and you'll begin to see the creativity and individuality that podcasting allows.
That said, the best of the work, at least in terms of production value, still comes from the usual suspects. Here are just a few examples:
* NPR's piece about bar-code hopping in SanFrancisco
* A KCRW tourism show, including a visit to Austin, Texas, for SXSW
* Or how about a vacation ... to Antarctica, by NPR
There are so many fantastic podcasts like that by radio veterans -- NPR, KCRW, BBC and the like -- at least in terms of the nonfiction content available, that competing voices will have to become quite sophisticated to compete. Or they will have to take a different tact, maybe a direction that didn't make sense before the dynamics of podcasting came into play. Fortunately, the costs of setting up a podcasting studio are minimal, at least compared to the historical costs of creating a competing radio station. A quiet place, with good acoustics (a small bathroom, or large closet, perhaps), a high quality microphone, and, at least in the beginning, a low-cost or free sound editing software, such as GarageBand (Mac) or Audacity (PC).
Intriguing to me are the ways in which podcasts can be used that radio isn't. Once again Web 2.0 interactivity should be considered. Can small-scale controllable bits of audio generate an interactive forum? I think so, but I haven't found any high quality examples. Can podcasts provoke action in superior ways to the generally passive radio audiences? I think so, but again, I'm not seeing that yet. Time shifting is important in the value of podcasts. So is the niche market. With commercial radio stations becoming less and less personal, and less and less local, can podcasts be the new voice in the air that talks directly to its listener? Can a new wave of unique and unusual voices reclaim the power of one of our lost senses? I'll be listening.
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