Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The value of podcasts

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.

5 comments:

Carie said...

Brett, I enjoyed your NPR podcasts. I listen to NPR radio, but I've not listened to podcasts until this class, so I like having the recommendations to focus on well-created programs. I like the way NPR incorporated sound throughout the podcasts, particularly in the KCRW show to break up long strands of information.

I hadn't thought of the cost difference between radio and podcasts. My father was in public relations during the Vietnam War (remember "Good Morning, Vietnam"? Dad was the USAF counterpart in Thailand.) so we grew up with radio being an important part of our lifestyles. Plus, living overseas in the 1980s, we didn't have numerous television stations in our own language, so we depended even more on radio.

I think you are correct that podcasting "stars" will need to establish themselves in unique ways, particularly because the pool of competition for information is larger. Also, we'll have untrained "stars" participating because podcasting is becoming a household word, if not an activity. (I could not believe how many school podcasts I heard this week. Even the children were learning to perform with their voices!)

Speaking of interactivity, I did see podcast contests online today, which encourages the audience to create podcasts to respond to the call for amateur podcasts for advertising. Interesting marketing ploy, don't you think?

Monica said...

Interesting post, Brett. I think the value that podcasts can bring is that, as you mention, they fill the needs of many niche markets. Spend a little time browsing the podcasts on iTunes and you'll find podcasts for every conceivable hobby or interest: tatting, airsoft guns, bird watching, bonsai tending, cookies, cuisanarts, juggling, legos, whiskey and zombies (!) and that's just one category searched. The trouble I have with podcasts and likely the reason I haven't embraced RSS feeds for automatic download is that they feel to me like an encumbrance, one more media channel to which I have to attend and frankly I just don't have the time for more media unless it fills some productive purpose for me. I do love, however, that podcasts have opened up an entirely new medium for people who want to share their voice. As to the quality of what they all have to say... well, that's another post for another time.

Jessica Badger said...

Brett, I agree that podcasts should fill the niche market roles that are no longer interesting to radio management. Local stations seem to get swallowed up by larger national conglomerates at an ever increasing rate. However, the best podcasts that I found were created by corporations, so the budget is there. I found one podcast that was rather like a radio show, but it ended up having too much of a "morning show" vibe for my tastes.
I am interested in seeing the interactivity of the podcasts increase, but I am not sure how that would be accomplished.

Melody Wainscott said...

Brett,
I enjoyed this blog, particularly your reference to our "lost sense" of listening.

When I was taking classes through Education at TTU, they taught us that only 4% of the population could learn auditorily. That was in the early 90's. When I tried to find that statistic recently, I found references to 30% of the population now being able to learn auditorily.

Personally, if the auditory is "musical", I'll remember it. Some people have well-trained voices, with speech patterns that are likely to hold a certain audience, like many on NPR, as in your example of barcodes in SF. Here we have an audio podcast about new technology that will be visual :) . Because the voices are interesting to listen to, I learned some information that I know I will remember. It's that way with many of the programs on NPR.

Being auditorily challenged as most of us are these days reminds me of our lost oral tradition in general with the invention of writing, particularly the printing press. I see mini-epidsodes of this in the current population of youth...we discussed this in Baake's Foundation of TC...who will not respond to voicemail, but who will respond to text messaging on their phones. My communication with my 22-yr old son increased dramatically when I enabled that device on my phone.

I agree that podcasting has great potential to fill a needed niche. I think the voices will have to not only be unique and unusual, but must be well-trained to motivate to action. And the more we listen, the more we will learn to listen.

Thanks for a very interesting blog.

Melody

Chris said...

Great post on voice, sound, and sense, Brett. I'm pretty excited about the potential for this technology after reading what you've had to say here.

You make a good point--podcasting is a bit of narrative spice. I'm thinking particularly of how I used it in my last major website update--I posted a quick thirty-second bit (barely a podcast, really) that talks about my plans for future updates on a particular page. The idea, of course, is not only to record my own thoughts at a particular moment, but also to keep those who happen upon the page from thinking "there's nothing here, so I'm never coming back." At the very least, they might come back if they know that updates are coming soon (and that I took the trouble and extra few minutes to record a message about it, rather than just using an "under construction" .gif).

(new tangent, back to radio)

Is podcasting Radio 2.0? My youngest sister Loves (with a capital L) old radio shows. She's got tapes and tapes of the old "Suspense" show. I think that kind of storytelling (and its peculiar type of advertising) is a great loss--hopefully the podcast is a return to this. (Of course, only if one's podcast gets enough ratings on iTunes or another podfeeder.) I actually kind of wish I had some sort of commute to work each day so that I could get a chance to sit down and catch up on some of my favorite voices.