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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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About half a year ago, I ranted about why I thought podcasting is silly. My feelings then were (reworded):

  1. Podcasting is not blogging, nor is it the “next” blogging.
  2. Podcasting is a form of broad_casting_, it will never suceed as an interactive medium.
  3. Podcasting suffers from weaknesses in lack of easy metadata abstractions and automatic interconnections.
  4. Most podcasters suck.
  5. Podcasters only talk about podcasting.

I stick by points 1 and 2. There has been some effort to combat point 3, in that there are several directories of podcasts now, and some of them are supporting tagging hierarchies and so forth. Still, there is no way to access the internal content of an audio file in an easy to index manner, so only the metadata volunteered by the content author is available, instead of the possibility of automatic index, relevance, and taxonomy creation.

Regarding most podcasters sucking, things are getting somewhat better. This is not because podcasters are getting better, but because of a slight turn in podcasting that I didn’t expect — proper public radio stations are starting to produce podcasts instead of streaming audio.

Let me go on record and state that I abhor streaming radio. I want to listen to the programs that I enjoy when I feel like it, whether it be in real time or two years from now. Streaming radio is great for live broadcasts of sporting events, or top 40 music stations. However, there is a real joy in listening to, say, This American Life episodes from a few years ago, rather than having to catch an episode at a specific time during the week or be SOL. That some public radio programs are selling CD/digital versions of their old programs helps, but it’s not widespread enough, and to a certain extent, I think that defeats the point of public radio. There are other solutions, but I don’t want to use some proprietary software to listen to an audio stream, I don’t want to be required to load a stream in a web browser, and I don’t want to use some proprietary scheduled transcoder to be able to pick up a show and listen to it at work/in the car/whatever on my portable listening device. Yes, I can use mplayer and rip a stream and transcode it myself, but it’s just stupid.

Public radio stations have a big problem, and that’s funding. Back on my old blog, years ago, I ranted about advertising a lot, and I ranted about advertising on public radio. Public radio has to badger its listeners all the time to raise funds, and has to seek out corporate patrons for additional financing. These corporate financiers have gone from “This program brought to you by XYZ corporation” to “Public radio WXYZ would not be possible without support from XYZ corporation — XYZ corporation, for all your product-buying and financial service needs; when you need an ABC, XYZ is there for you, visit www.xyz.com…” You get the idea. Anyhow, this isn’t a rant about advertising; it’s a rant about how public radio stations are always whining about money. This is for a good reason; public radio stations are expensive to operate, and people are stingy with contributions.

This digression has some relevance, but I need to step away from it for a moment. As I was saying before, some public radio stations have started flirting with podcast distribution of their programs. Here’s the genius of it: Throw in a little bittorrent or coral, a cheap commodity broadband solution, and now one has bootstrapped a distinct distribution and broadcasting solution for radio content with virtually no additional cost beyond a little bit of storage (dirt cheap these days), and the time to encode/categorize/store/seed content (most of which is already being done for streaming shows).

Let me tie this back to funding. Running and maintaining a radio transmitter is expensive work, and it’s a pain in the ass, with spectrum issues, and so forth. The listener base is limited (I have a hard time keeping a signal to my local npr station just on the drive to work, even with several frequencies available) in size, despite that many of these stations are almost entirely devoted to issues that are appealing at an (inter)national scope. My though it just kill FM and AM broadcasts. Save a ton of money and focus on issues of content, rather than media transport. Everybody could use ipodder and download their favorite programs / news segments / whatever, take them out to their car, and listen to them on the way to work / at work / whenever.

I know, I’m getting ahead of myself. There are two major issues with this: 1) Alienation: Millions of people that have no Internet, no digital media player, and listen to FM and AM radio each day will be left in the dark. This is much like the impending doom of analog broadcast television; there is no clean zero-impact way to do it. This does suck, but at some point we need to face the facts — analog FM/AM needs to die. 2) Guilt: This gets back to the funding problem; there’s no way for broadcasters to guilt people into donating — people just download programs, rather than turn their radio on to be assaulted by pledge drives. People no longer have any threat from a local affiliate running out of money, as they can download their favorite program from anywhere; they may not even care that their local npr station covers local issues.

Let me preface this by saying my most recent podcasting sample was not scientific or exhaustive. I have not been fair to the podcasters “not part of public radio.” I put that in quotes because I have a bit of a hunch that the future of public radio is podcasters, and that public radio as we know it is dead. The new public radio will be a payload of podcasted packets; it’s just a matter of time. I think Clear Channel made a brilliant move by bringing podcasts into a broadcast radio show over satellite. Free content for them, free distribution “on air” for the podcasters, more usage of the clear channel network, voila! Getting back to the point, independent podcasters (is this a more polite term?) are still talking about recording issues, still talking about podcasting more than content, and everybody still talks about Adam Curry. Enough about Adam Curry. I know, he used to be on MTV. I know, they had a bit of a tiff. I know, he’s a champion of podcasting. He’s been influential, motivating, and important, but he is not content. Do not confuse talking about Adam Curry with content, or independent podcasting will die a quick painful death.

I think bloggers went through a period when the media started paying attention to blogging, where all bloggers talked about was blogging. This nauseating practice was like going to a company picnic and asking everybody what they do. It’s polite chatter at best. Podcasting still seems to be in that phase, but I think things are reaching an inflection point where content will start to be the real focus, and quality content will start popping up, outside of things brought in from the traditional public radio spectrum.

These last few long-winded paragraphs are basically my way of saying that the last two original points I made are becoming moot; content is almost there, and I am starting to see how it will be the future. You win some and you lose some. I think what is going to be interesting in the coming months is to see how the existing public radio infrastructure and podcasting cooperate to become the future international distributed public radio system. I think some of the boundaries that exist in the “blogging is not journalism” seem much weaker when comparing independent podcasting to public radio, and if everybody plays nice things could get pretty interesting.