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The RoBlog
Sunday, January 09, 2005
The RobCast: A Response to Scott Fletcher
This podcast touches on some points brought up by a podcast by Scott Fletcher that I found on OpenPodcast.org.

I'm currently reworking my audio transcription setup, so instead of the usual bad transcription, here are the notes that I made (and then strayed almost entirely from) for the podcast.

Show Notes
Sunday, January 9, 2005
The RobCast
An audio supplement to my blog at theroblog.blogspot.com

Scott Fletcher (diagonaluniverse.com)
"Podcasting will make us like the French"

Yes, Podcasting is the new Word (or Aldus Pagemaker if you're talking about publishing)

Podcasting is the enabling technology. It's not about "improving the selection or the quality of the content" per se. Arguably it improves the selection over traditional radio, and even satellite radio, but this technology is only in its infancy; less than 6 months old!

Certainly, as the amount of content explodes, we will need ways of filtering through all of the stuff that is uninteresting, offensive, or just plain bad; this applies to the Internet as a whole (and Internet publishing is probably a better metaphor than paper publishing).

"Broadcasters" as Fletcher defines them, are exaclty that: People who communicate to a large audience. All forms of commercial radio rely on mass adoption to pay for the costs of distributing the content (owning radio stations and transmitters, or satellites). To reach a mass audience, a "broadcaster" needs to have qualities that are appreciated by some large segment of the population. This often starts with a "broadcast" quality voice, which Fletcher himself has in spades. From there, the requirements drop off rather quickly. Ability to read copy in an interesting manner is definitely up there. The ability to make statements that a large number of listeners can support (or love to hate) is as well. The ability to prod callers and guests into saying things people find interesting probably rounds out the top of the list.

Notice that none of this means that a broadcaster must have a high degree of intelligence or subtlety (though a good deal of broadcasters do). To reach a mass audience, you often need to appeal to those things that reach the largest audience, and those things are frequently not those parts of humanity we like to show off.

This is nothing against broadcasters in general, it is rather a reflection of the state of the industry. "Broadcasting" requires equipment large enough to reach the masses. This equipment is expensive, therefore as many people as possible must become listeners to pay for it.

Podcasting, or, more generally, microcasting, is a different phenomena altogether. The production of the content is cheap. The distribution is also cheap. This means that in order to pay for it, you have to reach relatively few people; in fact, it's cheap enough that content producers may have no particular interest in getting financial remuneration at all. Currently to produce my iPod content I use a computer I already had for other reasons, Audacity to record and process the audio, a headset that came free with another piece of software I own (IBM's ViaVoice, if you're wondering), Blogger to host my blog, FeedBurner to create the RSS feed, and Liberated Syndication to host my podcast mp3s. Total upfront cost to me: $5 (for 100MB a month file storage on Liberated Syndication (libsyn.com).

Much like having a web page, and almost exactly like having a blog, I don't have to have any particular capability as a content creator in terms of format, style, or content, in order to produce something anyone can consume.

The import of podcasting is its ground-leveling nature. Sure, a bunch of people are going to create a bunch of crappy content, but if that crappy content is liked by even a couple of responsive listeners, then it has often paid for itself.

I think it's not very useful to lament the quality and glut of content on its own. Much like the Internet, the web, and blogging, we probably won't really see how podcasting will transform media (though many of us are happy to guess), but like all of those other things, it most likely will.

It's not "everybody must hear what I have to say" necessarily, rather it's "somebody might be interested in what I have to say". This is not broadcasting. It's microcasting.

A quick point: Fletcher says that "if everyone is delivering a message, no one will have time to listen." This is true in the sense that if there is that much content out there in the world, no one will be able to listen to it all. But this is an engineering problem, not the limits of the system. Nothing precludes those of use who talk from also being people who do. Fletcher seems to believe we will be either talking constantly, or not talking at all. Of course he's a talker, and I'd suspect he's a shining example of a doer as well.

I have no doubt that podcasting will be a transformative medium. What may reduce it's impact, however, would be a glut of content that cannot be reasonably sorted through, much like the Internet itself. There are a couple thousand podcasts out there right now. That sounds like a lot, but it's still a manageable amount to be filtered through. As the number of podcasts reaches tens of thousands, listening to them all quickly becomes not an option.

Certainly, podcast review sites will spring up (I've already heard one podcast review podcast), but if podcasting reaches anywhere near the popularity of blogging, even that will become a difficult proposition. What this will mean is that we'll start to hear about podcasting either by randomly running into them, or ones that are passed along from friends, or other podcasts that interest us. The result of this very well may be the broadcasting infrastructure all over again (albeit with some important changes).

To cut through all of this content, we need at least two complementary technology approaches: 1) Automatic transcription of podcast content; and, 2) Collaborative filtering applied to podcasting. The first technology will improve the chances that we can stumble upon podcasts of interest to us. The second allows us to become a giant filter of all the podcasts out there to recommend to us the ones we are most likely to find interesting.

Adam Curry has just made a change to his show that proves my point about exploration (in fact, I wish he would have waited until I was able to get this podcast recorded before changing his format so that I would seem less like a follower). His last show took him out onto the streets of Miami where he talked as he walked and recorded the sounds and people he heard and talked to along the way. This may not be entirely new, but it is new enough, and now easy enough to do that people might explore all kinds of variations on this theme. People might record their entire vacation, describing what they see, or just letting you listen; potentially appealing to the escapist traveler, or the voyeur crowd, or any number of small sets of people that "broadcast" could not hope to support.

After I introduced one of my co-workers to podcasting, he mentioned that it would now be possible to do podcasts totally drunk or high. This may or may not result in interesting content, but now anyone who wants to explore this, can; and it may result in something that large numbers of people are interested in, or it may result in something we can call art, or it may result in something we can call crap, and we may all disagree on which it is.

A good analogy might be paints. At some point, paints became available to the masses. I have no doubt that many people took up painting and much bad work ensued. But I think it is a long way from there to saying that painting should always be left in the hands of those who we might pick to best use it. I have little doubt that some wonderful painters would never have sprung up if paint wasn't readily accessible.

In music, the evolution of popular music often depends of what was being experimented with years before. Because someone was experimenting with some tape in their basement and handed out hand made copies, someone else gets an idea to build upon it. And someone else gets an idea from THAT person's work. I guess the point is that the best uses of media come from a boot-strapping process whereby a bunch of crap is produced, it gets weeded through for the more interesting stuff, and MORE crap is produced with hopefully less crap in the next generation, and more content is produced with increasingly less crap, and so on. The best ideas emerge, but the crap remains the fodder for future great ideas.

Indeed, podcast review sites will spring up; I think mine is a good example (http://podcastreviews.net, where I've been reviewing podcasts since last October) and I suspect many more (or at least some more) will follow.

I don't think that necessarily makes for a difficult proposition - certainly no one will be able to review all podcasts (in fact I think we're already at that stage), but neither does anyone need to review them all. I expect that podcast review micro-communities will start to accrue. People will find a reviewer (or group thereof) whose voice they like and whose tastes (or most of them) they share. They will suggest podcasts to review and the people who subscribe to that reviewer will get the benfits of those reviews.

In this sense I think that podcasting is much different than blogging - it's difficult to find a commonality upon which to base reviews of blogs, but I don't think that's as true of podcasting - podcasting is much more of a performance than blogging is and that in itself makes podcasts more open to review.

I also believe that much of the growth of podcasting will be through a kind of viral marketing, purposeful or not - as you say, we'll hear about them from our friends and co-workers, not to mention other podcasts.

Anyway, cheers!
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