Some untidy thoughts on podcasting

A post from the archive dredged up to show you how wrong I was about podcasting in 2016.

TLDR: I’m fed up with the tech around podcasting; it’s created a barrier and someone needs to step up to own the space, to make it easy for my parents to receive and enjoy podcasts wherever they want to, like Amazon Prime or Netflix.

In my higher moments I like to think of myself as “Birmingham’s podcast guy”. I want to be the person people call on when they have questions relating to the medium. But lately, possibly due in part to my involvement with a local Internet radio station, I have a bit of a problem.

I’m really quite frustrated with podcasting.

I’ve got into a listening rut which I think has affected my inspiration levels, and I enjoy the act of making the content. It’s the bit that comes after and around that, that I find problematic. So, let’s look at why I love the medium, first off.

It’s open. Anyone can make a podcast, and distribute it so that it sits alongside the biggest players in the space. This, for me has been my biggest selling point, but it’s also problematic in itself. I’ve been protective over the term podcasting, because to me it means a specific thing. It’s about tying audio to RSS. But when Spotify can launch a section called Podcasts and Audible can offer them via their app, and networks like Earwolf can launch exclusive, paid services that purport to deliver “podcasts”, what does that word mean? Does it literally mean “radio show that you get on-demand?”

For me, that openness is key. I don’t call my Brum Radio show a podcast because you can only listen to it on Mixcloud (for music rights reasons). A YouTube video isn’t a podcast because you need YouTube to watch it, and you can’t subscribe via RSS. Most of the things people put on Soundcloud aren’t podcasts because they’re not paying for the RSS service, so you have to have Soundcloud in order to access them.

I do think that’s important, and maybe really the only distinction. Because it’s not about the content. A radio show like Coverville is a podcast because it’s syndicated via RSS and you don’t need a special player to play it. But does it stop being a podcast when it’s on Spotify?

I think the words we use for technologies are important, because they help define what it is we do. If I say “I’m a podcaster” and you have an idea of what that means, that’s helpful. But if you say “I want to create a podcast” and I say “OK, let’s get your feed setup” and you say “yeah no, I’m just going to host it on YouTube”, we have a problem, because you’re creating a different thing, and I’m now of less use to you.

It’s on-demand. I really enjoy doing a live show, but I know that the majority of people will hear it on-demand. My Brum Radio show can be played in a variety of places - as long as you have the right app - but a podcast can go further because there are so many ways to consume them.

I can say “tweet me your questions” and the live people can get in touch, and I can recap tweets from people who listened on-demand (Adam & Joe did a great job of this when they were on 6music).

Doing a live show changes the energy, but that doesn’t work for every show, so something that takes more production like The Allusionist works as an on-demand show, as does much of that NPR-style output. The other 99% of podcasts which are just conversations could just as easily be live. (For the most part I’m talking here about people making podcasts because they like the medium, not because they like drinking beer and chatting to their friends, or promoting their line of hair-care products). I produce a conversational podcast but it’s edited so that everyone sounds at their best, which can only be done on an on-demand show.

It’s democratic. You, the listener, chooses what to listen to. Podcasts are personal; it’s about you building your own personal on-demand radio station, hearing the voices and opinions you want to hear, either because they echo or challenge what you already believe, or just because you like hearing Kevin Smith talk about weed.

You don’t need permission to make a podcast. No-one has to greenlight your project. Christ, if they did, I’d probably have a much smaller plot in the podcast graveyard and the world would be happier for it. But I think this is really important: making content without permission is how we create Internet personalities we actually like , because they’ve come pre-endorsed by us, the audience, not Kevin from development.

But for all the great things about the technology, there are still some fundamental problems. Take my parents, for example.

I launched a podcast called The Mood Elevator a few weeks ago. It’s on hiatus now while I clear some backlog - and it was clashing with vet appointments. I told them how well-received it was and they got the concept, but they never listened to a single episode.

I told them I have a radio show and that you can only listen to it on the Internet, and they’ve heard both episodes so far (one live, the other on-demand).

Why? I think because people still intrinsically understand radio. It’s a two-hour show with music I choose, and chat about whatever interests me (in general terms… the show actually is quite formatted and there’s always a point to each segment). It used to be a podcast, and they knew about its existence but were never interested in checking it out. It was on YouTube so easy to look up, but they never checked it out, however they were all over the radio show, because - I think - it made sense.

My brother’s in his 30s and had a similar reaction. These aren’t tech-savvy people but they were happier going through the process of visiting the website or downloading the app - as my brother did - to listen to the station live, than they ever were listening to one of my podcasts.

Perhaps another reason is that with Brum Radio there is an element of validation. Someone has told me I can go on air, which means someone must think it’s acceptable for me to broadcast my opinions and music choices. Now this flies counter to the argument I made about podcasts being democratic and devoid of the need to seek permission.

The last few weeks have seen me figure out a few things about myself and my style. I did the radio show today and had the most fun I’ve had in a studio for a very long time. I think I’m OK at the medium and will get better. There is an energy to a music-based show that I love, that’s so different from a pure speech-based podcast that’s recorded live. I started one in 2014 and it was fun, and having a music break in there was good, but it’s still very different to talk for 45 minutes straight vs cutting your thoughts down to 6-8 minutes and then being able to fade up a song as punctuation.

I did that before I ever made a podcast, and there’s a part of me that wonders why I stopped, or why podcasting was something I wanted to persue over non-commercial Internet radio.

And perhaps some of it comes from the fact I modelled myself, for a time, after people with which I had very little in common. I’m not the UK’s answer to any number of podcasters who do their shows live (usually on Alpha Geek Radio). I don’t have that kind of audience, I don’t have a big chat room that I can call on, and I couldn’t read one and successfully do a show, anyway.

So maybe it’s come down to making the wrong kind of podcasts. The City is Alive is one I made a while ago and is something I’m proud of. It only lasted one episode because it takes so long to produce, and crucially the recording dates for episode 2 coincided with me having an epiphany which eventually led me to quitting my job.

Perhaps I’m just feeling creatively fulfilled by the radio show and have less of a need to make my own podcasts. That’s fine because it means I’m sticking to what I’m potentially better at, or maybe have more fun with. It’s also great because I’m now part of a community of people who are all working in a similar direction, instead of plugging away at something maybe no-one will hear and that no-one else has had a hand in.

But then we come to the last gripe, which is a problem for me if I want to continue producing podcasts for others. It’s about the stuff that goes after and around the audio, and is mixed up with that whole thing of “your mum doesn’t know what a podcast is”.

That stuff is still really icky and mirky. I have the technical skill to make a website and/or an app that brings podcasts together and helps you discover them; something that’s built on RSS but adds extra sugar for those that want it. Something that’s cross-platform and easy to pick up, that maybe even doesn’t mention the word “podcast” to the general public, but calls it something else.

All of that I can do, but why bother? No-one will use it because I’m not part of Radiotopia or the TWIT network or Gimlet or whatever (although I’d love to work with the Gimlet guys; I think they’re the bestest). I don’t have a community I can call on to say “check out this thing on Kickstarter”, and I’m disinclined to spend months building something that I’d then end up having to market.

One of the things which is keeping the fire from dwindling at the moment is Pinecast. It’s a simple podcast hosting service that starts free and has a very generous paid plan. I has its limits for now but crucially - and completely coincidentally - it’s built in my programming language and framework of choice. It’s also open source, which means I can help add to it, using some of my learnings from my old podcasting network.

It’s not an answer to the above questions, but something that’s sitting in the back of my mind.

I’ve been recommending WordPress for podcasting, but most of the platforms that exist suffer from a number of problems: how do you embed the content so you can easily share it, and how can I easily download it? The first would be answered by hosting your show on Soundcloud as their oEmbed support is pretty ubiquitous, but you can’t easily download a show and you can’t make it into an RSS feed without paying a tenner a month, which for some is prohibitively expensive. WordPress is great because it sorts the feed out and makes the podcasts easy to download, but you probably want to couple it with a good stats package and there isn’t a simple way to make your shows embeddable everywhere because your domain isn’t part of a whitelist. Plus then you have to host the site yourself and it’s a whole thing.

So there are some ramblings about the medium which I’ve been in love with since 2004. I think it was the software engineer in me that was first attracted to the medium, but now that I have a content head on and have to think about audience and growth and not just the cool way that episodes automatically appear in my app, I’m feeling more frustrated with the tech side.

I think the industry’s doing some amazing things but again it’s hard to get to the really good shows without a good recommendation engine. I’ve discovered some of my favourite shows almost entirely through luck, and I don’t think that’s OK. It’s been 12 years, so we need either to drop the name or figure out what it means, and how to get shows into the hands of more than just nerds (speaking as one myself). I want my parents to be able to hear a show of mine and think, not just “isn’t my son clever” but “wow, turns out it’s really easy to listen to shows”.

You can get Netflix on basically anything with a screen now, and I thought for a second that that begged the question “where’s the podcasting app equivalent?” But the simple answer is there won’t ever be one until and unless a company steps up and owns the space. A company that says “we’re the podcasting people. We have the big directory, a meritocratic and democratic plan for content discovery and a ubiquity across platforms”. But no-one will because they cannot - and must not - own the content outright, or be able to sell ads or a subscription against it. It’s hard enough getting my parents to pay for Netflix, so forget them paying for a podcast service where they might, if they’re lucky stumble across something they like. And who wants to put an audio podcast on in the front room anyway? My dad goes through so much bother to download a series of Game of Thrones, but won’t download a single podcast episode of mine. (I’m not bothered about him not massaging my ego; it’s a demonstration of the technological barriers and also potentially the imbalance between perceived difficulty of access and the reward).

Ugh. You can see this is just a ramble and I don’t expect anyone to read it. But it’s this kind of mush that’s sloshing around in my brain and getting in the way of me really enjoying the medium of podcasting, from a producer’s point of view. I think I’m bored of the platform… maybe not bored, but frustrated. I’m fed up with it being so fragmented and for most, so challenging. There’s still a barrier because no-one can really figure out what podcasts are for, and there is absolutely no way in my mind that we should be in this position, 12 years after the term was coined.

It’s a beautifully simple idea, completely open and democratic, but it’s going to remain a footnote or a joke unless someone - a group or a business - steps up and says “we got this”. We thought it was going to be apple for a while, but they dropped the ball. So who’s going to pick it up? I gladly would, but I can’t find anyone else who wants to wear the same kit.

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