What’s Going On in Podcasting?

As you may or may not know podcasting began way back in the primordial soup that was 2004. In tech terms, prehistory. The techniques and methods used back then still work today but are they necessary?

No longer do we need to write our own RSS feeds in .xml. Audio editing software has advanced in leaps and bounds and perhaps most importantly, microphone manufacturers have started to realise podcasters have different needs from shock jocks and rock stars.

The underlying state of the medium is being driven by those who have been successful, financially. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, it is just a thing.

We have radio stations, predominantly public stations but increasingly the commercials too, making all sorts of claims in relation to ownership of the medium. This should not be surprising. Whilst there are many films made around the world, Hollywood still maintains an artistic inertia in that medium. Yet independent film producers and non US produced films still test the edges of that medium. So too in the podcasting medium. Indeed, independent podcast producers out number the radio types significantly.

The problem with commercial inertia is a sense of entitlement. I heard an intro not long ago from a listener supported radio station based podcast which was simply hectoring and demanding. It went along the lines of: We are a listener supported radio station, if you are listening to this podcast you better start paying up or we will disappear and it will all be the your fault. The program then went on to employ voice actors to read quotes at who knows what production cost. The thrust of the episode would not have been diminished had the hosts read the transcripts but clearly that level of performance was beneath their dignity. And if the show pod fades, I’m partially responsible as one of their listeners who won’t be coughing up my hard earned funds. Really? They need to remember podcasts are a free medium. Yes, I and others will pay for premium content but the standard, run of the mill episodes are free within the model. Entitlement will kill off most good things given sufficient time.

Certainly podcasting has allowed me to listen to radio programs I enjoy, when I want to listen to them but the search for cash, using old fashioned methods, has diluted many of the shows. There’s a podcast network now supported by advertising. Great but not relevant in any way to me. Apparently listeners to history podcasts in my market are on the verge of leaving school and attending university hence I am bombarded by calls to enrol in a certain institution. Why? It has no relevance to me. Worse still the volume is different from the rest of the show, as is the tone and voice. Where is the thought behind these attempts at monetization?

I understand individuals are living their dream and need to put food on the table but really it is so jarring. And no I do not want food delivered to my door, a new mattress nor anything to do with shaving. It’s been thirty five years since a razor has been anywhere near my face so the incredible design features of any razor are irrelevant.

So what is the medium all about? One word: storytelling. Many shows get this right, week after week but many are ruined by badly placed and/or irrelevant advertising.  

Many more are designed around some arbitrary idea. The average commute, in the US, is 23 minutes, apparently, so shows are tailored to this length. This makes about as much sense as writing a novel to read in twenty three minute chunks. Podcasting is far more like the novel than it is a television or radio program. We can dip in and out as our schedules allow. We don’t even need a bookmark as the apps hold the shows where we left off.

That being so, there is much to be said for taking a novel approach to the medium, that is, treating our shows as novels or at least novellas. Each episode may be a chapter but they could also be entire books. Think Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Now do we need another show relating every moment in history back to some point in the story of the United States? Did we really need to hear how Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was a parallel story to the destruction of Native American societies? I think not but there you have it. I love Hardcore History but I’m also aware of its biases. Think Fox News versus CNN. We all know their agenda and we can make adjustments is our assessment of their content.

So while these shows exist, have an audience and are, indeed much loved, there is room for so much more. The new Apple podcasting app though appears to be biased towards the established shows. Four or eight options in search? The inertia of the established is reinforced. And far worse than this is the constipated littering of any search with one episode podcasts from Anchor.com. They had/have an agreement with Apple whereby any show lodged through their system is automatically accepted into the Apple Podcasts universe. Unfortunately the level of commitment required for podcasting is not revealed until episode 2 is required and then episode 3 and so on. There are literally tens of thousands of these dead podcasts clogging the system. Published for free, hosted for free they live forever as dead weight in the system.

So what am I calling for?

I’d love to see new blood, new insights and new styles. Yes I am aware many, many new shows start every day but so many are just slightly different regurgitations of existing shows. The simplicity of the technology nowadays removes the need for tech speciality knowledge. Garageband is, when all the musical features are ignored, a very simple, straightforward editor. Auphonic has removed the need for a four year degree in audio engineering to produce sound that is easy to hear.

And microphones, let’s talk about these for a moment. I have discovered, talking with students of podcasting that these are the greatest area of confusion. There’s a small niche of tech heads who will confuse new podcasters more effectively than a government public service announcement.

Here’s my take on mics. We are not recording a symphony experience at the Sydney Opera House, we are not recording a rock band in the local pub for a CD, we are not working in a sound proof radio station booth and we are not publishing in .wav. This automatically rules out the need for 98% of microphones on the market.

So what are we doing? We are creating an audible audio file in .mp3, we are telling a story and attempting to make downloading for our listeners as easy as possible. Listeners, remember them? Downloading is how they get to hear our shows. Despite the fact some people have fibre to their house or place of employment and it is a thrill to work in that environment, there are many people across this planet who don’t even have access to 3G, they are on dial up. Now you’d think in developed countries this would be a thing of the past yet in some more rural areas, it is not. I realise that means little to most city dwellers but it is the case. Then there’s the developing world where access again varies from optic fibre to dial up.

We need to ensure all possible listeners have access to our content. Therefore, like a convoy moving at the speed of the slowest ship our audio files need to be designed for the slowest download speeds. I would argue this will not significantly diminish the quality of our output and will allow us to reach many, many more listeners.

With that in mind, our microphone choices become much easier. My own preference is for a mobile setup. This means a digital audio recorder. My personal preference is the Zoom H2n but there are any number of other choices out there. I record in .wav, edit in garageband, process through auphonic and publish in .mp3 at 64kbps in mono at -14 LUFS.

Nooooooooo! I hear people screaming. It must be stereo, it must be a much higher bit rate and it just has to be louder than -14 LUFS. Why? I, and many people I know, listen with one earbud. Stereo loses half the show for me. 64kbps means much smaller file sizes and ease of downloading, no matter at which end of the digital spectrum my listeners live. -14 LUFS is, I admit a Spotify standard but it’s the only standard I’ve come across. It also means I’m not straining to hear shows but I am, I’m sure, suffering hearing loss from those delightful individuals who believe their shows should be published at 0 LUFS, thanks guys.

So, podcasting has been around for a while, 18 years no less, it has some great shows, some average and some deplorable one. In the past 18 years things have changed. Digital audio recorders have come down in price and up in quality, just like everything else techy, compare today’s laptops with the oversized breeze blocks in 2004 running a 486 chip. The software available is more intuitive and easier to use and the application of continually improving algorithms has given us Auphonic. We can produce good quality audio, in an easily downloadable form without the need for highly specialised gear.

All we need now is a revolution in content. Stand by for the next big shift in podcasting.