As I come up on the first anniversary of my podcast, I look back in conflict. Sure, I made a podcast almost every two weeks, I learned a lot and other people seemed to enjoy them. But so few other people. Despite what some gurus advise, that you should make stuff purely for your own satisfaction, it is also rewarding to have some external validation. I feel I’m not getting enough of that. So in addition to making the podcast, I have to make more people aware of it, and that’s tied up in a discussion I’ve been having with a crowd of clever people over on ADN.
What do podcasters need?
Not the central technical stuff; as usual with technical questions, there’s actually far too much information out there to enable an absolute beginner to make properly-informed choices. More like, the technical stuff around the edges, to address the differences between the read and the heard. 1
The most obvious of these is that it is hard to glance at a podcast and decide whether you want to absorb the whole thing. Oh sure, I read all the time about people who listen to podcasts at twice their natural speed, but seriously, where’s the pleasure in that? You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a piece of writing by the first paragraph or two. To some extent I do this with podcasts, guided both by audio quality and content. If two guys start off joshing one another in an unfocussed manner, no matter how good the audio quality, I’m outta there. And if the audio quality is bad, I’m outta there too. 2
Human recommendation engines
The thing most sorely needed is surely a recommendation engine. How do you do that? You could curate a link blog of podcasts, just as the early bloggers were curating links to stuff they’d found on the web. That is something I would really like to do. Spend a couple of hours a day seeking out and being sent to podcast episodes and auditing them, and then a further day or so compiling an episode of my own by snipping quotes, putting them in context and linking the whole thing with a well-built script.
This model is unashamedly stolen from a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Pick of the Week, which is just such a tasting menu of good bits from programmes aired the previous week. Producers fall over themselves to be featured on POTW, which is regarded as the ultimate validation by one’s peers. Given time to gain traction, I suspect an internet version of the same idea – let’s call it POTP – would also attract suggestions from far and wide, and would serve as a great platform for spreading and discovering good content. Could it possibly be made to pay? I honestly have no idea; at this stage I am too risk averse to find out.
A human being filtering the stream and sharing the good stuff is my ideal; I’d probably subscribe. What about something more automated?
I suspect that some of the big rebroadcasters, such as Stitcher and maybe even iTunes, could build an “if you like this then you might like that” gizmo. Personally, I’ve never found those to be all that much help in other spheres, but it could work.
Something that might be either an adjunct or an alternative to a podcast of picked podcast pieces is a podcast book club. Right now, I can only think of this as, literally, a book club for podcasts. There’s a group. We meet regularly. One person hosts, and the host rotates. Each time, the host proposes an episode of a podcast that the group listens to. At the meeting, the host introduces their choice and gives a bit of background as to why they chose it. Then the group discusses it. At the end, maybe we vote, or something. Probably not. But a record of the group’s discussion and choices is available to all. A podclub would be a matter of moments to set up on a nice, ad-free social network that is not a clone of Twitter, no sirree. In fact, I’ve already done it. 3
Instapaper for audio
What else might a podcaster need? Instapaper for audio. That’s the elevator pitch for Huffduffer.com, a rather clever thing that creates a podcast feed of all the podcasts you give it. Just as you can press a little bookmark and have a web page, cleaned of its cruft, saved for you to read later on Instapaper and many other services, so Huffduffer gives you a little icon that appears in your browser’s toolbar when a page you are on has audio for download. You get the chance to tag it, and Huffduffer offers feeds for your stuff and for stuff with a specific tag. (There’s a better explanation on the site.) In theory, you could follow people whose taste you admire, or tags you are interested in, but I haven’t. Still way too random for me. Nevertheless, you could follow me or join my collective, or something.
Huffduffer is really clever, as an interview with its creator Jeremy Keith revealed, but it does have its limitations, namely the information on the web page that contains the podcast. If that’s not great, Huffduffer doesn’t work so well. It woulds work better if podcasters who share and want to be shared worked harder, which is a stretch. And that brings me to my final set of needs for now, and these are slightly technical.
What is a podcast
In essence, when you subscribe to a podcast, you are subscribing to an envelope. Inside the envelope may be a picture, a description of the podcast, who made it, when, and all sorts of other details. But not the actual audio file. That is somewhere else, and the envelope contents tells you where. In that respect, a podcast RSS feed differs from a normal RSS feed, which can actually contains the content you are interested in (as well as where to find it, if you insist on doing so). Making a podcast feed is more or less the same as making an ordinary RSS feed; that is to say, beyond most people. So we use plug-ins, or third-party services, or other things. That’s OK as far as it goes, but sometimes that isn’t very far. Those feeds will get you listed in iTunes, but not give you a whole lot of control over what people get from your feed unless you really know what you’re doing. It is also quite hard to check what you’re doing without doing it. So one thing that would be really nice to have would be a good feed builder that would take you through the steps and explain in an accessible manner what’s what and how to change things.
Then there are some other under-the-hood type things that Dave Rupert discussed in a recent piece: How we can use technology to save podcasting! This is just beyond me, although I can clearly see the appeal.
It is, apparently, very easy to just tell a website to play audio. This I believe. I tried it, it works. You can even tell it which bit of a longer audio file to play, which offers additional options for POTP.
It is a little harder to make a simple podcast player that includes two features Dave Rupert deems essential, 30-second rewind and double-speed playback. Other features could be grafted on too, I expect, with the risk that it becomes less simple.
And then there are these things called Deep Links, which are chapter markers like the ones available in some other formats, like DVDs and mp4s. Two guys could indicate where the joshing leaves off and the serious stuff begins, for example. In HTML speak, deep links are kind of like anchors in an audio file, instead of in a browser page.
Where does that leave us?
I’m not entirely sure where that leaves us. I know I’d like to free myself from my WordPress cell, but I don’t know how to do that, and I do want to be insulated from the stuff under the hood. Mechanics of the internet are tinkering, and I’m waiting to test drive. Kibbitzers are contributing too; I’m one of them, and I’m listening to the others.
Is the search for mo’ better podcasts – however you define them – futile? I don’t believe so.
These are not new thoughts, to me or to the internet. And there are some good accounts out there that I found after starting to write this piece. Like this one, a terrific story that at the start is, I think, answering the wrong question. I do not want my audio to go viral. I want to be able to find good audio and have others find mine; there’s a huge difference.↩
Except in exceptional circumstances, one of which I plan to write in more detail about later.↩
Currently empty and private, because I have no idea yet what to do with it. If you want in, let me know.↩