Nobody is going to own podcasting. By that I mean nobody is going to trap it in a silo. Apple tried, first with its podcasting feature in iTunes, and again with its Podcasts app. Others have tried as well. None of them have succeeded, or will ever succeed, for the same reason nobody has ever owned the human voice, or ever will. (Other, of course, than their own.)
Because podcasting is about the human voice. It’s humans talking to humans: voices to ears and voices to voices—because listeners can talk too. They can speak back. And forward. Lots of ways.
Podcasting is one way for markets to have conversations; but the podcast market itself can’t be bought or controlled, because it’s not a market. Or an “industry.” Instead, like the Web, email and other graces of open protocols on the open Internet, podcasting is all-the-way deep.
Deep like, say, language. And, like language, it’s NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. That means anybody and everybody can do wherever they want with it. It’s theirs—and nobody’s—for the taking.
This is one of the many conclusions (some of them provisional) I reached after two days at The Unplugged Soul: Conference on the Podcast at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which I live-tweeted through Little Pork Chop and live-blogged through doc.blog at 1999.io.
Both of those are tools created by Dave Winer, alpha dad of blogging, podcasting and syndicating. Dave was half the guests on Friday evening’s opening panel. The other half was Christopher Lydon, whose own podcast, Radio Open Source, was born out of his creative partnership with Dave in the early chapters of podcasting’s Genesis, in 2003, when both were at Harvard’s Berkman (now Berkman Klein) Center.
One way you can tell nobody owns podcasting is that 1.5 decades have passed since 2003 and there are still no dominant or silo’d tools either for listening to podcasts or for making them.
On the listening side, there is no equivalent of, say, the browser. There are many very different ways to get podcasts, and all of them are wildly different as well. Remarkably (or perhaps not), the BigCo leaders aren’t leading. Instead they’re looking brain-dead.
The biggest example is Apple, which demonstrates its tin head through its confusing (and sales-pressure-intensive) iTunes app on computers and its Podcasts app, defaulted on the world’s billion iPhones. That app’s latest version is sadly and stupidly rigged to favor streaming from the cloud over playing already-downloaded podcasts, meaning you can no longer listen easily when you’re offline, such as when you’re on a plane. By making that change, Apple treated a feature of podcasting as a bug. Also dumb: a new UI element—a little set of vertical bars indicating audio activity—that seems to mean both live playing and downloading. Or perhaps neither. I almost don’t want to know at this point, since I have come to hate the app so much.
Other tools by smaller developers (e.g. Overcast) do retain the already-downloaded feature, but work in different ways from other tools. Which is cool to me, because that way no one player dominates.
On the production side there are also dozens of tools and services. As a wannabe podcaster (whose existing output is limited so far to three podcasts in twelve years), I have found none that make producing a podcast as easy as it is to write a blog or an email. (When that happens, watch out.)
So here’s a brief compilation of my gatherings, so far, in no order of importance, from the conference.
- Podcasting needs an unconference like IIW (the next of which happens the first week of May in Silicon Valley): one devoted to conversation and forward movement of the whole field, and not to showcasing panels, keynotes or sponsoring vendors. One advantage of unconferences is that they’re all about what are side conversations at standard keynote-and-panel conferences. An example from my notes: Good side conversations. One is with Sovana Bailey McLain (@solartsnyc), whose podcast is also a radio show, State of the Arts. And she has a blog too. The station she’s on is WBAI, which has gone through (says Wikipedia) turmoil and change for many decades. An unconference will also foster something many people at the conference said they wanted: more ways to collaborate.
- Now is a good time to start selling off over-the-air radio signals. Again from my notes… So I have an idea. It’s one WBAI won’t like, but it’s a good one: Sell the broadcast license, keep everything else. WBAI’s signal on 99.5fm is a commercial one, because it’s on the commercial part of the FM band. This NY Times report says an equivalent station (WQXR when it was on 96.3fm) was worth $45 million in 2009. I’m guessing that WBAI’s licence would bring about half that because listening is moving to Net-connected rectangles, and the competition is every other ‘cast in the world. Even the “station” convention is antique. On the Net there are streams and files:stuff that’s live and stuff that’s not. From everywhere. WBAI (or its parent, the Pacifica Foundation), should sell the license while the market is still there, and use the money to fund development and production of independent streams and podcasts, in many new ways. Keep calling the convening tent WBAI, but operate outside the constraints of limited signal range and FCC rules.
- Compared to #podcasting, the conventions of radio are extremely limiting. You don’t need a license to podcast. You aren’t left out of the finite number of radio channels and confined geographies. You aren’t constrained by FCC anti-“profanity” rules limiting freedom of speech—or any FCC rules at all. In other words, you can say what the fuck you please, however you want to say it. You’re free of the tyranny of the clock, of signposting, of the need for breaks, and other broadcast conventions. All that said, podcasting can, and does, improve radio as well. This was a great point made on stage by the @kitchensisters.
- Podcasting conventionally copyrighted music is still impossible. On the plus side, there is no license-issuing or controlling entity to do a deal with the recording industry to allow music on podcasts, because there is nothing close to a podcasting monopoly. (Apple could probably make such a deal if it wanted to, but it hasn’t, and probably won’t.) On the minus side, you need to “clear rights” for every piece of music you play that isn’t “podsafe.” That includes nearly all the music you already know. But then, back on the plus side, this means podcasting is nearly all spoken word. In the past I thought this was a curse. Now I think it’s a grace.
- Today’s podcasting conventions are provisional and temporary. A number of times during the conference I observed that the sound coming from the stage was one normalized by This American Life and its descendants. In consonance with that, somebody put up a slide of a tweet by @emilybell:podcast genres : 1. Men going on about things. 2. Whispery crime 3.Millennials talking over each other 4. Should be 20 minutes shorter. We can, and will, do better. And other.
- Maybe podcasting is the best way we have to start working out our problems with race, gender, politics and bad habits of culture that make us unhappy and thwart progress of all kinds. I say that because 1) the best podcasting I know deals with these things directly and far more constructively than anything I have witnessed in other media, and 2) no bigfoot controls it.
- Archiving is an issue. I don’t know what a “popup archive” is, but it got mentioned more than once.
- Podcasting has no business model. It’s like the Internet, email and the Web that way. You make money because of it, not with it. If you want to. Since it can be so cheap to do (in terms of both time and money), you don’t have to make money at it if you don’t want to.
I’ll think of more as I go over more of my notes. Meanwhile, please also dig Dave’s take-aways from the same conference.