Podcasting, the practice of distributing recorded audio over the internet, almost like home-made radio, is quickly gaining popularity. It’s being hyped as the Next Big Thing by bloggers and grassroot journalists all over the (industrialized) world. However, yours truly is not impressed.

It’s a Matter of Efficiency
Without doubt, there are upsides to usage of the technology. For example it’s a very efficient way to conduct, for example, an interview. People even hookup phones to a podcasting system and post by simply picking up the phone and start talking. The question is, however: for whom is it efficient?

Most podcasts that I’ve listened to in the last weeks, in order to try to grasp this new technology is very, very boring to say the least. Often the comments are unedited, unscripted monologues that, I’m sorry to say, are little more than pretty pointless ramblings.

I would argue that the authors (of one can still call them that) are experiencing added efficiency when posting at a dire price: at the expense of their readers/listeners.

Very few – if any – make such use of the technology that the media switch from written language is necessary. There are examples of podcasters who strap on a microphone and record their material when taking a walk. Never mind that the constant panting and other background noise is unbearable, but what would have taken a paragraph or two of clear, concise and well written text to say, can take five minutes.

Compared with “traditional” blogging podcasting is a development I’m not very excited about. Podcasting are in many ways the complete opposite to blogs.

Blogs vs Podcasts
Blogs are, by design, made easy to skim. This is probably why tracking 50 blogs every day is at all possible. I’d say that I give every post less than a second of time, before deciding if to read them at all. Then there are a handful post that gets 5 seconds of skimming, some I read more carefully, and every once in a while there comes a post that I read with great care. My point is; reading blogs are a non-sequential task. I’m in control over my time. Podcasts are the complete opposite of this. I must agree to give up say five minutes of my time to listen to something I have absolutely no idea about. That is, I’d say, about the same amount of time I give the most interesting posts on a blog, and as I said it does not happen very often.

Blogs are, by design, portable. RSS and other syndication technologies is an easy way to automate all kinds of tasks. I can set up a flag to be set when a specific word is found, for example. Also, most blogging tools use flawless XML and are built to attract search engines and be indexed. People can link and crosslink and cross-crosslink so that no blog is an island. Recorded audio is probably the most un-indexable and un-linkable material one could ever can imagine.

Blogs are, by design, very low-bandwidth. Most blog designs are mostly text, and even less using the RSS-feeds. My current feed file is about 20 kb in size. Most podcasts are around 3-4 mb. That’s a big difference. The cost of downloading my feed to my mobile phone using my current 3G subscription would be a only few ?re (or cent, or penny or… you get it). Downloading a podcast would be SEK 50 (about US$7).

What About the Rest of the World?
Blog technology is an excellent way to increase participation in the public sphere due to how extremely easy it is to set up and operate. Podcasting add several layers of complexity again.

Many of the positive blog aspects listed above are very important for countries around the world that are not as wired as we are in the west. In many countries low-bandwidth information is not a luxury enjoyed by geeks who thinks that correct XML-code is poetry and that optimization is something you to prove to your fellow geeks that you are the better poet. In countries where fixed telephony, and its 33 kbps datarate, is scarce downloading megabytes of (unknown) audio is not an option.

In fact, what many people have are mobile phones, and efforts should rather be to fit a blog into WML or cHTML, to make it work on a 9,6 kbps GSM connection.

However, and this is a plus for blogcasting: in societies with low literacy the spoken word is very important. This should be remembered, too.

Besides the more structural critique above, I have some practical tips for making it bearable to listen to podcasts. I’m sure there are both more and better things to be added, but this is an initial attempt.

  • Don’t ad-lib. Write a script and read it back. Very few people can improvise an interesting monologue. Chances are you are not one of them.
  • Sit down. You probably only have to listen to your own program to realize how silly you sound when you attempt to record your thought while out on a stroll.
  • Tell me why I should listen to your program. Actually, I’d like to be able to skim it first, so you should probably transcribe the whole thing. It takes too long? Well, then maybe you should…
  • edit it. If it is too long for you to transcribe, don’t you think it’s too long for me to listen to?

I remember when I was a kid, I used to play talk radio host using my old Philips cassette recorder and a cheap red microphone. I could sit for hours and talk about stuff that mattered to me, there and then. It was really, really important stuff too, at least to me. Thinking about it, it’s a shame I did not keep any of those tapes. You see, I’m pretty sure they would some very much like your average podcast. Anyway, I did not follow any of the advice above. You don’t have to either. Then again, I didn’t put it out on the Internet for everybody to hear.

I realize that podcasting, as a technology, is about as mature as your average nighttime Neverland visitor, and that it’s likely to evolve and find a stable form eventually. As will the people behind the microphones. However, I’m sorry to say, I expect it to be about as revolutionary to the world as HAM-radio once was to the general population. Which is to say not much. There will be enthusiasts for whom the world is now a better place, but structures did, and will, not crumble.

(Writing this post took about 1,5 hours. I could have done it in 10 minutes with a blogcast, and it wouldn’t have been as good. Also, I’m afraid that I would have wasted time for a lot of people in the process. See, I’m sure that only very few gave this article 10 minutes when in text format. Or did you?)