Audio podcasting now

by Julia Lesage

To introduce a set of links to podcasts I have found interesting [annotated list of recommended podcasts on page two], I would like to look first very briefly at podcasting's development and then to consider some formal aspects of podcasting as an audio art related to radio and audiobooks. I am particularly concerned here with discursive podcasting and how people might use it in their daily lives.

First, just a little background on podcasting's development, which I am simplifying here as about iPods and the iTunes Store. 2005 was the big year for thinking and writing about podcasts. In June, 2005, iTunes introduced audio podcasting listings in the iTunes Store, mostly for free download. After that, the Internet was full of buzz for mediamakers that anyone with a little equipment and tech know-how could make audio programming that would be published to people's computer's via RSS syndication. Apple reported that within a week of the iTunes Store introducing podcasting, it had a million podcast downloads and subscriptions. To jump forward in time, the iTunes Store continues to list podcasts for free, but the overabundance of podcasts, combined with a lack of effective mechanisms for filtering and searching, keeps people from readily finding material they like. As a result, the producer with the most sophisticated audio design, National Public Radio (NPR), is also the most popular producer of podcasts. NPR podcasts 612 programs, mostly weekly or bi-weekly, and as of February 08, has about 12 million downloads a month.

A simple way to define podcasting's relation to syndication or RSS is to note that if you go to the iTunes store and find a podcast you like, you click on a button that says "subscribe." Not only is a podcast downloaded, but every time you open iTunes, new episodes are added if available; each title also has a list of back programs to download on demand.

Many people have enthusiastically become podcasters. Some of these include God-casters, hobbyists, those with a political opinion to express, and educators, especially K-12 teachers. For listeners seeking to expand their intellectual horizons, podcast college courses are listed through iTunesU, and the most popular subject areas seem to be science, history, and language learning (the last is offered through many sites, not just iTunesU). A problem is that lots of the available podcasts you wouldn't want to listen to, and there are few sophisticated advice sites indicating what might be interesting and well-produced. Probably NPR has taken the lead in the field because of its quality control, especially in terms of production values. As for finding good college podcasts, my advice would be the same as I give to undergraduates: Find a good teacher and take as many of his/her courses as possible.

Another group of producers offer information for specialists within a given profession, and I do occasionally listen to podcasting here. Perhaps out of schadenfreude, I've listened to The MedicCast: A Podcast for EMTs Paramedics and EMS Providers — a well-produced podcast in the medical field. I remember an episode about stress in the field, and noted that in service to the profession, the producers developed an Internet site with related links and research notes. Another professional show of interest to me, but for a different reason is Podcast411, made for and about podcast producers. Each episode offers a lengthy interview with a successful podcaster. Now I am not necessarily interested in listening to the widely varied podcasts discussed here, but Podcast411's programs and archive go back to 2005. This makes it a key research tool for studying the history of podcasting and its interface with business and technology.

In the past ten years, other developments have affected audio podcasting, namely the rise of satellite radio and the phenomenal growth of YouTube, as well as the introduction of iPods that play video. The 2005 optimism about the then new format no longer reigns. However, I think of audio podcasting in relation to two modes of delivery that have a hardy life of their own, radio and audiobooks.

Podcasting's relation to radio

With a long history, radio as a medium has proven remarkably resilient; and over time it has developed a substantial range of aesthetic approaches based on conversation, drama, storytelling, interviews, personal address, soundscapes, music, and audio montage. Interestingly, many of the best podcasts now come from established radio venues and also from news outlets that incorporate podcasts into their multimedia outreach. Thus, many excellent podcasts that I have listened to come from public radio networks in the U.S., Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands; and also from newspapers, commercial broadcasters, and online news sites.

If we compare listening to the radio vs. listening to a podcast on a computer or iPod, radio programming is governed by schedule and flow, and in this sense, having the program to listen to at my convenience is like having a VCR or TiVo for watching TV. However, downloading and subscribing, and then transferring the program to an iPod involve a certain number of steps, whereas listening to the radio is much easier and for most people is a rather automatic gesture.

Radio ties the listener to the programming flow, while a podcast allows the listener to pause and pick up again later, to back up and re-listen to something, to save or discard the program when finished listening to it. I am particularly interested in audio podcasts because they exist in the same kind of reception space as music but seem to fulfill a different function for most users in establishing a personal audio environment. For listeners, podcasting brings its users not only radio's pleasures but also the iPod's portability and intimacy. It also frees the user from radio's schedules, advertising, and playlists. Wearing an iPod, as with all portable media, gives the listener an unique relation to space, making her feel more independent from the space she is listening in.

Many people like to use music to change their relation to space, especially when doing tasks alone. Perhaps most people who listen to the radio or wear iPods do so especially to listen to music. Some listeners choose Internet radio sites such as Pandora, which offer the pleasure of streaming music tailored to one's individual taste. However, Internet DJs are strictly limited in the musical programming they can provide, since the U.S. legal system views podcasting music the same as illegal downloading. That's why many Internet radio music producers remain limited to streaming and cannot offer podcasts.

I do not know if it is just my preference or a trend that has come about for these legal reasons, but much current podcasting sounds like alternative talk radio, especially if you include programs based on talk such as This American Life. And in its emphasis on storytelling, pocasting also hearkens back to 1930s radio with its emphasis on narrative. (I am indebted to Jeremy Butler, producer of the online, weekly, folk-music radio show, All Things Acoustic, for these observations.) What I do know is that I very much enjoy this kind of discursive spoken work, enjoying audio's personal tone and the way it can paint a picture and perhaps teach me something.

The audio podcast can provide a cohesive body of information, a conversation, a monologue, a report, or a mix of art and discussion. I am especially attracted to program construction that is sensitive to a range of audio experience, including different voices, or voices that convey a lot about the person speaking; well-recorded ambient sounds; music; audio from other recordings, either from current events or past times; and audio collage. Ambient sound constructs the listener's sense of space, and well-devised narration can provide her with a tangible picture of some social and material scene.

In particular, podcasting's widespread use of first-person narration indicates how storytelling on air offers many of the same pleasures as autobiography or fiction. That is, another person's story invites us to follow that person as a character, with whom we move into different spaces and different times and whose experiences as told to us expand our sense of what it means to be human, particularly since the pronoun "I" invites us to identify with this person. In a broader range of programming, in both the storytelling programs, as I have listed them on the next page, and the documentary listings, it is common to include first person narrative, sometimes imaginative monologues, or stories told about others. The documentaries are often personal ones or if they are reporting on a larger theme, they usually use interviews with ordinary people speaking about themselves.

I listen to a lot of science shows. My preference is for ones that show a lot of preplanning and set up a tight narrative structure. The best organized is Astronomy Cast, which takes up an area of interest such as a given planet or some aspect of a planet, like Jupiter's rings, and teaches about three or four new (for me) concepts in a clear way. Other engaging science programs are Hmm…Krulwich on Science and Natural Selections, which teach one idea per short program. Longer programs such as The Naked Scientists often deal with science news but are more conversational or episodic in narration and thus hold my interest less.

Of interest to me in considering my consumption of science programs is the issue of how much, or rather how little, I remember of their theoretical explanations, even though the topic may greatly interest me. I observe my own lack of memory here not only with a certain bemusement but also wondering why the podcast, as a walk-around format, did not lend itself to memorable learning. That is, a question always in our minds as educators or socially concerned media practitioners is, "What sticks?" In that sense, I remember the storytelling programs more clearly and in greater detail than the science ones. Since people tell their experiences publicly often to have a social impact, we may find the first person narrative plays a special role within pedagogical and activist media.

Other media is appealing precisely because it does not proclaim, "Remember me," but rather, "Experience me." I am referring here to more experimental formats: experimental audio, acoustic ecology soundscapes, freeform radio, and audio collage. This is not well-catalogued or searchable on the Internet, but some creative examples of freeform radio that use a lot of audio collage are Press the Button and The Dusty Show, in which the collages also look back to the media landscape of the past and comment on that of the present. Furthermore, because of their creative structuring, freeform shows like Harry Shearer's Le Show age well and can be listened to weeks out from their original production, even though they originally used a lot of material from the news.

I have spoken and written a number of times on how Internet use is of necessity based on a user's idiolect, that is, an individual style of searching for certain things and a range of preferences for what's usually looked for. That's why marketers want to track your keystrokes. We have an Internet print something like a fingerprint. So I can only talk in any depth about certain genres of podcasting that I like to listen to. Furthermore, I use my podcasts in very specific circumstances, while exercising, either walking or at the gym. If I am at the computer writing or doing things around the house, I would be more likely to listen to the music on my iPod, usually hooked up to speakers.

This speaks to an important difference for me in terms of what I want from a podcast vs. what I want from music. I want a podcast that is tightly organized, that teaches me something or develops a narrative in a cohesive or impactful way. While I may listen to the news or a talk show while doing the dishes or preparing a meal, I do not usually collect news or talk show podcasts, although I have found a few that are quite well-developed. Part of my reasoning here is that there is a time lag between when iTunes downloads the latest episode or broadcast to when I put the new material on my iPod to when I actually listen to it. And clearly I will always be behind in my collected material, not finding the time to listen to all of it.

Particularly ruesome for me is that I have long promoted the cause of thrifty, alternative media. Yet that near-monopoly, the iTunes Store, remains indispensable to me for finding podcasts. Although I would like to find a gem among many of the independently produced home-style works, I do not know effectively how to find them. In fact, one of the titles I considered for this paper was, "Kissing a lot of frogs while looking for the prince." There are not many effective filters or tipsheets leading one to the best non-radio work. Some of the better podcast directories, such as Podcast Pickle, do have user reviews, tag clouds, and multiple search categories. However, the user reviews do not come close to those, say, at amazon.com to let me find excellently produced material in my favorite genres.

Perhaps the site OpenCulture is the best for finding educationally relevant media. Again, ruefully for me, I fit too neatly into Pierre Bourdieu's idea of distinction; that is, my tastes reflect my niche as a retired woman college teacher, and my listening habitus, as Bourdieu would call it, reflects not so much choice as social location.

Podcasting's relation to audiobooks,
an example

Like many women I love fiction (statistically we are the greatest consumers of it). So it is a pleasure to me to have fiction and poetry read by actors or authors available free on demand.

Furthermore, one genre, advertised as available in podcast format, but commercially closer to audiobooks, particularly interests me both as a narrative form and as a social development. That is the walking tour or travel podcast. Some walking tours and travel podcasts are free, offered by city Internet sites to tourists. Some come from people traveling or living abroad, who publish either in blogs or in travel advice sites like podcasts from Lonely Planet. Some come from established travel guides like Frommer's.

I have listened to a number of these podcasts, and they vary widely in quality. A good narration here bears a resemblance to good non-fiction writing, with lots of evocation of incident and place in vivid detail.

To do a comparison of walking tours, I went to the major site for audiobooks available in MP3 or iPod format, audible.com. There I listened to streamed segments from six walking tours of Paris, not all available for download, and one stood out as clearly superior, the Walk and Talk Paris tour. It is a podcast-form audiobook by two sisters, Sonia and Alison Landes. This tour gives historical details and also concise hints on guiding your eye. It has a density of information and kind of detail that let you look for things and understand more about what you see. Other audio walking tours had more padding or were so concerned about process that they talked too much about what the listener should do next rather than lead the eye efficiently through the kinds of details attended to in the talk. Also, they had poor voice quality, indicating the narrators were just reading or not on site, not thinking about the relation of what they were saying to the space they were actually in. Although the Landes sisters did not seem to be taped on location, and the production was not attentive to soundscapes or acoustic environments, their narration seemed closely cued to what one would see, so it must have been rehearsed or tested with actual walk throughs.

The narration also requires a lively guide, efficient cues to listeners about where to go or what to do, and a dense, intelligent, well-researched, perhaps original script. What I would like to see more of are ethnological, political, historical, and environmental walking or driving tours that analyze what's behind the scene at hand. And this kind of audio instruction about training the eye, which we as media teachers are particularly used to, could also appeal to sociologists, architects, visual anthropologists, and students of material culture.

In thinking about Internet means of communication, I have wondered why, although I have written extensively on autobiography and use an autobiographical approach to analyzing the Internet, I have clearly not been tempted to write an autobiography or blog or create a personal podcast. I now find that I could imagine myself producing travel podcasts or environmental ones, especially with a political twist. There's a key political principle which I think could be enacted in such podcasts, that is, that truth does not reside on the surface. Furthermore, while I admire audio art, especially the soundscape, as an art of surfaces, an art of the moment, I think one could also move through an environment attentive to its physical surfaces and add an informative or pedagogical dimension. The basic narrative structure is that the producer goes through a space and describes what's there and also the history and politics behind that place.

But the narration I envisage leads to a new kind of walk through, taking people through an environment and analyzing it at the same time. For example, a high school student could travel down his/her school's corridors and give a political analysis about power relations, or a dorm resident in a college could analyze interpersonal dynamics and their social context. What I am suggesting would be a more controversial variety of the walking tour or possibly of the "scenic route" or "heritage trail" driving tour. It might have to be made clandestinely or even from memory. It could use audio collage and soundscapes, explore power dynamics, set a scene, or reveal a hidden secret behind a place. For example, in Santa Barbara I am reminded when looking at the Bank of America building downtown that in the Vietnam era antiwar demonstrators broke its windows and started a fire inside. That's why it had no windows when it was rebuilt.

I am thinking of using a certain tone or approach, like that of a relative or friend who drives you around a place new to you, or strolls with you, and tells you how this locale changes with the seasons or used to be in the past. But most important, you know this friend will tell you incidents and facts about inequality and class.  I think this kind of travel podcast could have an impact on how people wearing iPods move through space and interpret place, understanding how change occurred and imagining how it might occur in the future.  It would be the radical political tour.


In observing my own use of podcasts, some areas seem to need more research. The first, as I have indicated, is the relation of podcasting to what Bourdieu would call habitus. That is, listeners seek a certain type of material based on their social formation and also the specific social moments in which they usually listen to podcasts. In addition, they may listen to podcasts in various material ways: on a computer or an iPod, or through a speaker to which the iPod is attached, either in a car or a room. While at the gym, to give an example, I choose long-form pieces, fifteen to twenty minutes, if I am on a cycle or treadmill or walking around the gym track. If I am on weight machines and stop frequently for breaks, I may listen to short form pieces that do not require a longer attention span. In contrast, people driving across the country may seek long form pieces or a varied playlist to suit the rhythms of driving. More research needs to be done about the relations between podcast form, structure, and subject matter and the specific conditions of how podcasts are then listened to.

Furthermore, I apply certain standards of quality; in particular, I look for a tight narration that indicates a well-prepared script, which follows the same principles of economy and organization as a well written screenplay or news story. Beyond that, the speakers' voice quality and on-air presence usually indicate the need for some kind of training or radio experience. And finally sound mixes with music and ambient sound, often layered in audio collage, indicate a more sophisticated understanding of audio production.

Since I have taught both video production and screenwriting, as well as literature and English composition, I recognize the degree to which these formal judgments come from my education, work background and social location. However, because of the success of online news organizations and NPR in promoting their podcasts, and also the success of iTunesU in podcasting college courses, my own personal judgments about podcast quality may also be shared by many others. Again, there has been very little research into the actual ways that people choose and use podcasts and the material and social conditions that shape their choices. Much about this recent audio development remains to be explained.

Go to annotated list of recommended podcasts on page two.

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