Separating the signal from the noise

For the most part, I consider myself relatively adaptable to new technologies. Heck, I dove head-first into OS X nearly five years ago, not knowing the first thing about Unix. So when new stuff rolls around, I usually love to give it a try, and (more often than not), become hooked (see DirecTV, cable modems, iPods, etc.…).

I have to admit, though, that this incredible surge of interest in podcasting has caught me completely by surprise. I have no idea why people find it so amazing and interesting. Though Podcasting is technically not a “new”technology, since it’s been around for a few years, Apple’s recent change to iTunes and the Music Store has really brought it to the masses—hence it’s “new” to a large number of people now.

I’ve done my usual experimentation on podcasting—I downloaded the iTunes update, installed the iPod updater, and spent quite a bit of time in the podcasting section of the iTunes Music Store, downloading and listening to a variety of podcasts. I’d love to say that I got hit with a big moment of “Oh my gosh, I get it!” during this time, but that’s simply not true. Instead, I came away with the same question I had going in—what’s so interesting about podcasting?

I thought it might help if I put together a list of what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses of podcasting (and more specifically, podcasts) to clarify the reasons for my position. I’ll start with the strengths, since that’s the shorter list.

  • Podcasting gives everyone a voice: In a simple sense, podcasting is a legalized form of pirate radio. But instead of illegally using FCC-controlled airwaves, podcasters are simply using the Internet as the means of distributuing their “radio.” As a firm believer in democracy, giving more people a way to make themselves heard is a good thing.
  • Professional broadcasters create professional podcasts: KCRW public radio, for instance, produces podcasts of many of their radio broadcasts. These podcasts have impeccable audio and (obviously) professional broadcasters doing the podcasting. The end result is a very easy-to-listen-to product.
  • Podcasts are generally free: If there are folks charging for their podcasts, I haven’t seen them yet. I’m sure the time is coming, but for now, you can listen to thousands of podcasts for the grand total of $0.
  • Apple has made podcast management easy: Between the iTunes Music Store, iTunes, and the iPod, Apple’s software has made the task of managing a large collection of subscribed podcasts quite simple.

So much for the good news. What’s so wrong with podcasts that they hold no interest for me?

  • Podcasting gives everyone a voice: Yes, I also listed this as a positive. But it’s also a big negative (at least for now). Giving everyone a simple means of getting their message out and listed in one spot (the iTunes Music Store) has led to a terrible signal-to-noise ratio in podcasting. Do we really need to hear a podcast of a husband and wife talking? Or of a few friends talking (apparently on cell phones, given the quality) about auto racing? Or, amazingly enough, a Podcast of the entire Oxford English Dictionary, done letter by letter? Finding the “signal” in all the “noise” of podcasting is very difficult. I’m sure there are some excellent true podcasts out there (i.e. great stuff not done by the pro broadcasters), but it’s certainly not simple to find.
  • Most Podcasts have production values lower than low: Just because you have a voice and now have a way to distribute it doesn’t make you a broadcaster. Broadcasting also involves scripting, planning, practicing, testing, producing, and (most importantly), having enough technology to make a clear recording. This doesn’t mean you need a $3,000 microphone and a soundproof room to create a podcast. But if you want people to listen, you need to make the effort to give them a product that’s easy to listen to. My friend and fellow Macworld author Kirk McElhearn has put together Kirk’s Seven Rules of Effective Podcasting, which is a great place to start. It’s probably not all-inclusive (I would have included “Don’t say ‘uh’ even once” as Rule No. 1), but it’s a good list of things to consider if you’re thinking about podcasting.
  • Podcasts require dedicated listening time: This is probably the biggest hang-up for me with the whole Podcasting phenomenon. To get the most out of a podcast, you need to be able to listen to it. Really listen to it. I mean, if you’re listening to a NASA podcast, you probably want to really hear what’s being said. It’s not background music, it’s people talking, points being argued, references being mentioned, etc. So you need your mind to focus on the podcast. As such, here's when I can't listen to podcasts:

    In the mornings: When I’m working on hints, I need to be focused on hints, so I prefer music in the background that doesn’t grab my mind’s attention. Just some nice tunes to fill the airspace while I type, think, test, and post each day’s hints.

    During the day: After posting hints, I’m usually working on e-mail, a column or article for Macworld , tweaks to code on both sites, or testing various software packages for future reviews. Just as with the morning, my mind needs to be focused on the task at hand, and not trying to focus on some point being made in a podcast.

    Evenings: Sorry, but no. Evenings and nights are family time. If we do anything, we might watch a movie together, though we try to limit our daughter’s exposure to the television.

    So that pretty much filled all my waking hours without any time for podcasts. Now my career is somewhat unique in that I work from home. I suppose if I had a 90-minute commute each way, then I’d have time to get into some podcasts. But even when I was going to an office, I’ve never had a drive longer than 30 minutes—and for the last 10-plus years, it’s been under 15 minutes. That’s not enough time to make it through a typical podcast, and it would also require that I take my iPod and my car adapter to/from the car each day. Also, I find I prefer music to talk radio when driving, as it makes me more relaxed—I suspect I’d have the same feelings when comparing podcasts to music. So what's left? Air travel, I guess. But I don’t travel enough to keep up with probably even two modestly-updated podcasts. Clearly, I’m not the target audience for podcasts. For those of you who are, when do you listen?

  • Difficult to use for reference info: If you’re listening to a podcast about technology, for instance, and they mention a Web site, you’re going to find yourself quickly lunging for pad and paper, or opening Stickies or TextEdit to type in the URL. Same thing if it’s a health show, and they talk about some new medicine you’d like to ask about—you need to jot it down somewhere before it vanishes from your short-term memory. That’s why I greatly prefer the Web, magazines, and newspapers for content such as this. The references are all there in print, and at worst, you might have to clip a page from a magazine and file it. If you’re going to give a lot of reference info in your podcast, it’s best if you have a companion Web site where you can list the reference material, as seen here.
  • Not easily searched: Though you can easily save podcasts, thanks to iTunes, you can’t easily search them. So if you have 250 episodes of The Tech Talk Show saved up, and you want to go back and listen to the bit about Macs on Intel again, you have to remember not only the date of the show, but roughly where in the show the bit was that you wish to listen to again. You could, I suppose, use QuickTime to extract various bits into podcast sublibraries for easier future reference, but that would take a lot of work and very good naming practices (since the clips still won’t be searchable).
  • It seems people will Podcast anything: If you hear someone saying “What I’m about to show you is…” during a podcast, you should realize that you’re probably not going to get the most out of the show—unless you’re at your computer, you can open the original presentation in QuickTime, and view it onscreen. And in that case, why do you need the podcast anyway?

I don’t necessarily hate podcasting as a general technology. But in terms of what I’ve seen so far, I still haven’t had that “oh wow!” moment where I realize what I’m missing. So for those of you who really enjoy podcasts, please tell me what I’m overlooking—what do you like about them that I’ve missed?

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