A Tetrad for Podcasting

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In writing up the commentary for my recently submitted PhD by published I’ve explored some of the work of the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan. I’ve often found his work useful in marking out some core ideas around medium theory, particularly around how we can ask questions of what we see and how that helps us understand the media. In his most famous line McLuhan urges to look not at the content of a meidum but the effect it has. For Podcasting this ‘message’ is about open-ness and the ability of creators to place work in front of audiences in new ways, one in which there few (if any) gatekeepers. This builds on his suggestion in Medium is the Massage on the role of the amateur in breaking the rules, which to my mind is fundamental in staking the ground for podcasting. Because amateurs led the way, they did so without adherence to whatever rules were in place and without the producer on the next desk influencing their decisions. These two small ideas have informed my work, as they draw attention to the shaping forces that have defined podcasting. More recently I came across McLuahn’s idea of the Tetrad, a scenario where a medium does four things that pull against each other.

It Enhances and Obsolesces and In Retrieves and Reverses. One side advances and the other retreats. A Google shows lots of examples of how academics uses this illustrate what new media and how they change or develop ideas. I’m sure that other podcast studies could suggest other terms to use here, ones that might differ depending on whether it scutinises chat casts, drama, or documentary. However, whatever the form there are things that cut across all podcast genres. There is a DNA that binds together fan-casts, daily news, and long-form narrative documentaries. This might be about how they draw out informal aspects of speech, allow for the foregrounding of normally hidden aspects, an understanding that listeners always opt-in, and perhaps most accutely that we’re always on the listeners schedule.

In my (first) version this is my proposition:
+ Podcasts enhance talk (and text). They draw on human speech, through conversations and scripted dialogue. They are pure talk. Far more so than, say, television. The presence of show notes and the need for users to make decisions based on these notes, the name of shows, or even episodes places new emphasis on text.
+ On the flip side, podcasts takes down notions of media time. No longer is the audience (or the content) constrained by the time it takes to broadcast it. Content can consumed at any time and is not boxe din by a broadcast slot. Listeners can pause, skip, binge, rewind, or even listen at double speed.
+ As is well observed, podcasting revives older media forms. It’s marked a return to documentary, drama, and talks that all draw from the long history of radio. Many of these were replaced by music radio as radio became a secondary medium but the time aspect means that listeners now have the time to listen to more complex genres.
+ Finally, the Tetrad suggests there is a ‘but’ in the equation. The conclusion that a new medium can lead us to. In this case it’s about the narrowing of consumption, where algorithms and our tastes lead us into consuming ever narrower patterns.

This post is really a work-in-progress. An Act of thinking outloud (online?) but it starts to map out how podcasting can be defined as a medium. I don’t think this is definitive, or even helpful at this stage but the act of writing and sharing might, in itself, help me to formulate ideas.