Mapping Podcasts

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One of the challenges in podcast studies is working out what it is that we’re talking about. There are lots of debates here, the most obvious of which is “well, it’s all just radio isn’t it?” I get this debate and part of me really agrees with it. It’s simple, it makes sense and the part of me that believes in radio likes it; but of course life is never that easy. Because if podcasts are radio, then by virtue anything else that sounds a bit like it could also be radio. What about audiobooks, or the audio guides that you can borrow when you visit a big museum? Many of us in radio studies agreed sometime ago, that for lots of reasons streaming platforms were not radio, as much as they might have liked to use the term. For podcasts, though, there’s a bit more to it than semantics, as it’s also about recognising the views of the people in the space who certainly do not see what they make as being radio – as much as a learned scholar might tell them otherwise. But this puts us in a position where we have to wonder what the heck is it then??

This definitional conundrum hasn’t been fully dealt with in podcast studies so far; partly because we’ve had perhaps more pressing issues but also it’s been moving at such apace that we’ve had chance to sit back and look up and wonder what it is that’s been built. A few years I tentatively thought about this in a paper for the Radio Conference in Prato. My argument (it was more of a ponderance really) was that just as  “radio ness” is a thing, so too is ‘podcastness’ and there were degrees to which this might be applied. For example, a podcast from NPR might sound very much like NPR and a podcast for BBC Radio 4 might sound not too unlike a radio programme produced by the same network; not least because the same people were involved. However, content sits on a scale where podcasts become more distant from this sound. What I began to think, though, that this scale was not linear. It was more about gradations across a number of aspects. As whilst some independent works might have the same technical standards as the BBC or NPR, their approach or political position might be different. Equally, we might judge values on things like independence, innovation and so on. It was interesting to see at the Podcasting Poetics Conference that Lori Beckstead had taken these themes on used them with her students to map a long list of podcasts. What was clear from her exercise and my own experiments with smaller groups at Sunderland, is that patterns emerge that show patterns depending on where podcasts might sit in terms of their heritage or their position economically and so on.

In my own paper in Mainz I took on some of these thoughts and built a series of arguments or talking points that might help us understand, differentiate or at leats question what we mean by podcasts. I’ll briefly summarise these here.

The technical argument – This is problematic, as technologies change over time. I’ve often come across arguments that suggest that internet radio is not radio, because it does not use radio waves. In podcasting this is perhaps more complicated, as in this case the medium is the message. I’ll explain. The medium is based on a RSS feed, which simply put is a kind of webpage that tells your phone where to the audio files known as podcasts and helps it download new episodes when they are available. The inventors of RSS very kindly made it available to all as an open source format, meaning that anyone can use for free. This means that you can run your own server and don’t need to get permission from anyone. It is this freedom that drove much of the early medium. The technology argument has been made harder by the likes of Audible and Luminary who make ‘podcasts’ but lock some of them behind paywalls and aren’t using RSS. Read the previous post for me on this. whilst this is all wound up in the political-economy of podcasting, to focus too much on it suggests that podcasting is a platform, rather than a medium that can retain key characteristics when divorced from the system that delivered the content to us.

So, maybe there are other arguments. These are generally based around a couple of core themes

Intimacy – Innovation – Informality – Independence – (dis) intermediation

Podcasts are an intimate form of media. We listen on headphones to work often produced in the home on subjects that often talk to our inner selves. They do not need to cater to a mass audience and can feel very personal. It is this niche positioning that again marks out podcasts from radio. If you want to stand out in podcasting, then my advice is to innovate and do something different and again podcasting has been able to do this again and again. With a sense of intimacy also comes informality, a sense by which hosts just chat to you (or each other) and you don’t feel the pressures of time limiting a conversation, nor the sense by which environments change our behaviours. A top podcaster told me they once tried to record their show in a studio and it didn’t feel the same and their show was worse because of it. Independence is a factor too, whether this is about home recorded content, shows made outside the mainstream or ways in which big broadcasters are now creating distinct teams to make distinct content, there is a sense that podcasts are ‘indie’ . The “I” is about the manner in which podcasts allows podcasters to bypass traditional media outlets and speak to audiences directly.

There’s also the people argument – In other words, the medium is not about content, platform or technology it’s about the people who make it. This might be about political economy or ideas around communities of creators, but for me it’s about suggesting that podcasting is as much a movement as it is about platforms. This is about people making the content they want and working often as a community to move their medium forwards. In true Long Tail form, whilst the likes of Joe Rogan dominate download charts there is a lengthy tail behind him that is longer than it is deep and this is where the true nature of the medium is; whether we consume that content or not. I keep coming back to a line from Marshall McLuhan who said that professionalism was ‘environmental’. My own take on this is that institutions define what being a professional is, just as this institutions have defined what ‘radio’ is over the years. What podcaster have done is to move that work into closets, attics and spare rooms and by breaking out they have defined the space and some of qualities outlined above. McLuhan says that the amateur doesn’t sit still and it is this momentum often generated by people who just made what they felt was right that has driven podcasting.

This leads us back to how podcasts sound and whilst a home recorded show and one made produced by a team of 10 more might sound like polar opposites are they, in fact, doing the same thing? Are they responding to niche ideas, or exploring big ideas in ways we can understand? Do they both know that the listener has made a deliberate choice to listen to them, this creates a definite bond between the listener and the producer. It can’t be a coincidence that lots of reports on podcasting all point to that fact that listeners are loyal and have a relationship that is different to the more lean-back nature of radio; especially music radio. It might also be around pacing. Have you noticed how podcasters take their time, even the shows that are edited to within an inch of their life take the time to stop and smell the flowers? I do find this annoying sometimes as a series devotes an entire episode to a minor aspect of the story that turns out to be pretty much irrelevant, just because they can. it might be we can’t exactly stick a pin in this thing and say ‘here it is, this is a fixed definition of podcasting’ and to be fair it would be a bad thing to do so and it fixes us in one place.

I’m starting to write all this for a chapter, so I’d welcome any thoughts on things I need to be reading!