“Whatever Happened to Podcasting?” asks Mark Ramsey, and it’s a good question. As Ramsey notes, podcasting still happens, with people making and listening to digital audio, often through syndication. And yet “podcasting is most certainly off the media radar.”
That is clear to me, and Ramsey finds Google Trends offering pretty stark evidence on this score:
So why didn’t podcasting go further than that downward slope? Why doesn’t it have a broader reach now?
Ramsey’s set of reasons are very good. They include problems with metrics, our demonstrated preference for visual (especially video) media, and format issues.
There are two other reasons I’d like to append. They involve giants.
First, it’s the problem of iTunes versus social media. Too many podcasts are trapped in that off-Web machine, unlinkable as Web objects, cut off from social media. In the iTunes interface podcasts are stashed several tabs down, behind the all-consuming, far shinier marts of music and video. Ramsey touches on this (“Most audio is not easily sharable”), but we should emphasize this, and can also go further.
Think about podcasts attached to blog platforms, like Escape Pod or Radio Open Source. Each podcast files appears as a blog post, which lets the creators add all kinds of goodies: links, descriptive text, images, embedded video, transcripts. Yes, iTunes can let you do some of this, but the blog format is on the Web. Anyone can quickly see it without firing up the vast iTunes program. Anyone can comment on it and those comments play a role in the Web. We can quickly connect the post and ‘cast through Web services (Facebook, Pinterest, etc). The podcasting world would have been bigger had it fully inhabited this space.
How many podcasts exist only as iTunes entities, without a Web presence? They are far less visible, and therefore contribute to podcasting’s sidelining.
One of those Web service entities is another giant who plays an additional role in podcasting’s marginalization. Google never got into the podcasting game, and it shows. Podcasts rarely appear in Google searches without users adding terms to their search. Google makes no move to introduce newbies to podcasting. Contrast this with videos, in YouTube or elsewhere, which rapidly rise to the top of a basic Web search. Google has no podcasting tool: no editing software, no hosting, no sharing, no podcatching. Google’s neglect surely dooms podcasting to a sideline; very few digital movements can survive that.
(It’s interesting to imagine an alternative history where Odeo succeeded in its Web-based podcasting service. They were enormously ambitious, trying out recording, aggregating, sharing, and discovery (check out this rave report from 2006). Imagine if they had become the go-to place for podcasting. Maybe they could have done Twitter as well)
Despite all that podcasting still succeeds to an extent. I’m talking beyond podcasts of public radio’s greatest hits, which are useful, but are not podcast-native creativity. There’s a huge amount of creativity in making and/or telling digital audio stories. For example, this year saw Welcome to Night Vale race into cult/viral hit status. The Memory Palace continues to office very short, affecting glimpses of history. Julie Hoverson is a one-woman army, creating tons of diverse audio theater, while reading and orchestrating readings on the side. Slate hosts the brilliant Culture Gabfest every week. Digital Campus features some of the best commentary on technology and education anywhere. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and other genre fans now have a gold mine of current and historical stories, from the Hugo-winning Starship Sofa to the fine, beautifully-read Clarkesworld stories.
What happened to podcasting? It kept going and growing. What didn’t happen is the most interesting question. Podcasting didn’t escape iTunes and it never fully migrated into the Web of social and search… but podcasters kept making art anyway, as my friend Alan Levine wants us all to do.
Speaking of podcasts, here’s an annotated list of some of the ones I regularly listen to.