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A Podcast Perspective

I was planning on concluding my series on podcasting with a few considered recommendations, but I seem caught between what I may do, and what others could.

To recap, I've been waffling on about web audio, media and podcasting  in the context of what I see is the online here and now.
My thoughts -- such as they are...

I want to now  put together what I see as a 'news and views' podcasting niche which I think is viable. 

1.Frequency 

Audio is easy to create, edit and publish such that it is on par with online text in the way it comes together. After recording you can edit up in Audacity as quickly as your skills allow. Converting to an mp3 file is seamless and once you upload  to a file host you'll have an url to share. It can be a very quick turnaround.

An hour, for instance:
Record >Edit >Convert >Publish
So doing daily podcasts is very feasible. Of course that's a  tight schedule. But if several people were contributing audio to the one show, daily, or almost daily, episodes are a collective possibility.

While there are many daily podcasts online, I think the best examples of daily news generation from a radical perspective are Palestine Today -- produced by the International Middle East Media Centre -- and Free Speech Radio News (FSRN)-- before they were forced to publish weekly alone.

Both podcasts' working model was to generate daily (work week) segments as well as  a regular weekly bulletin which aggregated the best stories collected from over the week.So listeners got to choose what they listened and subscribed to.

2.Length

One big advantage of audio is that the  file size is a lot smaller than video files, so playing, or starting and stopping,  is easier and quicker than with watching video. This means that a listener can more easily jump about within an episode. This is why many long podcasts also supply a list of segments within each episode with their time markers.

You can listen to audio  while doing other tasks -- either online or offline -- the sweet spot for podcast length seems to be 10-20 minutes. Democracy Now! runs daily as an hour podcast, but it's still very feasible to browse each episodes content by fastforwarding through the playing file.

In the case of FSRN and Palestine Today, a segment may be only 2-3 minutes long but the aggregation of daily segments in the one weekly shared file is going to be 10-15 minutes long.

3.Content: News and Views

FSRN and Palestine Today are both hard news programs whereas Democracy Now! is primarily based on interviews. This explains some of the length differences, but if you go to the local daily news podcasts as published by the ABC  Radio-- such as AM or The World Today -- you'll get a very smart mix of both.

Of course there is no  rule book for content. As far as eclecticism goes the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association manages to offer a very broad mix of audio segments on its website without actually packaging them as standalone 'shows'. You'll note too, how creatively CAAMA employs the occasional video and images..and that the site, aside from generating a 5 minute daily news bulletin, doesn't follow scheduled programming online.

Indeed,  the Canadian alt news site, Rabble.ca is a hub of podcasts. Its full name is the Rabble Podcast Network (RPN).
The rabble podcast network is a growing collection of Canadian podcasts that offer an alternative take on politics, entertainment, society, stories, community and life in general. They've been handpicked and are hosted on a platform created by rabble.ca, Canada's leading online news service for the progressive left.
Podcasts are short, web-based audio shows you can download as MP3 files.That's the same format used for most music on the Internet. Once you download a podcast, you can listen to it on your desktop computer or laptop, or transfer it to your iPod or other MP3 music player and take it on the road with you.
Most podcasts are produced by ordinary folks with just a computer, a microphone and opinions or ideas they want to share. We think podcasts are the most democratic medium to come along since, well, the Internet itself. That's why we've created rabble radio.

4.Podcasts and Radio

Many news podcasts are generated as part of radio programming and shared online. Melbourne's 3CR does this, for instance,as does the ABC. But it also happens that some programs (or episodes) begin life as podcasts and are later aired on radio. Indeed there are sites dedicated to sharing online audio for broadcast such as Radio4All and Archive.org .(And that's just the tip of what's out there.)In Australia this phenomenon has been limited by community radio's slow transition to going digital because of funding difficulties, but that's been changing.Another limiting factor can be the presumed poor audio quality of podcasts among radio audiophiles. However, I've found that in-station engineers are quite capable of  improving a segment's sound quality and making up for the  deficiencies in the original audio file.

But my point is that if a particular niche was filled with online audio it could  be broadcast by some community radio stations. Democracy Now! is broadcast locally by 3CR for instance and shared on by the CBAA, just as many local community radio-produced shows are aired around the country.

5. Advertising, Sharing and Control

One of the great advantages podcasting (or web audio) has over YouTube is that it doesn't suffer from advertising inclusions. So folk get your stuff and no one else's.

While YouTube lends itself to  viral take offs, podcasting is nowadays similarly shareable using such platforms as Soundcloud and today most web browsers will open an mp3 url in its own tab and start playing it. Just click on an mp3 file link and Voila! Instant audio. 

The mp3 files can be easily downloaded and played offline. The links can be shared by email  but you really need a platform like Soundcloud to showcase the audio on facebook. Here's an example of how soundclouding works on facebook: The Bugle Podcast.

As HTML5 takes off, it has also proven very easy to generate online players to showcase audio. Many flash players are proprietary, but coding HTM5 into your show is a very easy copy and paste-- and most browsers will read the code as a clickable online player that will run the file on the same page as the rest of the post.

Here's an example:

 

I won't go into detail about podcast engineering -- RSS feeds and such  --suffice to say is that what makes a podcast a podcast is that the 'show' as a series of posts generates a feed that can be subscribed to.

Maybe most sites online today generate feeds, news sites especially.Green Left Weekly's taxonomy creates feeds, for instance -- such as 'Comment and Analysis' --and feeds can be read and subscribed to in feed readers and podcatchers.

Depending on your subscribing platform you can selectively or automatically download the feed (and audio/media) content, just as you can opt to listen to the segment online. The only complication with feeds for podcasts is that they must carry the media inclusion, whereas many feeds tend to be little more than headlines. This is why many podcasts have their own 'feed generating' sites, which are separate from where they are showcased.

6.But are podcasts popular?

While I've dealt with this question in earlier posts but if we take the iTunes example: there are 800 million iTunes accounts on the planet...and,in sync with such a figure, there are over 1 billion podcast subscriptions.
Apple says that those billion subscriptions are spread across 250,000 unique podcasts in more than 100 languages, and that more than 8 million episodes have been published in the iTunes Store to date.
When I look at some of the play figures on YouTube -- and remember we are referring above to iTunes subscriptions which is very different from total number of plays as not all listeners subscribe-- these are very decent figures are they not? Even my own podcasts  generate    a larger audience than I got off YouTubery  when I was  using video. And I'm not aggressively promoting my stuff, but I am sharing  my audio via a few platforms.

7.Rigs and costs

The irony of podcasting is that it can be done absolutely for free. If you have a computer and a web connection you can start  podcasting.  Some podcasters prefer to keep it simple if they upgrade and will insist on using cheap $10 microphones.

Since coming back to online audio I'm using a $100 microphone which is also  absolutely portable -- the Zoom H1. It's awesome. I use it both out and about and as a desktop usb microphone. It also offers automatic gain which keeps your cadences and volumes within the same audio range.  

For interviews I'm experimenting with the $40 Olympus TP-8 - Telephone Pickup Microphone, although I could use Skype.

And that's it.You start with what you've got and  how much of an audiophile you want to be will  rule your outlay. Nonetheless, any editing in   Audacity (free download)  can improve on on any rough recording.

8.Podcasting's potential

I'll leave it up to you to consider how far hardware like this can reach but I guess one aspect that should register is the fact that hypothetically you could phone anyone and interview them as part of your podcast -- no matter where they live on the planet. There's no transcribing to be done. Just person to person. As a news gathering resource sharing audio like that has to be a big plus.

What may be sound quality issues aside, it sure generates news and views.

Similarly because podcasting is an easy DIY,with a low tech outlay, it is open  to a wide range of contributors. Free Speech Radio News in its heyday drew on audio journalists from an array of countries, who'd contribute short grab stories from their locations across the globe. Some of it was pretty rough but in the mix of reports the overview was unique coverage.

Democracy Now! -- despite its achievements -- embraces production values and a format that is not so easily grassroots. It is a show that tends to locate the dialogue between the two anchors and their guests.

I think there is a lot to be said for rough audio, rough journalism, if the niche being pursued is not being serviced. Production values and skilling up will no doubt improve over time  but as the experience of Rabble.ca suggests, you never know where audio will take you.

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