Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 24, 2015

podcasts redux

Perhaps the chief thing I learned from my post on podcasting is that a great many people take “podcast” to mean something like “any non-music audio you can listen to on your smartphone.” Okay, fair enough; the term often is used that way. And I sort of used it that way myself, even though I didn’t really mean to. This made my post less coherent than it ought to have been. 

In more precise usage, a podcast is something like an audio blog post: born digital and distributed to interested parties via web syndication. We commonly distinguish between a magazine article that gets posted online and a blog post, even when the magazine posts the article to its blog and you see it in your RSS reader; similarly, In Our Time and This American Life are radio programs that you can get in podcast form, not podcasts as such. The Mars Hill Audio Journal is an audio periodical and even farther from the podcast model because it isn’t syndicated: you have to purchase and download its episodes — and you should!  (By the way, I couldn’t help smiling at all the people who told me that I should give Mars Hill a try, given this. How did they manage to miss me?) (Also by the way, MHAJ has an occasional podcast: here.)

So clearly I should not have used In Our Time to illustrate a point about podcasts, even if I do typically listen to it in podcast form. My bad.

In Our Time has a great many fans, it seems, and while on one level I understand why, I'm typically frustrated by the show. It typically begins with Melvyn Bragg saying something like, "So Nigel, who was Maimonides?" — to which Nigel, a senior lecturer in Judaic Studies at University College, London, replies, "Maimonides was born...." And then off we go for half-an-hour of being bludgeoned with basic facts by three academics with poor voices for radio. Only in the last few minutes of the episode might an actual conversation or debate break out. If you don't especially like reading, then I guess this is a reasonably painless way to learn some stuff, but it doesn't do a lot for me.

I also discovered that EconTalk has a great many fans, and indeed, you can learn a good deal on EconTalk about stuff it would be hard to discover elsewhere. But EconTalk is basically people talking on the phone, and the complete lack of production values grates on me.

So, sorting through all these responses, I have come to two conclusions. The first is that for a great many people podcast-listening is primarily a means of downloading information or entertainment to their brains. It's content they want, and the form and quality of presentation don't, for these people, count for a lot.

The second conclusion is that in these matters I have been really, really spoiled by the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Even though it is not a podcast, it is, I now realize, the standard by which I tend to judge podcasts. And they rarely match up. Ken Myers has a really exceptional skill set: he is deeply knowledgable and intelligent, he is a friendly but incisive interviewer, he is a magnificent editor, and he has the technical skills to produce a top-quality audio presentation. I’ve come to realize, over the past few days of conversing about all this, that what I really want is for all podcasts to be like the MHAJ. And while that may be an understandable desire, it’s an unreasonable expectation.

7 comments:

  • Podcasts can offer two things: (1) A greater range of *content* than traditional radio allows, and (2) A greater range of *practitioners* than traditional radio allows. The problem is that good audio production is not a very widely-held skill; I don't think it's a coincidence that many of my favorite podcasts (like the Memory Palace) are made by people with backgrounds in traditional radio. So unlike blogs, where there was a large population of competent writers in various professions who could take advantage of the technology, podcasts are much more uneven in quality, even when their content, as you say, is desired more than anything else.

  • I quite like the Longform Podcast, because I enjoy conversation-based, interview-based podcasts, but it is VERY writing industry inside baseball.

  • Your point about podcasts as "a reasonably painless way to learn some stuff" interests me-- I nearly always prefer to download information by reading, and it frustrates me that so many people have opposite preferences.

    I come across this especially from people who want to "flip the classroom" by having students watch videos outside of class; I would much prefer to have them read the textbook, which most people (rightly) regard as an overly optimistic thing to ask of college algebra students.

    I guess this idea explains the plethora and popularity of mediocre videos walking through sections of a textbook. I underestimate how much people dislike reading.

  • I am intrigued by your comment that Ken Myers is an excellent editor. I think any long time listener will be impressed by his interviewing skills (and excellent preparation), but you have some insight the rest of us won't about what the editing does to the interview. Maybe this isn't the place for it, but I'd love to hear a description of what caught your attention. (If for no other reason that I too would love to have more folks like Myers doing such work, and I'm curious what they should be thinking about.)

  • (Prof. Jacobs, if it seemed like I was recommending MHAJ to you--I wasn't! I joked to my wife that in the early years of MHAJ, I'm pretty sure you were Ken's go-to when he needed material.)

  • Mark, I got that from many people!

  • I think that one of the perks of podcasts is that they are often usable in situations when our eyes are otherwise occupied. Reading is a primary activity, podcasts can be a secondary activity, e.g. when driving or the like.

    Now, per the theses on technology, I'd acknowledge that there's risks to this sort of approach, but I think it is part of the appeal.

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