Thursday, January 26, 2006

Podcast Revolution

So as to avoid reinventing the wheel, according to Wikipedia, a podcast is defined as:

[A] term coined in 2004 when the use of RSS syndication technologies became popular for distributing audio content for listening on mobile devices and personal computers. A podcast is a web feed of audio or video files placed on the Internet for anyone to subscribe to. Podcasters' websites also may offer direct download of their files, but the subscription feed of automatically delivered new content is what distinguishes a podcast from a simple download or real-time streaming (see below). . . . Podcasting's essence is about creating content (audio or video) for an audience that wants to listen when they want, where they want, and how they want.

The technology is deceptively simple. It basically reuses the RSS feed concept that many websites use to notify people of updated stories. For example, if you "subscribe" to a ESPN RSS feed, you'll get the message in your inbox (or sent to a dedicated newsreader). So all a podcast does is take that kind of delivery of text and use it for audio or video.
I. The Content
Some podcasts update their listings every few hours (like NPR), others update daily, weekly, or at more random intervals. You can tap into great political coverage, world news coverage, audiobooks, music, comedy shows, and just about anything--all with no or very few advertisements. Most podcasts are free, but some require payment.
So what's the big deal? Well, some say that it's not that big of a deal since it is not a "live" broadcast. So all this is just another way of listening to something pre-recorded at your own leisure. Nevertheless, I think the concept itself is impressive since you are getting some very good content (with decent quality sound) mostly for free. Instead of walking to and from class a few times a day listening to the same music tracks, why not listen to NPR's morning or afternoon news? Why not listen to a story on BusinessWeek's story of the week?
II. The Implications
Some may argue that a podcast is just another way for people to 'plug-in' and 'tune-out' of the world around them. I disagree. People use technology in the way they want. With great news coverage delivered directly to my computer (and MP3 player), I can cut watching TV news altogether because it is unbelievably repetitive and of generally poor quality. In addition, I think listening to spoken words (comedy, books or news) sharpens some skill sets that may fade if we just rely on video. It forces us to listen to someone else talking for at least a few moments of our day. And what you might listen to might broaden your horizons. So if anything, the argument that plugging in is tuning out is pure rhetoric.
There are some drawbacks to the technology. The most important I would say is tangentially related to the "tuning out" argument. It is actually the flipside to the argument I made in the paragraph above, which is that if people have a choice to listen to very specific broadcasts, they will choose only the messages they want to hear (conservative radio broadcasts or only entertainment news). So many users may use this technology as a way to siphon out any views that are contrary to their own beliefs--much like insulating yourself in your own worldviews. It's the same argument that people make about satellite receivers that get 500 channels (and its the same argument the FCC made in the early days of radio, when licenses were granted onto to broadcasters who made content in the general "public interest"). But I think this drawback is something I can live with. Having a greater choice of potential messages is necessarily attached to the choice to not listen to other messages. It is expansion and exclusion simultaneously--and I think philosophically I would ALWAYS choose more expression over less, irrespective of information overload or segmentation of the listening public. I repeat . . . ALWAYS.
The other problem with the podcast technology is more surface oriented. Unfortunately, the name of the technology--podcasting--dupes listeners into thinking that they need an iPod in order to make use of it. Yes and no. At this point, iTunes is the most cohesive application from which you can subscribe and listen to podcasts. But there is other software out there--Yahoo's Music Engine plays podcasts as well. Although the nomenclature of the technology is Apple-centric, I think it is nothing to worry about in the long run since my hope is that anything with the term "Pod" in it will be a victim to genericide.
With that said, I still urge all of you try a podcast out.

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