An argument to redefine the Podcast

The recent trouble that Apple has been giving individuals with regard to the use of the term ‘podcast’ has led me to write up something that I have been thinking about for quite some time. I have been a podcast creator for over six months, and in this time have come to a number of conclusions with regards to what a podcast is, what they could be, and how they represent a way to generate income for creative people of all types.

The first question to ask is “what is a podcast?”. In it’s simplest explanation, a podcast is a large audio file available for download over the internet, intended for play on people’s personal computer or their digital music player. It’s what lies inside that large audio file that makes a podcast, though. A pod is a self-contained unit, a seed of sorts, that holds inside of it something that can be nurtured and grow. To cast a pod is to disseminate these pieces of information, entertainment, etc. to as wide an audience as possible. To make this unit available for the general public to consume as they see fit. A definition this broad allows the creator of the podcast great freedom in making what they want to make. Unfortunately, though, as is often the case when a new format paradigm reveals itself, people are still stuck in seeing the podcast as a representation of things that have gone before it, and have not explored it to its full possibilities. Perhaps because I just read “Kavalier and Clay”, I like to think of the podcast in metaphorical terms with the beginning days of comic books. At first, publishers were still thinking of comic strips, and they stuffed, somewhat awkwardly, the daily into a pulp format. It wasn’t until comic book creators started writing original material for these new comic books, that the format began to take on the qualities that now make it the art form that it is today. In the same sense, is photography simply a form of painting? Is a film simply moving pictures? Is an album just a collection of singles? By and large, the podcast creators of today are stuck in the radio broadcast model, using the podcast simply as a form of digital distribution of a radio show with the benefit of time shifting. A broadcast in the form of a self-contained ‘pod’, so to speak.

So what could a podcast be? The beauty of a podcast, and what attracted me so much to it, is that it could be anything! Briefly, here are three simple ideas that represent what I would like the podcast to become, or rather, what I have discovered about the podcast and have been exploring.
First, and most obvious, a podcast should be no more that 20 minutes. We are creating a digital art form for consumption by the digital masses with an ever shortening attention span. Radio show’s last an hour, maybe two. Podcasts are are just small little pods. Now in the spirit of podcasts, I would just like to say this is no hard and fast rule. The beauty of this format is it can be anything that you want. I mean, I’ve read plenty of amazing comic books that clock in at over 300 pages (Jimmy Corrigan, anyone?).
Second, podcasts need to start containing original material, written for the podcast, not just pre-produced songs or material originally designed for other mediums. Although I am still trying to figure out how to do it, I feel it is very important to start writing material for the podcast. I think mainly in using the podcast for music, but I know that it could be anything, comedy, sports, interviews, etc. Are you a songwriter, a music maker? Come up with a concept, and find some way to express it, anyway you like, within a twenty minute segment(pod) of time. Write FOR the headphones(your intended audience!), think of the left ear, the right ear, and the undivided attention of the mind in between them.

Lastly, podcasts are time-based, timely. The exact interpretation of this is up to individual producer, but their is a sense of immediacy to podcasts (not to say that podcasts can’t be, and aren’t, timeless). What’s a good podcast release schedule? I guess as fast as you feel comfortable being able to create a quality product that you can stand by. I wanted originally to do one every two weeks, now I realize it’s more like one every six weeks, if I’m lucky. A podcast should be fresh, even if it is not about current events. Get everything lined up, songs written, studio booked, musicians scheduled. From the time you start recording to the point when it is available for public consumption on the internet shouldn’t take anymore that a week. We’re only talking about 3-5 songs here, anyways. Or maybe one long song, or twenty short songs. There’s a delicate balance that each individual podcaster must figure out for each podcast, with one side being completely raw, recording the songs as you compose them, live, improvise, just recording life and making sense of it in the editing software, and the other side being the totally thought out, well managed, well practiced, tightly themed piece. I try and stay in the middle, leaning to the totally thought out side, but I always leave plenty of room for the events that transpire during the recording time to have an effect on the end result.

Did I say that podcasters can make money? Don’t worry, I’m not yet, but I can easily envision a world and a business model which recognizes the inherent value in a timely, well-crafted digital piece of creative output in this day of free information. Other than podcast specific sites, the most prevalent location for podcasts is at the online version of newspapers. Newspapers pay a comic strip creator actual money in order to syndicate his creation. Why would they pay an artist to make a piece of creative output? So they can affliate it with their paper, giving just one more thing to their readers to ensure that they continue returning and reading the paper (maybe even attracting new ones), increasing circulation and thereby advertising revenue. Should this not be the same case with podcasts? Syndicate! Serialize! The New York Times probably paid a pretty penny to Chris Ware to feature his comic strip in their Sunday Magazine, and I’m sure had many people looking for the New York Times when a new episode of his strip came out. If podcasters would start writing for the podcasts, creating original time based material, they would be able to demand the same sort of reciprocity. By allowing a newspaper to feature your podcast on their website, you give them the opportunity for co-promotion of their website and paper, a work of creative output that their reader’s will appreciate and come back for, with everything having the end result of increasing circulation and advertising revenue There are a lot of issues that have yet to be ironed out (or maybe it will always be a bazaar-like marketplace), like pay for download or pay per episode? Exclusive distribution or syndication? IP ownership, etc. but over time I believe that podcasts can become as lucrative an industry as television, providing jobs for producers, writers, musicians, and studio engineers (with everyone hopefully getting paid at least union wages!).

All this talk about podcasts…. I should have the next episode of Stubbornly Curious out by the ninth of October. Appropriately for October, it is entitled “Ghosts In The Flophouse”.