The Tragedy and Triumph of Podcasts

It’s now about 6 years since I discovered podcasts while listening to a pre-podcast podcast, The Gillmor Gang. It’s everything I ever wanted from radio talkback – niche topics, on-demand listening, access anywhere, rich metadata, and no music – I’ve chosen to listen to talkback for a reason (Hello Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

A perfect storm of iPods, massive bandwidth, and feed religion made podcasts possible, and they are still going on strong. However, they’ve never taken off in the mainstream, and you can’t say they haven’t had a fair chance. Apple’s inclusion of podcasts in iTunes and iOS makes them pretty darn accsessible if people want them, yet many people aren’t using them. Having informally surveyed a few people, I’ve found they aren’t actually aware how easy iTunes made it to subscribe to podcasts, so there’s more work to be done there. But I think if there was enough word-of-mouth publicity, people would be using it to subscribe. It’s not harder than uploading photos for example. (I do have many reservations about iTunes, but those are more for advanced users.)

Podcasts haven’t taken off in much the same was as RSS and feeds and news readers have never taken off. Or have they? I recently heard Jon Udell speaking on the topic (on a podcast-or-other, not his own one) and he made the point that we expected everyone would wake up in the morning and open up their reader of feeds they’d subscribed to. Didn’t happen. But feeds did happen, social feeds, in the form of Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Buzz, and so on. Anyway, those don’t really translate to podcasts, not yet anyway. If Huffduffer let you subscribe to all your friends’ feeds, it would be possible, at least in a geeky niche community anyway.

My main point here is to highlight a few things that haven’t happened for podcasts, and would make them better and just a bit more popular if they did. I’m not arguing these things would make podcasts wildly popular; consider this mostly a wishlist and some pointers to a few trends:

Hardware: So we have these networked devices right? The most prominent at this time being iPhone and iPad, but they still don’t sync over the cloud. Using Android recently, I’ve come to appreciate how nice it is to sync podcasts in the background, over the air. Latest podcasts are just there. Downside being, you have to use an expensive phone, which is a problem for gym and running, and also a drain on that precious battery life. While in the US, I recently picked up an Ibiza Rhapsody player, a bargain at $44 for an 8GB player which automatically connects and syncs. Would be even better if I could sign up to the Rhapsody service in the UK, but not gonna happen. The neat thing is it has podcasts built in, and lets me sync them over the fly. Downside is it doesn’t have a keyboard, so if I want a feed not in the default list, I have to type it manually using the one-at-a-time, left-right-left-right, character entry. Now I’ve been waiting for someone to release a mini Android device, so I was blitzkrieged to hear This Week In Google mention a new line of Archos “tablets”, including a 3.2″ device. Which will be perfect for gym and running, allowing me to switch between podcasts and Spotify, with both of those things syncing over the air, and at $150, cheap enough to risk overzealous destruction :). Can you say Drool.

Cloud OPML: It’s awesome we have a standard like OPML, a simple way to declare a list of feeds, AKA Reading Lists. (Technically, reading lists are a subset of OPML, but OPML is the term commonly used, so I’ll keep using it here.) However, in both podcast and feedreader world, there’s an extremely weird tendency to assume OPML lives on your hard drive. Many newsreaders and podcatchers allow you to import and export to and from OPML…but they assume OPML lives on your hard drive, not in the cloud!!! Why? I have no idea. The whole concept is inherently cloud, so it makes no sense. I just want to stick my list of podcasts on a server somewhere, and when I start using a new client, it downloads them for me. As a consequence, I’ve manually entered my subscriptions dozens of times over the years. This is especially important for mobile devices – especially ones without a keyboard – like the Rhapsody player I mentioned above. Podcatcher/Feed-reader developers, I urge you to pull down subscriptions from OPML resources in the sky…and to offer users the ability to publish their subscriptions that way too!

Archives: Sadly, podcasts don’t live on the same way blog post do. This is sad because many podcasts are reference material, not just latest news. Take a podcast like the excellent History According to Bob. Over the years, he’s produced hundreds of fine recordings on all manner of ancient and recent history. But subscribe to his podcast, and you’ll only be able to backtrack 8 episodes. Now I chose Bob as an example because he actually offers older podcasts for DVD purchase, but most podcasters would be fine to let people get hold of old podcasts; they just have no way to actually make it practical. History is not the only topic; there are podcasts about movies, science, economics, software engineering…where a 2004 podcast would be just as relevant today, if only you could get hold of it. Some podcasts include every single episode in the feed, but then certain clients will end up pulling down gigabytes of data when each user subscribes. As a user, your best best is to scour archives – if they exist – and use something like huffduffer to aggregate them. But that’s still painful and not something every user will do. Odeo was on the right track, by building up a long list of all podcasts ever produced on each feed, whether in the current feed or not. But Odeo spawned Twitter and Odeo sadly isn’t.

Integrate with Music Players: Call it, “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but I would love to see the music services embrace podcasts. Spotify, for example, has a great interface for choosing songs on the fly as well as subscribing to playlists; it could easily be extended to podcasts to become a one-stop-shop for your listening needs. Playdio is an interesting move in this direction, allowing people to record talk tracks in between music tracks, and their contact form mentions podcasts, so maybe there is hope. Still, I wish Spotify et al would just bake podcasts into the player and be done with it. And considering the social features these things are starting to have, it could actually be quite powerful.

Social: There’s not really much you can do to find out what friends are listening to and all that cal. There’s Amigofish, but it would be nice to see it baked into the players directly.

True, music will probably be in first place for the foreseeable future, mirroring reality, but its needs have already been met, much more so than talk formats, where there really hasn’t been much innovation since 2004.

3 thoughts on The Tragedy and Triumph of Podcasts

  1. Mediafly has a podcast aggregation site that allows the users to go back and listen to the older episodes. And it has apps for Android, iPhone, Roku, Logitech, Palm, and Blackberrys. UI is not the most easy to use, but it is an option.

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