January 6, 2021•1,186 words
Playable on-demand broadcasts (podcasts) are a simple case of people using open technologies to come together over a new medium that should be accessible to everyone. They are my favorite example not only of how useful RSS feeds can be, but also of the evolution towards audio files that are small, sound good and can be easy to catalog. Pretty much anyone with a laptop can record a podcast, the challenge as always is distribution. But the thing about just having a file that people want to listen to is how flexible it can be. You can put it on a website, send a link through a newsletter, have a full archive inside a torrent and no listener needs to have an account on any specific platform or even has to be online to listen.
My own history with the medium began about a decade ago when I was looking for independent content about games, namely tabletop RPGs. I became fascinated with the idea that you could kind of make your own personal radio to listen at your own pace anywhere. And also by the feeling of connection you get with people who are not very much different from you. They just sit if front of a microphone and talk (and then maybe edit the recording for hours, but let's not ruin the magic). And although some radios still have an experimental side to them, most of them have long become sequences of playlists and ads, while many podcasts still retain the ability to surprise you in every episode. More than that, some series can even be considered timeless, they are a contribution to the public library of an open internet.
After about a year of listening to podcasts, much like how people who read books eventually try to write since it's such a accessible craft, I created my own podcast and developed a taste for all the work that goes into it. For about four years, I committed to publishing something every two weeks and stopped after a long season of 101 episodes. Being dedicated to the niche of tabletop RPGs, I was the only podcast in my country on that topic, so I tried to cover just about every approach possible: reviews, interviews, essays, recording sessions, live panels, original music, round-table discussions, etc. Knowing zero about preparing a script, sound engineering or audio editing, I'm still just an amateur but I did learn a bit of how and why some podcasts are the way they are. Namely, the huge difference it can make having a team instead of going solo or having a good microphone in a decent room as opposed to trying to clean it up when editing. So maybe it's not that accessible, but the most basic setup sure can work for at least a few dozen episodes. And you still get to grow an audience, I made friends across the Atlantic Ocean, people that I would've never met if not for the podcast. This medium can truly embody the best of what an open internet has to offer us.
If you're looking for recommendations, the classic starting point that's mentioned when people want you to take podcasts seriously is Dan Carlin's Wrath of the Khans series from the Hardcore History podcast. You definitely can't go wrong with that (although I believe it's behind a paywall now), but I can also mention some of my personal favorites. Tech related, I recommend subscribing to Reply All (website, RSS feed). It stands out not only for the level of audio production, but mainly for putting humans at the center of how we deal with technology. For a completed series that may have timeless value, I can recommend More Perfect by Radio Labs (website, RSS feed). As a non-American who sees the value in understanding American history, learning about the evolution of the constitution and the supreme court is surprisingly useful. Finally, another easy recommendation if you ever thought about the importance of design in our lives, is 99 Percent Invisible by Roman Mars (website, RSS feed). Another great example of how to tell stories through radio that is playable on-demand. Trust me, this is a completely different experience from trying out audio-books.
However, like many other open platforms, podcasts also are what we make of them. And it's not like there's some clear corporate branding touting the advantages of playable on-demand broadcasts. Each podcaster really can do whatever and each audience member maybe finds out what a podcast can be and looks to see that promise fulfilled. Not surprisingly, what ends up happening are things like listeners who are content with going to a website, clicking play and keeping that page open to stream an audio file they could have downloaded and listen anytime anywhere. No wonder they have ended up limiting themselves to Spotify. An even more tragic misunderstanding is people who thought you needed an Apple device to listen to podcasts and in their minds have forever stuck an open platform into a closed ecosystem. Now, I'm not sure if I believe in love-at-first-sight, but convenience-at-first-sight sure is a popular all-or-nothing approach to technology. As if everything had to be right here right now for it to exist. Is convenience the only personal value that guides our actions? That would be a digital world without distance, one in which all things have to be targeted and pushed towards us since we won't walk towards them or even just pull them to use in our own time and with our own hands. So, it's only partly true, it's how things are for a lot of people who did not yet have the time to engage with the technology. We're still talking about podcasts, but it's also pretty much the history of the web, for example.
Anyway, if you're looking to get started, the easiest way to consume podcasts is to pick an app for your smartphone that does the work of managing your RSS feeds, namely automatically downloading the latest episodes so you can listen to them offline at your leisure. I have used BeyondPod and Pocket Casts, but now have switched to Podcast Addict. The best podcast clients inevitably become paid apps, ask for subscriptions and/or are assimilated by corporations that are interested in controlling the access to this open platform. Just remember that, at the end of the day, you are just going through a list of RSS entries to download an .mp3 file. That's what you want, not some closed source live stream that injects ads into your episodes. But, by the way, you should also realize that this remarkable ease-of-access also means that podcasters have very limited knowledge of the kind of engagement they are having. They basically know how many times an episode has been downloaded and that's it. So, if you enjoy a podcast, consider telling those people that you love their work and give them some feedback. It does make a huge difference.