Today I downloaded two new podcasts; Direct Current, a podcast in the style of NPR about energy from the US Department of Energy, and Dear Hank and John from the Green brothers of vlogbothers fame. This is in addition to my already long list of podcast subscriptions with over 20 feeds. Most people don’t even know what podcasts are, let alone listen to them on a regular basis. Podcasts might be my favorite form of entertainment after video games, but why?
I think my love of podcasts comes from several reasons; the first reason being that they fill a gap of time that when my mind wouldn’t usually be entertaining a narrative, or learning something new: driving. I don’t necessarily drive a lot, but when I’m driving music rarely does it for me. I find music to be repetitive and not very engaging. Podcasts are always something different, with an overall message that lasts for usually an hour or longer. They come in many topics so I can choose whatever I’m in the mood for; whether that’s comedy with My Brother, My Brother And Me or The GameOverGreggy Show, gaming with Kotaku Splitscreen, The Giant Bombcast, or PS I Love You XOXO, technology from The Talk Show With John Gruber or Welcome To Macintosh, or even a fun narrative style podcast like Welcome to Nightvale or Songonauts. There’s really something for every interest and mood.
The second reason podcasts resonate with me so strongly is that they’re so much more free and unburdened by the annoying aspects of other forms of media. Web content is laden with ads and invasive tracking, clickbait and sponsored content. YouTube has a harsh culture of clickbait and “like, subscribe, and comment” begging in addition to its ads and tracking. TV seemingly has more ad time than content time. Video games have on-disc DLC, season passes, and mandatory online connections. Most of those mediums are also beholden to some sort of platform holder or regulations. Podcasts in comparison are operated on a free and open technology known as RSS. RSS feeds are a universally recognized type of web document that basically just tells the viewing app where to look for the podcast and what to call it. No one controls RSS, has access to the details of what happens to the file after it’s downloaded, or can even really charge for it in a secure manner. Podcasters can choose to have ads in their shows, but they have no way of knowing if anyone actually listens to them or skips them. They can’t even tell if someone actually listened to the podcast after it was downloaded. If I decide I don’t like the podcast app I’m using I can just try another one. The only company that really controls anything it’s Apple. They have the largest podcast directory, and have some control over the discovery and promotion of podcasts in iTunes. But Apple has no control or input over the transaction after you click the download or subscribe button. Thanks to this open base that podcasting is built on I don’t have to use SoundCloud’s crappy app or web player, I don’t have to worry about it tracking the other podcasts I listen to, I’m not bothered by buttons for purchasing the full episode after only 5 minutes.
The last reason I think podcasts are so good is that they feel real. They feel like people making things because they enjoy it. The barrier to entry of making a podcast is so low, and making a good podcast is even easier than making a worthwhile youtube channel. The audio-only format allow people to make something with only one technical hurdle: does it sound good? Video has a problem of looking good, sounding good, working on all sorts of screen sizes, and other issues. Audio has little variation of that manner. I’m not saying that all podcasts sound the same, or that it’s impossible to make a bad one, but that learning to make an enjoyable podcast is a lot easier than learning to make a good video. For this reason all sorts of people make podcasts just because they like to do it. And with that, making tools for making and listening podcasts is a lot easier as well.
Most people use the built-in podcasts app that comes with the iPhone. I use Marco Arment’s Overcast because it has a lot of great features that really improve the experience. The best feature is “smart speed” which automatically cuts out silent sections, and subtly speeds up the podcast without making it sound funny. It also has much finer tuned control over how/when podcasts are downloaded, how much time the skip forward and backward buttons have, and makes finding podcasts much easier. With tools like these I can really get into listening to hours of podcasts a week.
I love podcasts, so the recent hubbub about podcast producers wanting more control or data in podcasts bothers me. I’m worried they’re going to try and squeeze all the joy out of podcasts just like they’ve done to TV, radio, web video, big budget games, and other types of media. Can we just leave this one thing as an enjoyable hobby-grade thing? I really hope so.