Because of my history as one of the pioneers of blogging, I am often asked about the newest kid on the block: podcasting. Podcasting, if you don’t know what it is already, is similar to blogging, but instead of writing your words down, you speak them into a microphone and publish them online as an MP3 for people to download and listen to on their MP3 players.
There are many advocates of podcasting, including some of the people who made blogging what it is today. To lump these two things into the same category is a mistake, as they are very different — both in creation and in final product. Blogs are meant to be read. Podcasts are meant to be listened to. Reading a blog is an active engagement that requires a good deal of focus. It requires concentration and attentiveness to read the written word. This is why people do not read while driving (well, at least those who want to stay alive). Listening to a podcast, however, is a more passive activity. You can safely drive and listen to a podcast at the same time. This fundamental difference between blogging and podcasting is what sets them apart and they should not be confused with each other.
I do not understand the hype around podcasting. To think that millions of people would rather dictate their thoughts and ideas into a microphone instead of writing them down seems a little strange, at least to me. Most people I know have a hard time forming a coherent message while speaking. This is why the majority of the people in this world ar terrible at public speaking. It takes a lot of planning, forethought and practice to be able to speak with enough conviction and power to make your words be as powerful as they are when written. My instinct and experience tells me that most people do not have the skills to do a high-quality podcast. If podcasting takes off, I imagine it will be like most of the rest of the Internet: a small percentage of great content and mountains of complete crap. However, the added barriers of entry into the podcasting world make it even harder for an beginner to get recognized and therefore become successful.
Let’s compare podcasting to blogging again, but this time let’s take a look at the tools used. I started blogging in 1997 and way back then there were no blog-specific tools at all. We had to know HTML and how web servers worked. It’s no surprise that most of the early bloggers were Internet geeks who knew how to publish on the web and were doing it as a day job at the same time. Since then, many self-publishing tools have been released and it’s become very easy to publish a blog online. Someone who is a good writer can now publish a fantastic blog without needing to understand the technology behind it. It’s as simple as writing an email and pushing a few buttons on a web page. Podcasting, however, takes much more effort and planning. Not only do you have to spend time writing down what you’re going to say, you have to practice it, play it back, and re-record anything you’ve messed up. You need to know basic audio production skills and have the correct software to edit, cut and splice your recorded audio together. It’s safe to assume most people do not have these skills unless they take the time to learn them or are taught. Simply recording a rambling thought into a microphone and ripping it out to MP3 is a very bad way to do a podcast. Unless you have years of experience fine-tuning your thought processes, you will fail and your podcast will end up sounding a lot like what it actually is: a long, rambling thought that fails to inform, influence and educate. I simply do not see podcasting becoming an important part of the self-publishing world. Sure, I think there will be some successes for those who master the art, but the numbers will be nowhere near those of successful bloggers.
The Barriers to Entry
Podcasting is hard. Not only do you have to have the skills, tools and expertise to put together a production-quality podcast, you also have to have the voice for it. Anyone who has studied radio broadcasting knows this. If you have a weird voice or a strong accent, you will likely not succeed beyond a small audience that can overlook it. People not accustomed to your voice will be forced to stop, rewind and re-listen to what you’re saying. This goes for podcasting while you are sick as well. The last thing your audience wants to listen to is a mediocre rambling thought from someone with a deep southern accent who has a cold.
One of the reasons blogging has become so popular is that today’s search engines favor regularly-updated, opinionated sites that link to source materials. The written nature of blogging leads to increased awareness through search engines. The technology behind blogging allows for deep-linking, easy cut-and-paste quoting of materials. Such search engines do not yet exist for podcasting, though there are some startup companies attempting to index podcasts for this reason. Blogging follows a standard draft/publish process that allows for unlimited editing prior to publication. The same process for podcasting is much more complex, and once again requires that the podcaster have a base set of audio production skills and the software to accomplish it.
Bandwidth. We hear stories all the time about sites being shut down by hosting providers who have hard-limit bandwidth caps. Even a text-based site with a few images can exceed a bandwidth limit if it gets Slashdotted or a couple of the right-wing conservative bloggers start paying attention to it. Podcasting, by its nature, is bandwidth-intensive. A podcast of a short post just a few minutes long is at least several megabytes in size. Even a mere hundred people downloading it adds up very quickly and suddenly podcasting starts to look like a pretty expensive way to get your voice on the web (literally). While bandwidth is becoming increasingly less expensive, I do not anticipate it being as abundant as is needed for podcasting to become as popular and ubiquitous as blogging. Even with companies that provide the tools and bandwidth for hosted podcasting, there are still all of the other issues I mentioned above to overcome.
As exciting as podcasting seems, there are still far too many barriers to entry for it become as big as its loudest advocates anticipate. Still, I wish the podcasting advocates the best of luck. It’s a neat idea, but I have no expectations that it will become a widespread or accepted medium for self-publishers.
Posted by Cameron Barrett at March 3, 2005 01:58 PM