On Radio: The Practice of Podcasting
The new media sheen has worn off of podcasting. At the height of its trendiness, “podcast” was selected as the word of the year in the New Oxford American Dictionary (2005), and academics like Richard Berry or yours truly (along with a rowdy band of co-authors) were trying to think about what this new creative audio practice meant for our understanding of both traditional broadcast radio and new media more generally. Fast forward to 2012 and podcasts are no longer the novelty they once were. They are not solely an audio affair either, since video podcasts seem to have joined vlogs and webisodes as names that apply to short, serialized video instalments. Many corporate and public broadcasters now offer their most popular shows via podcast, in addition to their regular radio programs. Podcasting has its own celebrity star system that overlaps with other fields of media stardom. Many podcasts are available for free, though some of them require a subscription or other forms of payment. There are still, of course, armies of independent DIY podcasters out there with their handheld mics and home studios, toiling away out of pure passion (and usually, in relative obscurity), but these co-exist with rather than replace or threaten traditional broadcasting practices and infrastructure.
Despite their seamless incorporation into the traditional broadcasting landscape, podcasts are still tricky objects of media analysis, since they can refer to the thing you listen to (i.e. the actual audio show itself), the way in which it was made (i.e. in someone’s basement, garage, or semi-professional studio), the means by which you receive it (i.e. usually through a podcast aggregating RSS feed, your media player, or directly from a podcasting app), or where you play it (i.e. commuting, at the gym) and through which device (usually an mp3 player, or a computer). Podcasts are related formally to radio (and in the case of video podcasts, television), though the degree of relatedness varies greatly depending on the program. They are also highly bound up in urban life and the creation of personal soundscapes, as Michael Bull’s work on portable music players suggests. While our media have always had their own rituals, with podcasts our rituals can have their own media.
Given these multiple meanings, podcasts might better fall under Jonathan Sterne’s recent definition of format. The term format, he argues, encourages us to separate our conceptions of media from their manifestations (i.e. TV from televisions, Radio from radios, Telephony from telephones), to help us think about media experiences in light of convergence and the dilution of individual media across various screens and devices. Borrowing from Lisa Gitelman, Sterne reminds us that “the mediality of the medium lies not simply in the hardware, but in its articulation with particular practices, ways of doing things, institutions and even in some cases belief systems.” Format thus becomes a potentially useful concept for exploring the meeting point of aesthetics, storage, transmission, and display.
And this is what still remains exciting about podcasting, at least when we look beyond the top podcasts lists on iTunes and the podcasts that are simply direct re-packagings of already existing broadcast programs: the format has prompted a reconsideration of what we can expect from radio. I mean this both in the consumer-ly sense of vast amounts of content, more flexible delivery, and greater portability, and also in a producer-ly sense. The practice of podcasting has, like college radio stations, become a training ground for cultural enthusiasts to experiment with technology, performance, and audience/relationship building. Even though there is no .pod file specification (podcasts come as MP3s, AACs, M4vs, OGGs, etc.), podcasts contribute to a re-formatting of broadcasting to a practice that is far more accessible and generative for everyday users than it has previously been.
I realize these last few points beg further explanation, but since I’m already running long on words, I’ll save it for a follow-up post. There, I’ll focus on a few specific podcasts and work through some of their most salient features.