On Radio: The Practice of Podcasting

March 9, 2012
By | 6 Comments

from zoomar's flickr page, under a creative commons license

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.


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6 Responses to “ On Radio: The Practice of Podcasting ”

  1. Evan Elkins on March 10, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    Thanks for this, Jeremy. It seems like podcasts have been incorporated into broadcasting structures in another way: as training grounds and talent pools for success in “traditional” entertainment industries. Comedy podcasts are a good example. Marc Maron’s name is often thrown around as a potential talk-show host, and The Nerdist and Comedy Bang Bang have both been adapted for cable television (on BBC America and IFC, respectively). Podcasts offer a cheap, less encumbered way to experiment and reach an audience, but that road still occasionally leads to the money and recognition that comes from television.

  2. Jeremy on March 12, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    Thanks for the comment Evan. Actually, one of the podcasts I want to look at in the follow up to this is Maron’s WTF show. On the one hand, his story follows the optimistic narrative of someone starting a show out of their own garage (literally, in Maron’s case) and gaining a certain level of notoriety, but Maron’s also got a high level of connections within the traditional entertainment world that helps make the show what it is. He can afford to both be spurned by the traditional broadcast world and still benefit from it.

    Your point is a great one though, in terms of providing a cheap way to develop and (possibly) pluck talent for more established radio or tv gigs. I’m also interested in the opposite trend too…radio and TV personalities who achieved some success in those media but were either let go or moved on, and used their podcast to maintain their audience and their involvement in media making.

  3. Richard Berry on March 13, 2012 at 8:34 AM

    Jeremy, I totally agree. There is a real debate to had around what a podcast is. To me, there are marked characteristics inherent to Podcasts intended to consumed as such. They can lack the urgency of broadcast radio but at their best really understand their listener, in the way that mass media can struggle to. Not only because of the communities that can spring around podcasts but that’s an element too, I guess. A Podcast is distinct from other media forms and the great podcasts know that. Just like great TV producers make TV and don’t try to make movies. The mediums are that different
    The use of the podcast platforms by broadcasters is interesting and I do note that there is more attempt now to reshape the content that goes online to make more distinct – rather than just recycling. Whether it’s the RadioLab guys offering bonus episodes or the morning show on a music station offering some additional perspectives on their shows (Chris Moyles On Radio 1 is an example here)
    I don’t think I expected Podcasts to ever complete with radio. I expected an explosion and then a steady adoption and I’d suggest that’s pretty much what has happened

  4. Christopher Boulton on March 26, 2012 at 6:47 PM

    Good stuff Jeremy. Glad to see someone’s watching this space. Or would that be listening this space?

    As for more academic applications, have you checked out The Critical Lede or Toby Miller’s Cultural Studies?


  5. Jeremy on March 27, 2012 at 1:03 PM

    @Richard…Thanks for the comment. I’d love to do more work on exactly what makes podcasts, as you say, distinct (i.e. whether it’s aesthetics, tone, content covered, or the community that rises up around particular shows). The key methodological trick there is trying not to over-generalize given the variety of types of podcasts that exist and the individual styles they seem to follow. I’ve recently found some work on the motivations of podcasters but not as much on the podcasts themselves.

    @Christopher…I’ve been following Toby Miller’s podcast for a while now, but thanks for the tip on the Critical Lede. I also just subscribed to Ren Reynolds’ Virtually Policy podcast, which is more about new media and policy than cult. studies, but useful for folks in that area. Anyone else have any other good academic podcast suggestions (general shows rather than podcasts specifically related to an author’s book)? Perhaps I’ll compile them and include them in a future post…

    • Christopher Boulton on March 27, 2012 at 3:15 PM

      “Perhaps I’ll compile them and include them in a future post…”

      Please do! A couple suggestions:

      WNYC’s On the Media
      Bob McChesney’s Media Matters

      APM: American RadioWorks

      You might look into the lectures genre as well, whether TED or Profs like Sut Jhally making his courses available through iTunes U: http://www.sutjhally.com/courses