Monday, August 13, 2012

Unlocking the Value Within Podcasts

I am interested in the tendency of many of the bloggers whom I regularly read to now also become podcasters. These are people who have blogged successfully over many years, yet now seem to need to augment that activity with regular podcasting. Of course, bloggers have always appeared on podcasts as guests or as interviewees but this is a far more noticeable trend now – it seems to have almost become a given for full-time bloggers to also have their own related podcast. Even in cases where their key strength remains in the written word.

From an economic perspective podcasting is another revenue stream, allowing full-time bloggers to attract additional advertisers. It seems likely that for many people blogging on its own just may not be a sustainable career. So podcasting is a way of broadening their audience. Provided, of course, that they are not just reaching the same audience in a different medium. It would be interesting to know how much crossover there is between the two audiences of various blogger/podcasters. (Are most of the listeners to John Gruber’s The Talk Show already subscribed to his blog Daring Fireball?) This shared audience can be a practical problem for the kind of podcasts that merely rehash last week’s worth of technology news blog posts. Nobody wants reheated beans week after week.

A better business model is when the audio complements the written word. Howard Dediu’s Critical Path podcast on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 Network works in parallel with his Asymco blog. His ideas are often initially thought through and road-tested on his podcast. It is an advanced form of thinking out loud. His blog works on its own. His podcast also works on its own. You could interact with either and be satisfied. But taken together they give you a more fully rounded understanding of his chosen topic.

What will be interesting to observe will be how does the ratio of blog posting to podcasting change over time. Will today’s blogger/podcasters find it more appealing or advantageous to become podcaster/bloggers? Might certain author’s blog posts become less insightful and useful as more of their time and attention gets spent on their podcasting activities? While no one individual can represent a trend, it is interesting to look at the edge-case of Merlin Mann, whose excellent 43Folders blog was broadly read and admired in its heyday. His blog changed focus and emphasis over time on a journey of discovering what he wanted to say. (That this process occurred in a very exposed way in plain view on the Internet makes it both fascinating and admirable.) He has migrated his career away from blogging to become more or less a Full Time Podcaster.

I am not arguing that podcasting is inferior to blogging, or that anyone cannot be excellent at both disciplines, or that broadcasters cannot deliver their message across different platforms. (I still listen to and enjoy way too many podcasts and read way too many blogs. Probably most of the bloggers I read fall into the category discussed above.) Rather, what interests me is whether these people are putting their best ideas into silos. As a medium, podcasting tends to capture and retain ideas. At the most practical level, podcasts are simply not searchable and discoverable in the manner of blog posts. I can not easily locate that pithy sentence I recall from that episode of Foobar Podcast from last Autumn. (Was it episode number 25 perhaps? I think the quote was about 18 minutes in, after the first advertising break maybe. Who knows?) While there have been various technological initiatives proposed over the years to index podcasts and make them searchable. None have gained significant traction yet. Most likely that is because this is not a technological problem to solve.

The affordances of the two media are different. New listeners tend not to travel back too far into a podcast’s archive, if at all. Similarly, if I begin following a new blog, in general I will tend to only read recent posts. Yet the difference with podcasting is that over time these posts will tend to naturally lead me back to some of the blog’s most useful archived material via links within the text. Not so with podcasts. If a new one is recommended to me I will listen to the most recent episode. If that seems worthwhile, I will subscribe to future episodes but rarely ever have the time to listen back over any previous episodes. (With the proviso that this usage pattern varies depending on the nature of the content and programme structure involved. For example, a daily or weekly news podcast having a different end-goal to a podcast that aims to analyse and track a topic in depth over time.)

If I write a blog post it is searchable in perpetuity. Indeed, nobody may even read it for years. Yet, who knows, it may prove extremely useful to someone who discovers it in the future. All parts of my blog are eminently discoverable. In that way every blog post, no matter how insignificant, is always one further addition to the overall store of knowledge. While writing a blog tends to build up value cumulatively, it is difficult to argue the same for podcasting.

So for the podcaster’s ideas to achieve greater visibility or to reach a broader audience they often need to be reworked somehow. Most commonly the best individual ideas generated in podcasts become the core of subsequent blog posts. However, some people have more ambitious ideas.

Horace Dediu recently ran a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign to create an ebook transcribing the episodes from the first year of his podcast ‘The Critical Path’. This is an intriguing initiative on a number of levels, as it is a formal attempt to extract that value which remains locked-up in the podcast archive. It is the act of packaging that is important here not the package; which could be either book, e-book, website, app, or any combination of these.

In this instance I think the author has underestimated the amount of work involved, based on his indicative timeline. The work of transcribing around fifty-two episodes can be outsourced easily. The time-consuming work for the author begins with the process of re-reading all of those transcripts and then selecting and extracting the pertinent insights and observations. Being a conversational medium, podcasts can tend to have a low signal-to-noise ratio, so a lot of this first-pass editing may be required. The greatest value is added when finally editing those insights into a coherent narrative which draws together all of the threads throughout the year’s conversations. I am interested to see how long this process will eventually take.

This project may set a useful precedent. On the face of it, books collecting the best-of particular blogs seems minimally valuable. (Although that may only be a function of time; given that the oldest blogs are probably little more than ten years old. At a certain point, the value of curating the accumulated knowledge within certain blogs may indeed become a useful job-to-be-done.) In contrast books capturing the essence of thoughtful podcasts do have an immediate job-to-be-done: repurposing the ideas for greater accessibility, portability, awareness and visibility.

I wonder whether similar Kickstarter campaigns will mostly be preaching to the converted. I suspect that the majority of backers of Dediu’s novel project are from his podcast’s audience. Most probably amongst the most engaged members of that audience. Getting copies of the book into the hands of those advocates is surely an effective way to spread his ideas. That said, a follow-on project producing an edition to be distributed through Amazon and other means could expose these ideas to broader new audiences who are unfamiliar with the source material.


This trend might mean that it is now time for us to change some of our terminology? The word podcaster already sounds tediously dated to me, perhaps we should simply say broadcaster. If our favourite bloggers increasingly spend their time also audio broadcasting maybe a new word is needed to describe them. Well maybe not a new word, when an existing word such as ‘pundit’ might suffice.