Saturday, March 15, 2008

POW: TWIT #134, how to build a better podcast

My podcast of the week is episode #134 of TWIT (This Week in Tech).  One of the guests was David Winer, one of the key architects behind RSS.  About 20 minutes in the guys get into a pretty good discussion of podcasts, and the shortfalls of their current use and user experience.

David notes that podcasts are heard primarily on personal MP3 players, which are designed around songs.  Songs differ from podcasts in a number of ways, principally that you typically only want to hear a podcast once and then get rid of it.  Songs are typically kept and reused, listening to them doesn't subtract from their value.  It got me thinking about ways the experience of hearing a podcast could be improved.

First, long podcasts need breaks.  TWIT has been running almost 90 minutes lately, I never listen to the whole thing at once.  Bookmarks allow me to stop and later re-start, but in doing so I lose something, I lose the context of the conversation.  It would be helpful as a listener to have 'producer' bookmarks, like a table of contents, to know where one section stops and another starts.  You could argue the solution is that I just pay more attention to the podcast.  After all, I can stop reading a book and generally pick it up later and still know what is going on, but that comparison is misleading.  The reality is that I almost always use podcasts as an audio background while I do something else (like I use radio).  That's in contrast to reading a book, in which reading is the primary activity and I actually try to minimize what is happening in the background.  By paying more attention while I read I absorb more, with podcasts I might pick up a few interesting facts but it's primary function is entertainment.  So to summarize, long podcasts are broken up by the listeners already, it would be helpful if the podcast producers took this into account and included their own bookmarks (and recorded with them in mind) to create more listener friendly breaks.

Second, we need a podcast player that recognizes the producer bookmarks and is able to automatically jump to new material.  I'm thinking of an application that can mimic radio- integrating podcast material, regular MP3 songs, and cut music/sounds to transition between the two.

Finally, there needs to be a better way to get advertising integrated.  Why not add commercial spots that could be fit into the producer bookmarks?  Current practice is to have podcasters plug their advertisers.  On TWIT for instance, they always talk up, typically mentioning a specific title they recommend.  Why not allow outside producers to make a spot to sub in?  I'd prefer to hear directly from the author of a book (or their representative) talk about why I should download their work, rather then hear Leo Laporte talk about it.  Podcasters could have parallel feeds- one with ads, one without, and let listeners choose which to subscribe to.  That way no disaffected fans.  I think there may even be a cottage industry in there- the podcast-advertisement, wherein content creators like authors or musicians have a minute or two to tell listeners why they should purchase the product. 

Why would I care about advertising?  Because I think podcasters should be able to make a living (and make more podcasts).  I'm thinking about Bob Packett selling T-Shirts or Reilly and Markham and coffee mugs.  How much more sense would it make for them to run spots with history books?

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