Friday, February 11, 2005


Podcasting Success, and Theory

Broadcast media of the national TV network and print newspaper variety have a very important place within the framework of society. The process of gathering information from daily life, distilling it into an article for print or broadcast, putting those broadcasts on the air, printing and distributing articles, reading the information, and incorporating it into daily life involves billions of people worldwide. Broadcasting brought the world into people’s homes. Now that the world has been there for a while, people are ready to move beyond being passive observers. Many of us are becoming more active participants in a way that will fundamentally change the landscape of journalism.

Journalism is the backbone of politics. Without the freedom to "journal", free speech is meaningless. A free press is the pilot light of democracy. If it goes out it's dark and cold and no one can get anything done. It's almost impossible to go too far in extolling the virtues of having the freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of press, and the property rights that allow all of that to happen. Our free press is a fantastic, valuable, almost sacred institution.

So, if the system is really that good, then why is there a revolution brewing?

Thomas Kuhn described, in The Structure of Scientific Revolution, the stair-step progression of scientific knowledge. Great leaps forward in scientific understanding occur (evolution, relativity, string theory). Then, a basing period happens where the revolutionary discoveries are incorporated, refined, cost-reduced, productized, and democratized. Better instrumentation becomes available. New observations are made. A new discovery is reported. Theories are proposed. Debate happens. Great leaps forward occur, and we’re back to the start of the scientific cycle. It just keeps happening, in both large and small loops, all the time.

Refinements in drugs allow treatments of disease that allow certain people to live longer. Better coding schemes allow more people to talk using the same frequency spectrum, allowing more cellular phones to be sold, allowing portable communication to change the way business is done. A different way of recording images is designed, allowing more photographs to be taken, allowing the use of images in daily life to explode. And so on. Galileo’s use of the newly refined instrument called the telescope lead directly to the conceptualization of a completely different type of universe, a universe where going to the moon, the planets, and even other stars is not out of the question.

Now, take Kuhn’s model of scientific revolution and apply it to cultural communications such as journalism.

Technology in the form of the internet, word processing, and widespread connectivity to the internet is the “instrumentation” that allows blogging. This “new telescope” of an instrument was produced from the last cultural revolution in journalism – the rise of the internet itself. The decentralized “brain” of online journalism awakens and takes an active role in current affairs, politics, and opinion. Blogging develops, is refined, and is spread. As more people blog, a basing period for blogging occurs. When a critical mass of people blogging is reached, when those people are connected to the resources they need to write about things, and when they can find each other, they are able to show their strength and begin to effect change. They begin to force a cultural revolution in journalism.

Blogging is to print journalism what podcasting is to broadcast journalism.

Podcasting is an “instrumentation” that was enabled by many of the same things that enabled blogging, with the addition of the portable mp3 player. The iPod, for which podcasting is putatively named, is the device that I have. Any other portable audio player will do. In fact, your PC will suffice. You don’t have to have a portable device to participate. However, the ability to take your audio programs with you anytime you pick up your iPod is extremely powerful. It releases you from your desk.

Is podcasting a killer app for the iPod? Is Podcasting the thing that will make portable digital audio players as universal as email/internet browsers made the personal computer?

It certainly could, since it capitalizes on the very powerful and basic human need of communication. It does it in a way that is really quite easy for both the listener and the speaker.

The old model of a radio personality having fans doesn’t hold up with podcasting. Podcasters view themselves as peers to their listeners, much the same way that bloggers generally view themselves as peers of their readers, who are more like collaborators than passive readers, since the threading of commentary in blogging is what gives it real power.

The word “fan” doesn’t and shouldn’t apply in podcasting, since a fan is subservient to the star. Many podcasters create talk, opinion, and/or news shows that are directly related to the email and phone calls and friends they’ve made through becoming journalists. Podcasters claim a more collaborative, democratic, decentralized, and informal environment than traditional radio personalities and broadcast journalists. This introduces a natural limit that traditional broadcasting faced. Once your audience becomes so large as to be anonymous, the ability to “pedestal”, or introduce a distance between yourself and the listener, is naturally apparent. Therefore, a popular podcaster either “makes it” into broadcasting, where the operating culture can train him or her or them, or the podcaster bogs down and self-limits to a region, city, or neighborhood.

There is a related issue that came to light quite forcefully during “Rathergate”. Bloggers and Podcasters tend to be overwhelmingly amateur. This means that they tend to be self-trained and/or unpaid. Amateur is a word that arises from amore, which means love. Amateurs do things out of love of a hobby rather as a profession. Many amateurs end up getting training and becoming professionals. Many others seek to retain the things that draw them to a hobby or pastime and view professionalization as a potential corruption of their practice.

Rathergate, of course, is the Dan Rather scandal where forged documents concerning President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard were presented as authentic on CBS broadcasts.

To recap, the blogosphere debunked the documents’ authenticity. There were many instant experts out there that researched typewriters, gave the documents a good going-over, and posted their reports. When intelligent people are motivated, have access to information, and can easily talk to each other, the resolution of a suspected fraud is almost inevitable. You can see this every day on sites like Slashdot. Something motivates us to correct others far more strongly than we’re motivated to confirm our own assumptions. It’s similar to a verbal feeding frenzy.

The key issue for me in Rathergate was the traditional media response. Most famously, the “pajamas quote”.

**************Start Quote


Monday :: September 13, 2004

'Pajama Blogging'
Instapundit has been talking about "pajama blogging" which appears to be short-hand for the level of trust one should put in blogger accounts of news as opposed to those of the mainstream media. Glenn says,
JUST CAUGHT Jonathan Klein debating Stephen Hayes about the CBS forgery scandal. Klein says that "Bloggers have no checks and balances . . . [it's] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas."
Non- "big media bloggers" may not have censors, bosses or editors, but that per se doesn't make them untrustworthy. As Glenn points out, bloggers use hyperlinks to source their posts--and generally are quick to admit a mistake and correct it. As I wrote in this recent op-ed about convention-blogging in the Denver Post:
Bloggers are not a substitute for the 5 o'clock news. We help complete the picture. We keep the media honest. If the media won't cover the real story, bloggers will. Just remember, a blog is only as credible as its author. With 3.5 million blogs now on the Web, choose carefully. It's read at your own risk.
**************End Quote

It’s a fundamental thing in journalism to authenticate your information. Trained journalists have somewhat of an advantage here. They know, in general, how to handle sources, how to confirm many types of information, and how to fact-check. However, when pressure to outperform your competition, get ratings, and maintain advertisers gets in the mix, attention to detail can suffer. Adding in the temptation to bash an unpopular (in your circle) politician and throwing in the additional assumption that the consumer will consent to being spoon-fed anything you present to them in a broadcast and you will absolutely and inevitably get Rathergate. The responsibility of the blogger and the podcaster is to improve their practice. To take what the traditional journalist does well, and learn from it, and grow their own skillset to enhance their own goals.

We are all quite accustomed to being the passive recipient of broadcasts. This does not under any circumstances mean we prefer it. This does not mean that things like podcasting will fail, simply because of its informality, susceptibility to lack of peer review, and vulnerability to regionalism, extremism, excessive obscenity, or tunnel-vision.

However, I can tell you from personal experience how refreshing it is to hear news, music, and opinion that isn’t bland, dumbed-down, or “cutsie”.

For example, here is the body of a letter I wrote to a popular morning show.

“Katie Couric, you might be a nice woman. You are wealthy, attractive, and I’m sure you have legions of fans. But your performance as a host of the Olympics, the daily pabulum that you pronounce on air, and the anti-intellectualism that you represent, are all revolting to me. I am not entertained by, nor do I watch, your show. When you have to appeal to everyone, you end up being truly appealing to no one.”

Blogging and podcasting, because of their extreme democratization of the presentation of opinion and journalism, suffer from the pitfalls of democratization that is encountered any time that democratization happens. When you broaden the base of participants, the elite are quickly outnumbered. They may lose their elite status in some ways. However, the average ability level of the whole people is raised. And, although it may not feel like it, the elite are better off because everyone is better off and truly great things begin to happen that would not have happened otherwise.

Democratic access to things like education and property enable Kuhn’s scientific revolutions to take place. Since discoveries often come from completely unexpected quarters, democratization of science, speech, and creativity drastically strengthens society. For a fictional example, take the episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where Geordi’s visor played a key role. This visor allows him, a blind man, to see. This visor becomes the key enabling technology for an encountered civilization to avert disaster. The irony is that the encountered civilization has an authoritarian policy on science and society. Blind people do not exist because blindness is bad. Therefore the technology to allow sight for the blind was not developed because they corrected blindness, as well as many other disabilities, as a matter of course. Their society, while advanced, was stagnant. They had cut themselves off from advancement by seeking to define what was advanced.

Big media cannot define itself as advanced. Big, traditional, broadcast media cannot and should not stop blogging, podcasting, or active viewer participation. Progress is occurring at a fundamental level all the time. It’s only on rare occasions that the dramatic tectonic shifts of culture occur. These shifts are enabled by instruments. Instruments of change are now in the hands of a great many people. The change will occur. Don’t get left behind.

There is absolutely and definitely a place for national news. There are shows of compelling national appeal. There is, however, a deep yawning chasm when it comes to regional, neighborhood, or organizational-level journalism.

I remember quite distinctly the movement for micropower FM stations that would serve as an alternative to the large commercial radio stations. The barriers to entry were not completely insurmountable, but widely dispersed micropower FM stations, a la the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume, require purchase and operation of FM transmitters and significant risk of prosecution and punishment under onerous and pro-establishment regulatory law.

PCs with microphones are the Galilean telescope. Not micropower transmitters. Taking the path of least resistance, it’s an obvious choice. Podcasting sidesteps the FCC and provides an audience that might not be as universal as you like, especially since the poor often have access only to FM receivers, but it’s way better and easier than nothing, and is a superior choice if you want to avoid any risk of running foul of the law.

We’ve allowed broadcasting to largely replace discourse. Podcasting is poised to provide that level of involvement, discussion, debate, and entertainment that a civil society requires and that will take us up to the next step of journalism, debate, and politics. The repercussions of improved civil communications are scary big. Things will happen because the world of journalism is opened up to millions more people. Reading a paper is one thing. Writing one is another. Listening to Howard Stern is one thing. Being better than Howard Stern (and being able to be heard by anyone with internet access) is another.

Learning passively works up to a point. Doing something really opens up the theory through practice.

Here is how it feels to practice what you preach.

I have, for many months now, been recording mass at my church, St. Therese of Carmel Catholic Church, in San Diego, California. What originally was intended to help only the choir to improve, since listening to yourself sing can be quite the motivation for improvement, rapidly transitioned into a ministry of service to those that could not be at mass. Sick, traveling, or otherwise homebound people that would be interested in hearing mass could hear it if it was on the internet. People that, like the person I was only a few years ago, identified as catholic yet were not interested in participating in organized religion, would benefit as well. Another unanticipated benefit was our priest could share his work with his family back in Ireland. This is Kuhn’s cycle of revolution in action. My original goals were met, then greatly exceeded.

Providing the content on the internet was one thing, but podcasting it was another. Providing a link on a webpage required the person wanting to listen to go track down the page, click the link, and either save it or stream it. With podcasting, I could provide a subscription service. I would have to modify my own pages and content only slightly, but it would make it much easier for many people out there to take advantage of it.

By using Blogger and Feedburner websites, and by following a very simple and turnkey method, the content was presented in a way that allowed subscription podcasting to happen, and it took only minutes. The recording, uploading, and posting of content was minimally difficult. I was amazed at how well everything worked, and have to give a special thank-you to Adam Curry and the website for the advocacy of podcasting that is provided by him and so many others.

There are often snags in using technology. Problems occur. But, by and large, podcasting, blogging and mobblogging have been some of the most enjoyable and natural-feeling things I’ve ever done as a citizen of the internet.

Putting church music on the internet may not sound very hip. It’s profoundly retro in the sense that being religious and being active in your church community is a very traditional thing to do. However, podcasting mass is done in the spirit of service, and with 65 million catholics in the United States, you can argue that the market for religious services, discussion, and music is quite large, just within my own faith tradition.

I’d like to close by encouraging each and every one of you to strongly consider subscribing and contributing your opinion to the world. We all strive to be heard, and to hear. We all long for our own definition of immortality. This is a way for you, the intelligent, the honest, the sensitive, the introverted, the ebullient – it’s a way for you to make a difference, leave a mark, affect others, and to be human.

If you need help or encouragement, let me know.

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