Sunday, September 18, 2011

Podcasts on trial

Alex here with another Learning/Library/whatever 2.0 experience, this time on the murky and trending world of podcasts.  Okay, well, I feel like this is going to become my refrain around here, but podcasts are something I've heard a lot about and had a little experience with, but which I've generally maintained an intentional distance from.  Why?  Well, for a reason that has come true in spades since the start of this LIS program in my life--I have had doubts about the sheer volume of information that my brain can handle in a sitting.  And by sitting, I mean a day, though I'm trying to push that threshold up to express the measure of information I can handle in a week--I keep needing to think macro, macro, macro as my attempted info-intake swells and slides down the slipstreams of my brain.

Case in point, the RSS feed I established for myself over the last week or so, on the advice of several of my LIS instructors.  Oh my God. I mean, it's cool, it's great--I no longer have to check Huffington Post 12 times a day!  All the latest news on the Game of Thrones series is being sent to me! Awesome!  But maybe my eyes were bigger than my brain-ports because my google reader absolutely overflows with new RSS entries every hour or so.  It's overwhelming and makes me not *want* to wade through it.  So, what was once a simple matter of sifting through the HuffPo numerous times a day, but very casually flitting past the stories of no interest to me, now carries the weight of an emergency room triage unit.  "International news?  Is it related to Libya, or is it domestic British politics? Okay, better put it over there. Ah! reviews for the revival of Follies on Broadway!  I'll need to gush over Bernadette Peters, stat.  What? The Bills game score?  CAN'T YOU SEE THAT THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ROOM?!"

*Ahem*  Well, getting back to podcasts.  I knew based on previous experience that there'd be similar troubles on that front; my best friend signed me up for a bunch of current events casts a few years ago.  I listened to the first one or two, but as soon as I had a busy Sunday, I missed one, and then there'd be two waiting for me.  Then three, then seven, etc.  And these ain't five-minute digests.  It's just too much to wade through.  So, I sacrifice some of the depth of my potential knowledge in favor of breadth.  That's always been my style, for better or worse, and podcasts don't really fit in.  Unless I can find the ones that will offer me useful tidbits on the issues I find important, or the obscure stuff that might tickle my fancy, this might be one Web 2.0 element I'll have to eschew, at least during school.  But I think such identification, even, would be difficult without sorting through a lot of 'casts (especially since these sites the 2.0 activity page linked to--one of which is a dead link, btw--don't tend to give much in the way of descriptive info on the style or format of the show before you dive in).

That little parenthetical, I guess, brings me to a specific review of a 'cast I did find and listen to (well, currently on-going with the listening).  I found 'A Podcast of Ice and Fire' (, a weekly 'professional fan' roundtable discussion of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series 'A Song of Ice and Fire' and related projects.  (By 'pro fan,' I mean these are mainly guys who have started and run large, well-regarded fan discussion forums and sites and are sort of considered experts in the field of this particular piece of literature.)  It's literary in nature, on a topic I'm interested in, and, I feel, points to an opportunity for libraries to harness some Web 2.0 energy, which I'll discuss presently.  But first, my thoughts on the format and the pros and cons of the medium.

Well, mostly cons.  As I have already hinted, podcasts are sort of difficult to know without just listening in; there isn't a lot of useful metadata connected with them.  Most of those I looked at don't even list the lengths of archived episodes, and I was surprised to find my listening stretching into the hours--never wanting to stop because the next moment could bring that brilliant insight or piece of unknown lore I'd been looking for.  This is generally because these are amateur productions; these people have probably never taken any communications courses, or studied what information the consumers appreciate having before committing to a listen.  Another function of the amateur nature of these shows is that the content itself is very haphazard and sometimes painful to listen to; they have more the character of a talk among friends, recorded and posted on the internet, with no regard for ease of comprehension.  There's a lot of crosstalk, a lot of laughter and goofing around, lots of abstruse tangents.  Yeah, that happens on professional news and opinion panels too, but at least those tend to have a moderator whose main concern in getting things back on track. (Also--I'd have to check with my psychologist roomie on this--I assume that it's easier for our brain to sort through that kind of stuff when we're seeing what's going on.  Not so readily possible in a purely audio format.)

I think, in short, that my issue with podcasts is that they don't follow whatever the audio equivalent of Krug's maxims would be.  They're not user-friendly; they're not self-explanatory; they're not laid out prettily; none of the things you'd want and expect in a medium of information dissemination.  (Which isn't to say that I think *accessing* them is difficult; that seems swimmingly easy.  But accessing the *information intended for consumption* is where I think they fall short.)

But all is not lost.  The thing that podcasts have going for them is excitement.  The people who take time out of their lives to record their conversations--they're really jazzed about their subject matter.  This Ice and Fire cast was just bubbling with energy and creativity; literary criticism was happening in real-time.  Contributors were bouncing ideas off each other, coming to conclusions, and questioning their preconceptions.  All that was pretty awesome.

And libraries can use that.  'Ice and Fire' is big with a relatively isolated population, but imagine if your local library identified the next Harry Potter or Twilight or Dan Brown, and ran discussion forums on them that they streamed and posted on the internet.  My little podunk library, I know, has ins with all sorts of local minds, from authors to instructors at the college to who knows what all; it would be very easy to assemble a panel of smart, local people with constructive thoughts on such things, and let their discussion loose on the community.  These things have a tendency to snowball if they're successful in the first few runs.  And even as the library enlightens and entertains, it gains currency as a curator and cultivator of culture in the community, rather than just a repository of books and a place to read the paper on Sundays.

So what's my verdict on podcasts?  With semi-professional standards of moderation and appropriate marketing, they could be a huge boon to libraries great and small.  But I'm just going to keep trying to wrap my head around my RSS feed, for now.


  1. Podcasts (like webpage publishing) bring into focus the democratization of information. Now everyone can publish their ideas much more easily than previously possible. This is good and bad. Good because there is less restrictions on what is published. Bad because since everyone (even amateurs) can express their ideas it results in more abundant information that needs to be sifted through.

    Another good point you raise is how audio information is more difficult to organize in comparison to text and visual information. Can we anticipate any technological advances that may make searching and locating a particular bit of audio info any easier? A new auto-transcribe option is working to try to resolve this problem in relation to YouTube videos.

  2. I suppose podcasts will fall into that category of "questionable" sources available on the free web. As librarians, we will have to evaluate them in the same manner we do other information found on the free web. Browsing podcasts from reputable sources (such as NPR) will go far in filtering newsworthy or noteworthy from rants and such. Similar to a trusted database, a trusted podcast library instills confidence in the user that the information they are spending precious time on will not be garbage.

    Listening vs. reading (or scanning as is often the case) is a skill that demands far different focus on the part of the user. Visualizing for oneself the information that your brain is processing via audio input requires a shift in processing that many of us have grown unaccustomed to making. The scanning that we normally do as we sift through the PILE of information that streams in through our devices is quite like a hospital triage unit: immediate attention, can wait till later, treatment unnecessary. Listening however, that is an investment in time and focus. It's worth it though, I know that I often spend time thinking about radio shows I heard somewhere in the past. I think it keeps us mentally flexible too.

  3. A less erudite comment than Anna's and Robin's, but thank you for posting the Podcast of Ice and Fire link. I can't wait to check it out!

  4. Make sure you've read "A Dance with Dragons" first, Stephanie! :) (There are even a few Dunk & Egg spoilers in there, but if you haven't read those stories yet, they're a real pleasure so get to it.) Glad you appreciated the link!