I've been watching Chappelle’s Show on Netflix. It originally aired back in 2003 and is now back, after a bit of drama and controversy unrelated to the reason why I’m using a 19-year-old sketch comedy program to talk about podcasting.
I remember watching Dave’s show when it originally broadcast. At the time, my TV was then as it is now appropriately sized for the time. I don’t remember if it was flat or not. But I do remember it didn’t hang on a wall. Regardless, it was big enough to be the center point of broadcast media and console gaming entertainment in our living room.
But on the TV I have today, the show looks really dated. It’s still funny (if that’s your style of humor, and Dave’s style of humor is not everyone’s cup of tea, so feel free to not send me an email on the topic). A few of the references are dated, but such is the nature of using “current” events as the base of many jokes. The audio quality isn’t noticeably different from TV shows from today—at least not as represented by the modest soundbar attached to my TV.
The problem is the video. It’s grainy and the image doesn’t fill the screen. And that got me thinking…
Will The Future Be Kind To Your Podcast?
I know that yes, pixel density and other developments in on-screen reproductions have advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 19 years. But I don’t remember Dave’s show looking that bad way back when. It looks like it’s being played from an old VHS version, and that can’t be right. I assume that Comedy Central went back to the masters to create what we’re watching on Netflix today, right?
The “letterboxing” doesn’t bother me. I’m OK with the left and right sides of the video not displaying. That’s better than stretching the video to fit, making everything look squished and goofy. And it’s better than trying to re-format the wider version through creative cropping to fill my screen.
But still… 2021 is not being kind to the visual reproduction of Dave’s show. I worry that one day, that might be the case for those of us who are making evergreen podcast content.
This is less of a problem for news and current events shows, where the back-catalog has more archival value than anything. But a good amount of us are making—or are at least trying to make—timeless podcast episodes that are fine to listen to 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, or even 3 years in the future.
But… will they be in 19 years?
In 2040, How Will We Listen To Podcasts?
It’s 2021. In 19 years, it’ll be 2040. Deal with that for a minute, and then think about sound quality advancements. Video reproduction has changed drastically in 19 years, as I’ve just illustrated. But has audio? More to the point, will audio?
Were I a betting man, I’d bet against the status quo. Granted, it’s exceedingly hard for video to replicate in 2D the 3D world our eyes encounter every day. Every year brings new advancements, which leads to the older technology becoming more dated.
On the surface, solving the same problem for audio seems simpler. There’s a range of sound frequencies our human ears can perceive. By and large, we’ve been able to create speakers and sound transmitters that produced rich and immersive sounds within that range for decades. So no problem, right?
Not so fast. Podcasting, at least as practiced today, sends “lossy” files to our listeners. Lossy means what it says: some information is “lost” on the copy that reaches our listeners’ devices. And from there, depending on what or how they listen, additional signal will be lost before it reaches their ears.
Will that be “fixed” in the future? Will bandwidth and storage considerations be so vastly different in 19 years that “lossless” audio files can be sent to listeners? And if so, will binaural and spatial audio—formats that accurately preserve the 3D nature of sound—become the standard, much like stereo, surround-sound, and other formats proved their superiority over mono?
Can Podcasters Prepare For The Future?
My friend and exceptional audio engineer Marcus dePaula recently said that marginal video is forgivable. But low-quality audio is not. He’s right, and I have to assume that at some point in the future, podcast episodes that are “acceptable” today will be painful to listen to.
Obviously, we should all be preserving the source files and masters. That way, when there is a breakthrough in transmission and storage, we can make higher-quality files relatively quickly. This, by the way, is what record labels do with they re-release an album 20+ years old so that it sounds great on the newest listening devices.
We can also lobby our hosting providers to help us stay current. Rather than uploading lossy .mp3 files, we could be uploading lossless files, letting the hosting provider make some on-the-fly decisions about the quality of files to distribute based on a variety of factors. Factors that, in theory, will change and allow for higher-quality content delivery as technology progresses.
But that won’t help us too much if the promise of binaural or spatial audio becomes dominant. Yes, I assume that, just like letterboxing on our current TVs, the headphones or speakers that are capable of reproducing 3D sound will also handle non-optimized content. It’ll just sound… dated.
Beyond that, I’ve nothing much for you other than questions. And that’s OK, as it’s sort of the gist of this program: questions every working podcaster should be asking themselves. These are questions worthy of the other people in your podcasting peer group. I’m betting one person—perhaps you—is way more persnickety than others when it comes to sound quality. Share this article with them and see how the conversation shakes out. Even if there are no definitive next-steps, it’s always good to be thinking about the future.
Because if we don’t, our evergreen and timeless episodes are all too quickly going to start showing some browning around the edges.
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I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.