Podcasting's Present Problems
The best way to predict the future is to invent it, said someone smarter than me. The best way to delay the future is to focus on the present, said me. What’s holding podcasting back at the moment? Present-focused podcasters.
Last week, I got into a fight. Actually, I got into several fights with different people over the same issue. And by fights, I mean disagreements between me and other respected podcasters. It's not all that uncommon for me to get into disagreements and arguments. It sort of comes with the territory for those of us who choose to play the role of professional contrarian. In fact, anytime I’m getting too many people agreeing with me, it’s probably time for me to change my position.
One drum I’ve been consistently beating is that there are those among us in podcasting who aren’t big on change. So much so that I’ve branded them as those who think that podcasting was perfect in 2006 and we should go back to or just stay in that mythical time some 14 years ago.
That I cannot abide.
There are some best practices in podcasting that haven’t changed a very long time. Many of them exist for very good reasons, ensuring that podcasts can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. The world doesn’t yet have a consistent internet experience, so there are some technical trade-offs we’re forced to make.
But not all of these trade-offs still make sense. Perhaps some never did.
The Case Against Lo-Fi Podcasting
What was at the core of my disagreement last week? Audio quality. But this time it wasn’t me emploring working podcasters like yourself to spend more time making great audio. This argument was about the technicalities of exporting audio files and how that impacts the perceived quality by the listeners.
I still yearn for a future where podcaster’s brains never have to spend any time thinking about technical outputs, leaving that up to bits and bytes. But we don't live in that future just yet. Right now, we live in the present. And in the present, we have to be cognizant of and make specific choices when it comes to choosing our output settings. Output settings which, for some podcasters, have never changed since they started podcasting.
It can’t be lost on you that there have been many technological advancements in the 16 years podcasting has existed. Much of those advancements can now support higher quality audio files. And most people still have the use of both of their ears.
Yet many podcasters continue happily sacrifice fidelity to make incremental gains in file size. Those same podcasters also choose to remove warmth and depth from their episodes… I guess in case you want to listen on an old Victrola?
We Do Not Live In A Mono World
First, let me kill a myth that won’t die. Mono files for podcast episodes are not any smaller than stereo (or joint stereo) files for podcast episodes. The only way to make the size of a podcast audio file smaller is to lower the bit rate, and that lowers the quality.
There’s also a myth that mono files, especially for spoken word, are better for preserving clarity. That’s also false. I have some hearing loss (correctable with hearing aids) and I can assure you that having a bit of separation between voices on an audio files makes it much easier to keep track of the different voices.
Even if your show (like my show) is voiced by a single person, you likely have other audio elements, like bed music on your intro/outro, scene transitions, or other audio elements to make your content more compelling. Bouncing those down to a low-bitrate mono file (it’s the low bit rate not the channel reduction that shrinks the file) or even a high-bitrate mono file (which would have been the exact same size had stereo been preserved) takes all the warmth and joy out of those non-speech elements.
Our Stereo World Keeps Getting Richer
Some podcasters I argued with are concerned that stereo files would be unlistenable to those who choose to use only a single earbud. But that’s not true. And this isn’t ‘60s pop when it was cool to hard-pan the drums in the right channel and the bass in the left. That’s bad. We don’t do that.
Just recently, Dolby came out with an Android app as well as an integration with SquadCast that will make podcast audio sound more realistic by adding in some spatial qualities. Not just a bit of panning with one voice slightly to the left and one slightly to the right. This new system is trying to get podcast audio closer to reality. Using these tools allows podcasters to place different voices in different positions in the listener’s mind. Not just a little left and right, but a little ahead. A little behind and to the right.
But many of my podcasting buddies met this news with little more than a shrug. Some were actively hostile to the thought of algorithms touching their audio. Others were focused on all the places this new cool tech wouldn’t work, dismissing this as a fool’s errand, and lobbying that we should just all stick with mono and be done with it.
I find that incredibly frustrating. But I think I’m more frustrated that I was frustrated than anything.
It’s Lonely On Podcasting’s Fringe
That’s just one example of present-thinking impeding podcasting’s better potential future. It’s the same thinking that stops podcasters from adopting episode-level artwork. They claim that until more podcast apps display episode artwork when the episode is playing (most don’t) that it’s not important. That completely misses the many other benefits of having episode-level artwork.
It’s the same thinking that keeps people from making better in-app episode details. They claim that most people never pull out their phones when listening to an episode, so why should they bother to add in credits, chapter marks, links or other elements? Elements that would improve engagement at every level.
When Podcasts Fall Behind The Technology Adoption Curve
I get all of the arguments for smaller files delivered faster. But at the same time, I know that technology tends to move in the direction of more bandwidth, cheaper storage, and higher quality sound reproduction that makes what we listen to much more rich and immersive.
We’re not helping to achieve that future when we fail to re-evaluate and adjust our old-school thinking from 2006, 2010, or whenever it was formed in the past.
We’re not helping to achieve that future when we settle for crappy, tinny-sounding bed music -- even if it only lasts for six seconds. I say that’s too long for anything in your episode to sound like garbage.
We only help achieve that future when we’re committed to un-quagmiring ourselves from present- or past-thinking so we don’t lose sight of the future.
Hopefully, there are others who share a similar view, because I can’t be the lone voice crying for things to be better in the future. I know that I’m not, but I’d love to know if you’re on board with this thinking. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you agree. Or disagree. That always helps me sharpen my arguments.
Have You Shared This Show With Another Podcaster?
I apologize for the rather ranty show, but that’s what you get sometimes. Perhaps you know of a podcaster who would respond to this provocative statement? If so (or if not), please tell one podcaster you know to listen to Podcast Pontifications. Feel free to throw me under the bus with them if you like.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another (hopefully less ranty) Podcast Pontifications.