Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Podcast Squared

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Vital stats:
Format: discussions of podcasts, podcasting technology, and podcasting issues
Episode duration: 25m-1h15m
Frequency: every 2-5 days

In one of Scott Adams’ Dilbert strips of long ago, the titular engineer reads a book of tips for a computer golf game. “So... you’re reading a book... about a computer simulation of an activity that’s almost a sport,” replies Dilbert’s girlfriend Liz. “That’s about as close as you can get to being a non-organic life form.” Our hero has, tonally speaking, a classic Adams half-response: “This chapter is about driving the little cart.” I do wonder what Liz, not one of the strip’s enduring characters, would say about writing an essay about a podcast about podcasting. Surely it doesn’t pay much credit to my organic status, but here I find myself, writing about Podcast Squared [RSS] [iTunes]. This episode is about apps.

The field of podcasts about podcasting doesn’t look very robust these days. Edgy Podcast Reviews, the last podcasting podcast I wrote up, came to a sudden halt nearly three years ago. Yet you can still download all 101 of its episodes on iTunes, as you can hundreds — thousands, probably — of other long-dead shows. This irks Podcast Squared host Andrew Johnstone, as does most every other aspect of iTunes, and most everything Apple has done regarding podcasting except allow for it in the iTunes Store. Though an enthusiastic podcast listener, he seems to dislike most of what now passes for the infrastructure of podcasting. If podcasting podcasts have gotten shambolic, then so, depending on how you look at them, have podcasts in general. This Johnstone aims to correct with his show, which offers an earnest mixture of podcast reviews, examinations of podcasting technology, and discussions of podcasting issues. For the issue of “women in podcasting,” for example, Johnstone invited a few female podcasters to co-host, interviewed the likes of AV Club podcast journalist Genevieve Koski and the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Julie Shapiro, and recorded an all-lady panel discussion.

Clearly, when Johnstone takes on a subject, he doesn’t mess around, although “women in podcasting” strikes me as ranking somewhere on the scale of pressingness between “men in Pinterest” and “men in mothering (but not fathering).” (My own show recently received a review which justified its two-star rating by explaining that, though the reviewer had only just started downloading episodes, she didn’t see many female names on the guest list, thus ensuring that I’ll never take gender balance seriously.) On a later episode, Johnstone’s frequent co-host Dave Biscella makes a similar point, although this means I agree with a man who produces two podcasts called Movies on Up and Erik and Dave Talking with Erik and Dave. I’ve never heard those shows and thus wouldn’t dream of judging them, but their titles alone do sound like a reflection of the entire medium’s grand lack of ambition.

I may take occasional jabs at the dominant podcasting genre of Two Twenty/thirtysomething White Guys/girls Bullshitting About Culture, but Johnstone has even stronger objections. The entire Podcast Squared enterprise, in fact, sounds like it runs on pure dissatisfaction: his dissatisfaction with podcasting’s — and podcast technology’s, and podcast journalism’s, and the podcast audience’s — failure to reach what he imagines as its full potential. Despite having logged over five years as a podcaster and almost five as a writer about podcasting, I myself have no guesses as to the potential of the medium. Maybe it will realize its full reach, scope, and inclusivity decades from now ago; maybe it reached it years ago.

I once interviewed the producer of a suite of very successful podcasts — a fellow who’s also appeared on Podcast Squared, in fact — and after we stopped rolling, he expressed his surprise that we didn’t talk about podcasting’s big problem. He said that as if I would immediately understand what he meant, but I didn’t, so I asked what this big problem might be. “The technology,” of course. Both Johnstone and our mutual guest regard the necessity to download or stream podcasts through iTunes or some other app as an aggravatingly high barrier to listener entry, although some podcasters see a solution in their coming technological change of choice — internet-equipped cars, closer radio-web integration, the next iteration of the mobile phone — discussing it in the same tones others use to discuss the Singularity.

Yet listening to podcasts has long seemed to me one of life’s easier tasks, and I still manually sync my iPod up to my computer, which, so I gather from listening to Podcast Squared, now feels like the labor of Hercules compared to downloading and listening all on your phone. Innovation’s march will soon render even that minimal effort unnecessary, but I do wonder what such luxuriant ease has, in the final reckoning, contributed to mainstream radio, film, and television. We podcasters have to ask ourselves: do we want listeners without the wherewithal to learn how to download podcasts, or without the active curiosity to seek them out? But this makes for only one of the countless questions about podcasting yet unresolved.

Johnstone addresses many of these, but rarely do I hear much discussion of the medium’s essential nature. “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet,” older schoolteachers solemnly used to warn us. But they might as well have told us, an astute tech commentator would later point out, that we can’t believe everything we hear on the phone. Podcast enthusiasts, Johnstone included, tend to talk about podcasting as an internet-based version of, or even successor to, radio. But it seems to me that, like everything else online, podcasting as a communication tool owes more to Alexander Graham Bell than to Guglielmo Marconi. Still, if you seek an examination of the uses of this newfangled telephone from as many angles as possible, you’ll nowhere hear it more thoroughly done than on Podcast Squared.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]