Listen Up!

by Dave Riley

All the contention that is focused on world wide web’s innate ability to facilitate the sharing of music files has obscured the significance of some more recent web audio developments. If the Mp3 revolution is impacting on sales of compact discs, the burgeoning use of portable Mp3 players is changing the listening habits of millions world wide. Some pundits are even predicting the end of radio as we know it.

Driving some of this speculation is the new technology of podcasting. "Podcasting" is a way to get web audio automatically downloaded to your computer or portable audio player. Rather than having to listen when items are being generated, a podcast program (called a podcatcher) enables you to select all the audio you want for playback at your own convenience.

ABC Radio National as well as its youth radio network,Triple J, have already made their core talk programs available as downloadable podcasts. Now you can listen to John Safran or Philip Adams, if it is your wish, anyday of the week/anytime of the day or night.

But podcasting is more than a new or easier way of listening. Because it opens up the tools of the web to anyone with an inclination to exploit them, podcasting also generates a new medium for political and campaign outreach. Podcasting democratizes audio because a podcast can be generated with the simplest and cheapest of tool boxes. You won’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars for a FM radio broadcast licence, a sound studio or a transmitter to create a podcast. A freeware audio program, a webpage and a microphone is all you’ll require.

While podcasting is a phenomenon less than 2 years old, its political ramifications are still unclear. Traditionally the movement for social change has been accompanied by community radio endeavours which panned out in the seventies and a few progressive radio stations were created, like Melbourne’s Radio 3CR. But with podcasting listener-ship is not contained by geography. While you can’t listen to 3CR on the web, you can catch as podcasts such alternative news services as Democracy Now! which is produced by Pacifica Network in the US and Eric Lee’s Radio LabourStart no matter where you are located.

For the moment, the domain of podcasting is still small compared to the massive numbers of bloggers world wide. Whereas blogs -- web based logs and commentaries -- have tended to be exploited effectively as a political vehicle by the US right, no such hegemony exists with podcasting and the progressive side of politics has been very adept in taking up the options that podcasting offers. For the moment, all the media hype surrounding iPod -- Apple’s portable Mp3 player that every young person is supposed to want to own -- is obscuring the background activity which is not just focused on finding a new way to listen to music.

Podcasting is essentially a new radio format open to all of us either as listeners or wanabee broadcasters. But to comprehend it’s potential you need to experience it first hand otherwise its attributes may escape your attention. While it is in its infancy podcasting’s potency may be missed by those who are keen to exploit outreach tools. If the popularity of this technology is racheted up with every new iPod release, in its shadow comes the alternative agenda that is not dependent simply on exploiting another format to market pop music.

It doesn’t take long to recognise via some focused web serving how much podcasting is still in its infancy . Even most on line directory sites catalogue less than a few thousand miscellaneous podcast feeds. This is primarily because the format (engineered primarily through the development of podcatcher technology) is still so new and the pace of development and popularity has only really quickened over the last year to 18 months*.

While there are some commentators -- especially radio broadcasters --who denigrate it as a fad, what they miss is the fact that so many forms of media are now loosing out to digital technology. Even Fairfax is excusing its current staff cutbacks on the fact that digital web based activity has bitten deep into the newspaper market.

But what is missed in all this debate is the McLuhanist adage that audio is such a COOL medium. What that means is that it can be densely informative, offering a high data quotient. For generations who have been bought up by television this may seem hard to comprehend. But essentially a medium like a podcast can share a lot of information with a listener and consolidate a coherent argument, much more so than, say, video which relies on the viewer to fill in the informational gaps as they are forced to assess each item through the covert bias of the camera lens.

That doesn’t mean that audio cannot be manipulative -- but by its nature it can choose to set a higher threshold of argumentation. If you like, it is easier to be critical by listening rather than being forced to passively consume the output from a TV set. And most of all, it harnesses what we rely on to make us think: the spoken word.

* For background and history:
Mp3 streaming