The rise of the podcast, let’s face it no one saw that coming. I knew it had arrived when I saw them being reviewed in the pages of the press. I, like hundreds of millions of others, am an addict. I blogged about users wanting to turn their cameras OFF during online learning. Podcasts provide ample evidence, that if it’s just talking heads, the camera of the teacher, lecturer or trainer can also, often be switched off. That’s why podcasts are so popular. Time and time again I hear people say they don't miss images and heads when ideas are being discussed and that they prefer the informality of a conversation or interview to a didactic presentation.
Purity of the podcast
The joy of a podcast is its purity. It doesn’t nag you with over-earnest graphic design. You’re alone with your thoughts and there’s space to think. Odd that it focuses you to focus by the absence of distracting images or talking heads. Not seeing their faces is a plus. It often adds little, can be distracting. It’s what they say that matters not what they look like. This fees the eyes and hands for other things, such as note taking. It’s a medium, not multimedia, that’s its strength. You have to make an effort, cognitive effort, to actively listen. It’s hard to be lazy when listening to a podcast, whereas you can sit back and let a video was over you. With audio you’re either in or out, there’s no half-way house.
It a rebel medium, with lots of causes. As mainstream media becomes ever more homogenous, our attention has gone online and podcast are part of the counter-culture on the web. We had the YouTubers, now we have the podcasters, such as Joe Rogan and a massive array of funny, out-there podcasters breaking all the rules. Traditional media seems so formulaic, so hidebound, with a limited range of voices. Podcasts shatter that model. There’s no editor, little censorship. Swearing is not unusual, taboo subjects common. There is a sense of being on the edge, out there.
Podcasts may have had their precedents in radio but they are the child of a specific piece of technology. The portmanteau, podcast, comes from combining iPod and broadcast. It was coined by The Guardian columnist Ben Hammersley, in 2004 in a Guardian article. It’s ease of production and distribution, streamed or downloaded, means it can be used on almost any device, computer, smartphone or audio speaker.
Key to podcast culture is the ‘series’ with some sort of identity, the podcaster(s), theme or brand. On-demand streaming and downloading gave it legs. It’s a medium in itself and has spawned an entire global industry of platforms, sponsorship and audiences. They tend to be more personal, with a lead podcaster and interviewee(s), more informal that traditional broadcast media. Conversation is the aim, not a didactic talk. You’re talking with and to people not at them.
My favourite design principle for the design of learning (design in general) is Occam's Razor - the minimum number of entities to reach your goal... also useful in teaching and for learners. The podcast is an exemplar of this type of design thinking. Cognitively, give me things in the least cognitively loaded format. I’m happy with text if it’s just ideas, podcasts for just discussions, graphics if I need something illustrated visually, video for drama and its other genres. Don’t pack out screens or use media that is not matched to the learning content. Less is more.
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