I think podcasts are about to become a big thing. Not that they aren’t already very popular, but I believe that they’re about to break through to a much bigger (overall) audience. My friend, Joe Miller, and I have launched our own show, Oral Argument, in part because I believe strongly in the medium. If you’ve never listened to podcasts, have only listened while sitting in front of a computer, or have only used iTunes and synching, I’m going to tell you how much easier it now is to listen to them and why you should.
Here’s what’s compelling to me: (1) podcasts are like on-demand radio that caters to your particular interests, and (2) the best of them continue the trend of doing away with that kind of show business artifice represented by laugh tracks, deep-voiced morning zoo hosts, and banal theme music and stingers. Just conversation among people you’d like to hang out with and about things you find interesting. It’s becoming easier to produce these, easier to disseminate them, and easier to listen.
This revolution is happening for many reasons, but that last point -- easier to listen -- is critical. It used to be, back in the monopolistic dark ages, that regular people just didn’t expect their computers to work very well. They certainly didn’t expect to be able to install applications without a hitch. If you wanted to install a printer, it would usually involve a call to or visit from the relative who was a “computer whiz.” Those days are over. People expect their computers to work. They expect to be able to install apps. They expect those apps will work well. When things go wrong, they blame the people that write the code, not their own technical ineptitude.
If you want to listen to podcasts, install a good podcast app on your phone. I like Instacast, Downcast, and Castro. The brand new Network looks easy to use. Give Apple’s Podcasts app a pass for now. Marco Arment’s new app, Overcast, is highly anticipated and will hopefully be the best of the lot, but it’s not out quite yet. As John Gruber has pointed out, the podcast app genre is the latest playground for designers and app makers. They’re insanely useful and young enough that radically new designs and functionality are possible.
No matter which one you use, it’s much easier to get into podcasts than you might think. You launch the app, search for shows (by name, by genre, or by popularity), preview and subscribe to them, and that’t it. Once you subscribe, the app will download episodes as they’re released. In your car or on your walks, the latest episodes of your shows will just be there, ready for you to listen. All you need to do is launch the app, go to the search field, type in Oral Argument, hit subscribe, and your phone will always have our latest episode so that all you have to do is touch the play button.
I woke up this morning to find, waiting for me in Instacast, a new episode of Oral Argument, The Flop House, The Incomparable, The Talk Show, and Accidental Tech Podcast. Others I subscribe to include Philosophy Bites, Radiolab, and Judge John Hodgman. They all have websites, but I never visit them. I heard about them, listened to an episode in the app, and kept the subscriptions. While I don't always have time to listen to all these, I do fit in a good deal of listening while walking the dog, driving, doing dishes, and other such times.
Now, I don’t know whether our little show will ever attract even a moderately-sized audience. But it doesn’t have to do so. We have fun doing it and talking to our guests. It doesn’t cost much to host it, and it’s now very simple for those who do find value in it to keep up with it. That’s what feels like the future: lots of people producing things that lots of other people (perhaps in small groups) enjoy. It’s good to be alive now.