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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Why I don't Like Podcasts

I found a link to a podcast on "how to make money without a job" via I will teach you to be rich, a new site I just found that has interesting material on personal finance catering to young people (like me!). Obviously, this is a subject I found tremendously interesting. Not because I'm lazy... Ok, not just because I'm lazy, but because I've been interested in the idea of passive income streams, financial independence and working on my own for a while now.

I'm listening to this podcast as I write this, and it seems interesting as far as it goes. There's a lot of good information there. And that's definitely an advantage - I can listen to it while doing other things, something I couldn't do with the same information if it were just a blog post or other written form. Plus, I'm a little more of an auditory learner than visual, so the concepts get through to me better than stuff I've read.

Still, on the whole I tend to avoid podcasts unless the topic is extremely interesting to me (like this one was). There are 2 main reasons for this. The first one is that speech is a slow medium. There is only so fast the podcaster can speak, and this is definitely slower than I could read the same information if it were presented in written form. Hence, listening to a podcast is much more of a time commitment than reading a blog post. In my junior year, we tested a virtual lecture for one of our classes, and the software we used had the option of listening at double speed. This made the speaker sound like a chipmunk but we got the information in half the time, and it didn't really detract from the quality of the experience. That might be a method to resolve this problem.

The second and, in my opinion, the more important reason is that a podcast is a broadcast information product. Granted, you can choose whether to listen to it, and when to do so, but once you've given that initial consent, the content and pacing is entirely up to the broadcaster. In this podcast, for example, Steve spends a good deal of time talking about why working on your own and developing passive income streams is less risky than a traditional job. This is something I already agree with, and would have been happy with hearing a lot less about. But there was no easy way for me to skip the stuff I didn't need to get to the good stuff that was later in the show. Yes, I could skip ahead, but there was no way of knowing when he would stop talking background and start talking detail. I might miss something important, and I'd have to fiddle to get to the right spot, and it'd be clunky.

On the other hand, in a written medium, I could skim the stuff I didn't need and be able to tell when I got to the spot where I needed to pay more attention. One way to deal with this, especially in longer podcasts, might be to break it up into smaller chunks, like chapters. Right now, this means breaking it up into multiple files. If we could find an audio format that lets you flag chapter breaks within the same file, so you can listen to the whole thing without the overhead of loading, listening, stopping, switching, loading, etc. that is involved with multiple files, that would be a significant improvement.

However, the problem isn't only with longer podcasts. I listened to one yesterday (when I had absolutely nothing better to do) that was less than 5 minutes long. Yet, I didn't get much more value from it than I did from reading the 1 sentence summary of what it was about - and reading the summary only took me 10 seconds. Perhaps that's because part of what I was supposed to get was additional humor, and humor is something I place less value on than useful information. Or maybe I just don't think Merlin Mann is that funny... Either way, I felt at the end that I had wasted my time listening to it. Granted, in my temporarily unemployed state, I wasn't going to put that time to particularly good use anyway, but I would have liked to have been able to waste it my way.

Basically, it's about control of your experience. Listening to this particular podcast was vaguely ironic, because he talked so much about passive income streams helping you take control of your time. At the same time, the very act of listening to the podcast was an act in which I was surrendering control of a decent block of my time to someone else. In this case, I did get enough value from it that I felt it was worth the time I invested. However, there is no easy way to know up front whether this will be the case. And, more often than not, I refuse to make the time investment that listening to a podcast will take. Am I missing good information this way? Probably. Am I certain it is information that I cannot find elsewhere? No, and in fact, I can usually find good written sources for most things I want to learn about.

I guess the reason I don't like podcasts is that when I'm looking for information, I usually have specific questions in mind, and don't want to spend time being talked to about other things before I have my questions answered. This is the major appeal of the internet - I no longer have to wait for the news anchor to get around to the story I'm interested in, I can just look it up, and with blogs, usually find better sources than the MSM. And, I can configure those news sites so the information I am most interested in is easiest to find rather than being cluttered up with stories I don't care about. Better yet, I can set up systems that send me just the news I am interested in, and I don't even have to take the time to go to the news website, and look at their advertising banners. I can plug questions into a search engine until I find specifically the information I was looking for without having to spend a lot of time going through extraneous material.

It seems to me like podcasts are, in effect, going backwards. Once again, they have the broadcaster controlling the experience and doling out the information in the sequence and at the pace that he or she wants, rather than the one I want. And, just like there are people who still watch the news on TV, there will be people who take the time to listen to them. More often than not, though, I won't be one of them.


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