Podcast Con 2005: The Full Review

I've already written up a quick reaction to 'Podcastcon', the podcasting conference that took place on Saturday, but this is a more in-depth review of the day. I've already praised the conference for being very interesting and well-organised, so this entry is taking a more critical approach.

9:30am - Welcome

Neil Dixon introduces the conference and warms up the crowd. He says he does stand-up, and it shows. Nothing seems funny at this time of the morning on a Saturday though.

9:40am - BBC Radio Podcasting

Amusingly, the conference starts with the BBC's Chris Kimber introducing what the BBC has done with podcasting. I say amusingly, because the BBC clearly didn't get podcasting started (and there is some debate among delegates over whether early BBC trials really were podcasting, or just MP3 downloads), but the BBC has arguably been the first UK institution to bring podcasting to a wider audience.

Chris Kimber's analysis of podcasting (as time-shifted, de-coupled from the station brand, on-demand, etc etc) was pretty accurate, but hardly ground-breaking. I was intrigued when he says that podcasts feel 'tangiable', as opposed to the ephemeral nature of traditional radio, as clearly digital MP3 files aren't that tangiable in the physical sense, but I see what he means. When thousands of people download the BBC's Beethoven MP3s, for instance, do they want to listen to them right away, or just get the satisfaction of 'owning them'?

Interestingly, this latter behaviour is encouraged by the BBC, more than other podcasters, by the fact that its podcasts (MP3s) are only available for a limited time-period for some unknown reason (the Beethoven download page even talks about a '7-day license', with no real explanation).

Overall, though, the BBC's bottom-line reason for embracing podcasts is sound: it gives better value to the license-fee payer. This is an incentive that commercial operators simply don't have.

10:15am - Podcasting as a Business Tool

Quite a good overview of the principle of using podcasts to benefit a business by the articulate Neville Hobson. There was a good list of ideas (PDF), and an interesting audio compilation (MP3) of existing business podcasts, including General Motors and Warner Bros.

He suggested that podcasts would almost certainly become 'monetized' at some point, but that a few people will probably try and fail in the process (hmm, I can spot those already). The question of 'how' was left open.

Neville's Hobson and Hultz report looks incredibly content-rich, with detailed show notes and a very regular schedule. There was no mention of how exactly this podcast fits into a business model. Perhaps they do it to boost their own profiles, enabling them to get well-paid regular work?

11:00am - Podcast Technologies

Rather misleadingly, this talk was basically Chris Ritke demonstrating his own rather crappy-looking audio and video aggregator website, www.49media.com and weirdo pirvate p2p application outhink.com [sic]. Maybe I'm being thick, but I didn't get it, and the presentation didn't really provoke much thought.

As the only ostensibly tech-related talk, I thought this could have been a lot better. Where was the discussion over whether MP3 would always be the format of choice? Or on which is the best podcatcher? Or the finer points of RSS enclosures? Or even some tips on recording and editing techniques.

I read my O'Reilly Podcasting Hacks book (free to me as one of the first paid delegates) during most of this speech, and learnt much more from it than the speaker. Sorry.

11:40am - The Podcast Safe Music Network

This was a good talk by Mark Hunter of the Tartan Podcast, who appeared to my mind to be one of the only small-scale, locally-minded podcasters actually represented on the speaker's panel. Unfortunately, the talk seemed to be a bit mis-titled, as there wasn't a huge amount of discussion about the podsafe music network, and the speaker didn't have the knowledge to be able to answer some of the questions.

I think this is one topic which would have benefited from having a panel of speakers, perhaps including member of a band who had benefited from having their music included on podcasts, a Creative-Commons type person, a music industry representative, a music podcaster, and someone to chair the panel, asking provokative questions.

12:15 - Community & Educational Applications

This was a pretty thought-provoking lecture (in the traditional sense, he bravely didn't bother with powerpoint) by Milverton Wallace, giving a different side to the podcasting concept. He told the great anecdote of a technology project set up for disadvantaged kids, which filled a room full of high tech gadgets, but failed when kids soon stopped turnin up. Milverton's analysis to the confused project leaders was 'because it's still a classroom, despite the gadgets'. A great example of how community workers can sometimes be blinded by technology and fail to really engage the people they want to attract.

Mind you, I'm not too sure that the idea of giving out iPods and hoping that your audience will download your maths lesson podcast is completely the solution, but Milverton rightly qualified this by saying that it was 'in addition' to traditional face-to-face teaching methods, not a replacement. A form of high-tech revision. And that could work.

Milverton also points to the lack of a decent return-path for podcasts, and the difficulties in directly peer-to-peer sharing podcasts from MP3 player to MP3 player (is this possible with an iPod? What about others? WiFi? Bluetooth?).

An inspiring talk, although I did get the feeling he was preaching to the wrong crowd.

2:00pm - Richard Vorbes Live

This was an interesting ideal, well executed, but with poor content. Whilst I was impressed with the sound quality and technical set-up of this live podcast, and the fact that they'd managed to turnaround a package of clips from earlier that morning, it was all I could do to keep myself from cringing through most of the show.

It wasn't amateurish, it was just, well, the kind of stuff you might expect to hear on local radio at drivetime. The show fell into every radio cliche pitfall, from 'kerr-razy voices', through overuse of reverb effects, a honky-honk horn and a 'guess the tv theme' feature, all the way to over-explaining technical faults and excessive talk about drinking beer (apparently a regular feature). He evens drags his teenage daughter onto the show (who is actually pretty confident) and makes embarassing comments about his divorce.

I could go on, but I needn't slag it off any more. The only useful outcome of this session was that it neatly answered the question of whether podcasts are different from radio shows. Yes they are, and now we know why podcasts shouldn't be second-rate imitations of your local radio jock.

2:40pm - Podcasting & Commercial Radio

This was the session that will no doubt be the most talked-about, largely because of a now-infamous comment to the speaker, James Cridland, of Virgin Radio and MediaUK, that he 'didn't get it'. It was a great way to kick of some good debate, and raised the tension level a little, but in some ways the discussion was a bit confused? Is podcasting a revolutionary new platform for the independent media producer, or a revolutionary new content-delivery mechanism for the consumer? Of course, it's a bit of both, but I'd say that it's more of the former than the latter. Consumers can already get access to commercial media in a huge number of ways, from terrestial broadcasts, to digital platforms, to internet live and listen-again streams. Naturally, if you also make your content available as downloadable MP3 files, consumers will also flock to that, but that's perhaps a lesson in the value of DRM-free downloadable media, than anything else. Package the same content up in some propriatary formats, with some bloated client program that downloads the content and dumps it onto an iPod, and the number of people consuming the content would probably fall (although that has arguably been a description of iTunes).

The fact that podcasts can't legally contain commercial music is also a bigger stumbling block for commercial radio stations than James Cridland made out. He argued that consumers only wanted the speech-content parts of commercial radio shows as podcasts, as they could get the music from the station live. Whilst this may be true of some people, I'd bet that if you made both a full-content podcast and a links-only podcast of a commercial radio show available, both would get a substantial portion of downloads.

As commercial music is never going to be allowed in podcasts any time soon (trust me, it'll take years, and won't ever be in free, DRMless downloads), this is a pretty big barrier to the level in which commercial radio stations can tip their toe in the podcast waters. And as pretty much all radio is commercial music radio (BBC Radios 4 and 7 excepted), all radio stations can do is produce 'taster' versions of their full content, or additional speech-based 'extras', which could still be a big deal in terms of marketing and listener value.

James took it all the criticism well though (and it was already fairly good-natured anyway), although seemed disappointed that his Firefox t-shirt hadn't done enough for his geek cred to fend off the crowd.

3:15pm - Legal Issues Facing Podcasters

This session was lawyer wanking, if ever I heard it. By avoiding the big issue of music licensing completely, Paul Nicholls was left muttering about defamation this, slander that, quoting a few obscure cases where someone was successfully sued for calling the kettle black. Or something. Add to that the dubious claims that 'alledgedly' is enough to keep you out of court (err, no) and that broadcasts are covered by the legislation of the country in which they originate (contentious), and overall it wasn't too useful a talk. Even the stuff on defamation was too confusing to be useful.

His ultimate advice of 'consult a lawyer' could have perhaps been replaced by 'don't be stupid', 'tell the truth', and 'hope for crissakes that you never have to consult a lawyer', and I could have done the whole thing in thirty seconds.

The only positive thing to come out of the talk, which otherwise suggested that you could be sued for just about anything, was that you can't defame a class of people. So I can comment, as someone did from tha back (was it James Cridland?) that 'lawyers are thieving bastards', and be completely safe. Of course, we all know that that's not defamation because it's true anyway...

4:25pm - A Word From Our Sponsors

Tsk, I'm not going to bother commenting on this one, they've had enough marketing material out of the event already.

5:00pm - Simulcrum Live!

Another live podcasting experiment, this one more successful. Unfortunately, had I actually been listening to this as a podcast, I would have hit fast-forward a few times. Maybe there's a reason why podcasts are time-shifted...

Closing Remarks

Well, the closing remarks from me are that it was a really well put-together and successful confernce. Although there are some lessons to take away for next year (and this is already going to be a next year, apparently), there was a definate buzz from the conference and plenty of thoughts and ideas to take home. I want to give a final credit to the organisers for making it a non-profit event, and keeping the costs down to thirty quid (including food). Easy to overlook this fact, but it really made a difference to the type of event it was.