Monday, February 28, 2011

Podcasts Stink

All kinds of people I know are listening to podcasts these days, and I keep wondering why.

This morning I tripped over a link to a podcast with someone I wanted to hear more from, so I decided to listen to it.  This one, at least, I wanted to hear, right?


Yes, there are aspects to recorded speech that don't show up in the written word, which is interesting at some level, but there are all kinds of cruft in there too.  Cruft that gets removed in a written presentation.  More importantly, though, podcasts fall into a gray area regarding how much attention they require.

If you're actually listening to them, it's hard to do something else, like work, at the same time, but that's one of the supposed benefits of podcasts - the ability to listen whenever you want and when you have the ability to do so.  Yet if it's actually interesting it still demands more attention than I can give it if I want to do something else.  And this is why I don't want to listen to podcasts or audio books while driving.  It's also probably the reason that cell phones are so dangerous when used by drivers.  We're not paying full attention to the job at hand.   For the record, I have the same issue with radio news and similar format shows.  If I am really paying attention to them, nothing else is - or should - be going on.

Then again, podcasts are not as immersive as a video of some sort.  There's nothing to watch while I'm listening, so I'm slightly bored, looking for something else to do, even if I am interested in the content.  It's only engaging half my brain, or something like that.

The resulting mental confusion drives me nuts.  The podcast idea sounds so simple and yet it really doesn't work.

But wait, I hear you cry, what about music?  Don't you listen to music the same way?  The answer is "yes", but with caveats.  As with a podcast, if I am actually paying attention to the music I can't really to much of anything else.  But beyond that, I suspect music uses a different part of the brain.  Podcasts are using the speech centers extensively, music not so much.  Yes, I know, vocal music does to some extent, but once you've heard it once or twice and know the lyrics, they fade a bit and you process them more as music and less as speech.  Or at least it seems that way to me.  The first time I hear a piece of vocal music, I have to listen closely and parse the lyrics out, thus consuming more attention, and making it more difficult to do other things.  Later times it takes less effort and I can ignore it much more easily.

In any case, even if that theory is complete hogwash (which it might well be), music doesn't demand the same kind of (or amount of) attention from me that a podcast does.  Even so, when doing something that requires thought - writing, etc. - I typically turn the music off (or way down) so I can focus exclusively on what I am doing.

Another objection to podcasts is their horrible inefficiency.  Let's say I really need the information in a 30 minute podcast.  I can burn the 30 minutes and listen to it, or, if the alternative is available I could download the text contents and read it.  The download would be very quick - there isn't that much speech in 30 minutes of real time - and reading it would be much faster than 30 minutes too.  Plus, I can reread and find interesting bits quickly in text, something that a podcast makes difficult at best.

As a vehicle for moving information around, podcasts stink.  This morning's attempt was a total flop.  I abandoned it after about 15 minutes.  It was, sadly, a waste of time.  Give me the contents in text form, please.  Really.