I probably think too much. In this case, about a podcast and radio show which has been with me for as long as I started listening to podcasts: Radio Open Source on Public Radio International. The show is hosted by Christopher Lydon and is produced in Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with WGBH Boston. The ROS staff is a full team working on not only the show and the podcast version but on a full-fledged blog (using a WordPress install, hosted by Contegix) with something of a listener community.
I recently decided not to listen to ROS anymore. Nothing personal, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. But I spent enough time listening to the show and thinking about it, I even have suggestions about what they should do.
At the risk of sounding opinionated, I’m posting these comments and suggestions. In my mind, honesty is always the best policy. Of course, nothing personal about the excellent work of the ROS team.
Executive summary of my suggestion: a weekly spinoff produced by the same team, as an actual podcast, possibly as a summary of highlights. Other shows do something similar on different radio stations and it fits the podcasting model. Because time-shifting is of the essence with podcasts, a rebroadcast version (instead of a live show) would make a lot of sense. Obviously, it would imply more work for the team as a whole but I sincerely think it would be worth it.
ROS has been one of the first podcasts to which I subscribed and it might be the one that I have maintained in my podcatcher for the longest time. The reason is that several episodes have inspired me in different ways. My perception is that the teamwork “behind the scenes” makes for a large part of the success of the show.
Now, I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the ROS team. But I do get the impression that some important changes are imminent. The two people who left in the last few months, the grant they received, their successful fundraiser, as well as some perceivable changes in the way the show is handled tell me that ROS may be looking for new directions. I’m just an ethnographer and not a media specialist but here are some of my (honest) critical observations.
First, some things which I find quite good about the show (or some reasons I was listening to the show).
- In-depth discussions. As Siva Vaidhyanathan mentioned it on multiple occasions, ROS is one of few shows in the U.S . during which people can really spend an hour debating a single issue. While intriguing, Siva’s comparison with Canadian shows does seem appropriate according to my own experience with CBC and Radio-Canada. Things I’ve heard in Western Europe and West Africa would also fit this pattern. A show like ROS is somewhat more like The New Yorker than like The New York Times. (Not that these are innocent choices, of course.)
- Research. A lot of care has been put in preparing for each show and, well, “it shows.” The “behind the scenes” team is obviously doing a great job. I include in this the capacity for the show to entice fascinating guests to come on the show. It takes diplomacy, care, and insight.
- Podcasting. ROS was one of the first “public radio” shows to be available as a podcast and it’s possibly one of the radio shows for which the podcasting process is the most appropriate. Ease of subscribing, relatively few problems downloading shows, etc.
- Show notes. Because the show uses a blog format for all of its episodes, it makes for excellent show notes, very convenient and easy to find. Easy to blog. Good trackback.
- The “Community.” Though it can be troublesome at times, the fact that the show has a number of fans who act as regular commentators on the blog entries has been an intriguing feature of the show. On occasion, there is a sense that listeners can have some impact on the way the show is structured. Few shows on public radio do this and it’s a feature that makes the show, erm, let’s say “podworthy.” (Apologies to those who hate the “pod-” prefix. At least, you got my drift, right?)
On the other hand, there are things with ROS that have kept putting me off, especially as a podcast. A few of those “pet peeves.”
- “Now the News.” While it’s perfectly natural for a radio show to have to break for news or ads, the disruption is quite annoying on a podcast. The pacing of the show as a whole becomes completely dominated by the breaks. What’s more, the podcast version makes very obvious the fact that discussions started before the break rarely if ever get any resolution after the break. A rebroadcast would allow for seamless editing. In fact, some television shows offer exclusive online content as a way to avoid this problem. Or, more accurately, some television shows use this concept as a way to entice watchers to visit their websites. Neat strategy, powerful concept.
- Length. While the length of the show (a radio “hour”) allows for in-depth discussions, the usual pacing of the show often implies a rather high level of repetition. One gets the impression that the early part of the show contains most of the “good tidbits” one needs to understand what will be discussed later. I often listen to the first part of the show (before the first break) and end up skipping the rest of the show. This could be alleviated with a “best of ROS” podcast. In fact, it’s much less of an issue when the listener knows what to expect.
- Host. Nothing personal. Chris Lydon is certainly a fabulous person and I would feel bad to say anything personal about him even though, to make a point, I have used a provocative title in the past which specifically criticised him. (My point was more about the show as a whole.) In fact, Lydon can be very good as a radio host, as I described in the past. Thing is, Lydon’s interviewing style seems to me more appropriate for a typical radio show than for a podcast. Obviously, he is quite knowledgeable of a wide array of subjects enabling him to relate to his guests. Also, he surely has a “good name” in U.S. journalistic milieus. But, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes feel that his respect for guests and other participants (blog commentators and callers when ROS still had them) is quite selective. In my observation, Lydon also tends to do what Larry King described on the Colbert Report as an “I-show” (host talking about her/his own experience, often preventing a guest to follow a thought). It can be endearing on some radio shows but it seems inappropriate for a podcast. What makes this interviewing style even more awkward is the fact that the show is frequently billed as a “conversation.” In conversation analysis, Lydon’s interviews would merit a lot of discussion.
- Leading questions. While many questions asked on the show do help guests get into interesting issues, many questions sound like “leading” questions. Maybe not to the “how long have you been beating your wife?” extreme, but it does seem that the show is trying to get something specific out of each guest. Appropriate for journalism but awkward for what is billed as a “conversation.” In fact, many “questions” asked on the show are phrased as affirmative utterances instead of actual questions
- Old School Journalism. It may sound like harsh criticism but what I hear from ROS often makes me think that they still believe that some sources are more worthy than others by mere virtue of being “a trusted source.” I’ve been quite critical of what I think of as “groupthink.” Often characterised by the fact that everybody listens, reads, or watches the same sources of information. In Quebec, it’s often Radio-Canada’s television shows. In the U.S., it typically implies that everyone reads the New York Times and thinks of it as their main “source of information.” IMHO, the ROS-NYT connection is a strong one. To me, critical thinking implies a mistrust of specific sources and an ability to process information regardless of the source. I do understand that the NYT is, to several people, the “paper of record” but the very notion of “paper of record” seems outdated in this so-called “Information Age.” In fact, as an outsider, I often find the NYT even more amenable to critical challenge than some other sources. This impression I got even before the scandals which have been plaguing the NYT. In other words, the NYT is the best example of Old School Journalism. Podcasting is going away from Old School Journalism so a podcast version of ROS should go away from NYT groupthink. Lydon’s NYT background is relevant here but what I describe goes much beyond that print newspaper.
- The “Wolfpack.” The community around ROS is fascinating. If I had more time, I might want to spend more time “in” it. Every commentator on the show’s entries has interesting things to say and the comments are sometimes more insightful than the show itself. Yet, as contradictory as it may sound, the ROS “fanbase” makes the show less approachable to new listeners. This one is a common feature of open networks with something of a history but it’s heightened by the way the community is handled in the show. It sometimes seems as though some “frequent contributors” are appreciated more than others. The very fact that some people are mentioned as “frequent contributors to the show” makes the “community” sound more like a clique than like an open forum. While Brendan often brought in some questions from the real-time blog commentators, these questions rarely led to real two-way conversations. The overall effect is more like a typical radio talk show than like a community-oriented podcast.
- Show suggestions. Perhaps because suggestions submitted to the show are quite numerous, very few of these suggestions have been discussed extensively. The “pitch a show idea of your own” concept is helpful but the end-result is that commentators will need to prepare a pitch which might be picked up by a member of the ROS team to be pitched during the team’s meeting. The process is thus convoluted, non-transparent, non-democratic, and cumbersome. To be perfectly honest, it sounds as if it were “lipservice” to the audience instead of being a way to have listeners be part of the show. As a semi-disclaimer, I did pitch several ideas. The one of my ideas which was picked up was completely transformed from my original idea. Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t make the process feel transparent or open. While a digg-like system for voting on suggestions might be a bit too extreme for a show on public radio, I find myself dreaming for the ROS team working on shows pitched by listeners.
- Time-sensitiveness. Because the show is broadcast and podcast four days a week, the production cycle is particularly tight. In this context, commentators need to post on an entry in a timely fashion to “get the chance to be heard.” Perfectly normal, but not that podfriendly. It seems that the most dedicated listeners are those who listen to the show live while posting comments on the episode’s blog entry. This alienates the actual podcasting audience. Time-shifting is at the very basis of podcasting and many shows had to adapt to this reality (say, for a contest or to get feedback). The time-sensitive nature of ROS strengthens the idea that it’s a radio show which happens to be podcast, contrary to their claims. A weekly podcast would alleviate this problem.
- Gender bias. Though I didn’t really count, it seems to me that a much larger proportion of men than women are interviewed as guests on the show. It even seems that women are only interviewed when the show focuses specifically on gender. Women are then interviewed as women instead of being guests who happen to be females. This is especially flagrant when compared to podcasts and radio shows outside of the U.S. mainstream media. Maybe I’m too gender-conscious but a gender-balanced show often produces a dynamic which is, I would dare say, “friendlier.”
- U.S. focus. While it makes sense that a show produced in Cambridge, MA should focus on the U.S., I naively thought that the ‘I’ in PRI implied a global reach. Many ROS episodes have discussed “international affairs” yet the focus is on “what does it mean for U.S.” This approach is quite far from what I have heard in West Africa, Western Europe, and Canada.
Yes, that’s a lot.
Overall, I still enjoyed many things of the show while I was listening to it. I was often compelled to post a blog entry about something I heard on the show which, in itself, is a useful thing about a podcast. But the current format of the show is clearly not what I expect a podcast to be.
Now what? Well, my dream would be a podcast on disparate subjects with the team and clout of ROS but with podcasting in mind, from beginning to end. I imagine the schedule to be more of a weekly wrap-up than a live daily show. As a podcast listener, I tend to prefer weekly shows. In some cases, podcasts serve as a way to incite listeners to listen to the whole show. Makes a lot of sense.
That podcast could include a summary of what was said in the live comments. It could also have guest hosts. And exclusive content. And it could become an excellent place to get insight about a number of things. And I’d listen to it. Carefully.
Some “pie in the sky” wishes.
- Full transcripts. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it brings audio to the blogosphere more than anything else could. Different transcribing services are available for podcasts and members of the team could make this more efficient.
- Categorised feeds. The sadly missed DailySonic podcast had excellent customisation feature. If a mainstream radio station could do it, ROS would be a good candidate for categorised feeds.
- Voting mechanism. Since Slashdot and Digg, voting has probably been the most common form of online participation by people who care about media. Voting on features would make the “pitching” process more than simply finding the right “hook” to make the show relevant. Results are always intriguing in those cases.
- Community guests. People do want to get involved and the ROS community is fascinating. Bringing some members on the podcast could do a lot to give a voice to actual people. The only attempt I remember on ROS was with a kind of answering machine system. Nothing was played on the show. (What I left was arguably not that fascinating but I was surprised nothing came out of it.)
- Guest hosts. Not to go too Bakhtin on y’all, but multiple voices in the same discussion makes for interesting stories. Being a guest host could prove how difficult it is be a host.
- Field assignments. With a wide community of listeners, it could be interesting to have audio from people in other parts of the world, apart from phone interviews. Even an occasional one-minute segment would go a long way to give people exposure to realities outside the United States.
- Social bookmarking. Someone recently posted an advice for a book club. With social bookmarking features, book recommendations could be part of a wider scheme.
- Enhanced audio. While the MP3 version is really necessary, podcasts using enhanced features such as chapters and embedded images can be extremely useful, especially for owners of recent iPod/iPhone.
- Links. ROS is not the only radio show and links are what makes podcasts alive, especially when one is linked to another. In a way, podcasts become an alternate universe through those links.
Ok, I’m getting too far astray from my original ideas about ROS. It must mean that I should leave it at that.
I do sincerely hope that ROS will take an interesting turn. I’ll be watching from my blog aggregator and I might join the ROS community again.
In the meantime, I’ll focus on other podcasts.