eXtensions Diary

Bangkok Diary 19 October 2007: The Evolution of the podcast

By Graham K. Rogers

media Sound files, in one form or another have been saved and distributed ever since Edison first turned his wax cylinder and his scratchy voice recorded "Mary had a little lamb" for posterity. The foil-covered wax cylinders were fairly impractial, although did maintain a presence even into the 1950s with a dictation machine. William Randolph Hearst used this technology to record and distribute his speeches in the early part of the 20th century.

The flat disk which is more familiar depended on a technological development: early plastics in the form of shellac and later, Bakelite, although hard rubber had been used first). By the 1920s 10" disks were far more common as they played longer than the original 7" ones.

In 1919 there was an interesting preview of what this century now finds common when Victor Record company sued a bunch of smaller companies who were using the "lateral cut" method of recording: Victor lost on the grounds that the technology was in the public domain (source: Schoenherr, Steven. Recording Technology History.)

My first records were 10" disks that played at 78rpm, athough by the time I was collecting (my earliest was the Hollies, "Just one look,") the disk size was 7" again and they rotated at 45rpm. Albums were 12" with a 33⅓ rpm speed.

A rite of passage occurred on my 13th birthday when a friend brought the first Rolling Stones album. I was deeply affected and had to rush out the following Monday to buy my own, which had the added magic that my motehr hated it.

The problem with the ubiquitous disk was its fragility. The later materials used by the 60s meant it was not easy to break if you dropped one, but it was so easy to scratch. Hi-Fi buffs treat their disks with reverence. I gave my 60s collection to my sister and my 70s-80s collection to a close friend when I left England for the States where I was in time to start collecting the CD.

Digital recording had existed for a while but with laser playback systems, the scratches (unless serious) were not a problem. A lot of buyers claimed that the music felt cold, but part of enjoying music is use of the imagination: who ever hears the words in an opera like Siegfried?

Not long after my first CDs, I got my hands on computers in the US, but returning to the UK after a couple of years (I kept the disks this time and still have them) I found a bit of a technological desert and because of my basic skills actually managed to find a job before shipping out to Thailand. Is that really 20 years?

Fast forward to now. We have widespread use of graphical interfaces (back then we all used MS DOS, apart from the few early Mac users), the Internet and major developments in file types, including the MP3 (as well as a number of other sound files) and the evolution of delivery systems.

When we first used the Internet here, it was online email (using Pine) and access to onlne library information using Gopher. That in itself seemed a major step forward, particularly in a country which had not known the efficiencies of connectivity. My own introduction at Illinois State University in the mid-80s was a major step forward from my experiences of libraries in Britain, where the most advanced information medium in my locale was the BBC's Cefax.

Thailand's early backbone system initially connected a few universities and the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC) to the Prince of Songkhla University in Had Yai, which polled Melbourne a number of times a day, sending and collecting information. Not long after, the system was changed and a 9600bps modem (all Thailand would ever need) was used for a 24-hour connection, give or take a few hours.

I was speaking to my sysadmin at the university one day and she said, "Do try Lynx." This was a new online utility that they had installed and was allowing links to a new system they called the World Wide Web. It was clunky, but immediately, the constraints of the library-only Gopher were released. Within a short while, of course, the graphical browser appeared and we haven't stopped since.

Bit by bit web the web has developed. We began with hypertext markup language (html) and as new technologies were created (Java for example) we have been able to do more and more with our websites -- online shopping, databases, transactions, searches -- such that the text-based Internet we knew only just over 10 years ago has changed utterly and the world with it.

An early use of the potential of the Internet was seen here when the government of Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon used the troops to violently put down public demonstrations. While the press was muzzled and the TV stations forbidden to transmit any images of the rioting, information coming in from friends outside was quickly spread on the Bulletin Board System (BBS) and the budding Internet that any censorship was useless.

In a similar way, recently we have seen scores of images from Myanmar with government troops putting down demonstrations led by the monks there and a constant stream of new pictures. The generals there tried to shut the doors, but they were too late, and the ordinary people are willing to take risks to produce such data, knowning that (once sent out) it will find its way onto the Internet via the main news services and the new media like YouTube.

RSS is one of those new technologies. The letters stand for Rich Site Summary or really Simple Syndication (I prefer the latter). It is "a format for delivering regularly changing web content."

As a Mac user, I think I am fortunate that Apple developed Safari, its browser, early on to have RSS capability. Internet Explorer had a version of this come version 7, and Firefox also has this by way of a plug-in. Although many people (Mac users included) prefer Firefox as a browser, they way it handles RSS feeds does not suit me. I see a list with no information; and that list cannot be expanded into a larger set of information unless we are online. That may not be convenient. Safari, like certain utilities that handle RSS, retains the data as both headlines (like Firefox) along with the text.

Although there had been online delivery systems for music, such as Napster and I2Go, the combination of the RSS feed with media (music, video, images) began the process of refining this operation.

While we had known Internet radio for a while, that was dependent on a good connection (more relevant outside the US) and was, like the ordinary radio station, working to a schedule.

The new MP3 players were more efficient than the old Walkman style players which needed a stack of fragile tapes, and the CD players for which (then) the disk was less easy to record on. One of the devices was Apple's iPod which linked with the iTunes software to synchronise music between the computer's music library and the player. Originally for Macs only, iTunes and the iPod were later released in Windows compatible forms.

The merging of the systems -- RSS and MP3 (and others) was pivotal. Soon online services began, most notably those connected to Adam Curry and music podcasts soon developed. Part of that development was the naming, although any MP3 player will work, but the sobriquet, "Podcast" stuck and that in itself, being easy to say and remember, helped with the phenomenon. A history may be read on Wikipedia.

Ordinary users, already creating their own online presence with the Web Log or Blog, began to move to the audio format, and many others began to recognise the latent power of mass distribution for the smaller guy, in much the same way that Hearst had harnessed the power of the wax cylinder to send his speeches to more places he could ever attend in person.

As well as the iPod, Apple moved things along in 2005 by including the a podcaswt section in its iTunes shop. As the online shop had previously only had pay-for music downloads, none of which were available for those outside certain privileged countries, owing to copyright restrictions, here was a major advance. Bit by bit, I was able to examine and subscribe to podcasts from different countries increasing my exposure to modern music, much of which was non-mainstream and available to those making the podcasts on the Podf Safe Network . There are now several such services, but podcasters like C.C Chapman make full use of this on his "Accident Hash".

With the iTunes involvement, there was a great expansion and it was about this time that I began my own podcast, made on the simplest of equipment, it shows how easy these days it is for anyone to have a "voice" and an online presence. Many others became aware of this, including political and religious organisations.

Apple also helped with the idea of the video podcast, MPEG instead of MP3 and here the podcast medium began to show signs of a greater maturity as TV offerings like Amy Goodman and Democracy Now and the National Geographic magazine came online with short, but high-quality videos taken from their TV transmissions. Apple later added a video iPod to its range.

Bit by bit other serious players came to see the podcast as a legitimate method of communicating with a new audience. The podcast directory in iTunes became more like an alphabet soup: ABC, NBC, BBC, ITV, and many others.

content Instead of being tied to a radio -- requiring proximity to the device, or to its signal -- a user could download when ready and listen when convenient.

A further major development occurred earlier this year when a new section was created on the podcasts area of the ITMS: iTunesU. Although for years curricula and teaching materials had been available on the Internet, here the courses were now available in a form that with a different type of access and a newer audience.

media Apple had signed some of the most prominent names in (US) education, for example, Berkeley, MIT, Stanford and others could provide recorded teaching, using the media that the podcast format allows, for their own students and a far wider world audience.

With the latest, Beyond Campus, section of iTunesU, Apple has expanded the offerings to a new level of maturity providing a wider range of resources, as reported by Yahoo!: "Materials ranging from recordings of Supreme Court arguments and public radio broadcasts on the civil rights movement to video interviews. . . ."

While important resources like the Library of Congress have been online for a while, and we also hear that the Economist is putting its entire archive online in the immediate future, having such aural and video resources available for download and use in the humble MP3 player, will be a boon, particularly for those who would not normally have geographical access to such material.

Listed thus far in the "Beyond Campus" section are American Public Media, KQED, Little Kids Rock, The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Oyez Project and Smithsonian Global Sound.

This addition to the learning resources, added to the already wide-ranging video and sound podcasts, particularly those with an educational, onformative or democratic content, give a new slant to the value of the MP3 player as a device that has a far greater value than simply a container for music.

I know from my own efforts to interest people -- particularly my own students -- in downloading and even creating their own podcasts that the potential is there for a far wider audience worldwide.

I am excited by the idea that the guy or girl next to me on the subway or on the bus may be enjoying music, but equally may be learning, or even listening to some new and subversive ideas.


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