By the time Dave Winer asked me to listen to his talk at the recent Public Media conference, it was too late — I’d already heard it on a drive to the airport Saturday morning. It is an inspired (and inspiring) discussion of what can and should happen at the intersection of podcasting, public media, and democracy.
Of the many themes that resonate powerfully with me, the one I want to focus on here is the idea of two-way public media. That can mean a few different things. One of the meanings Dave highlights is that the device which downloads and plays podcasts can also record and upload them, without being tethered to a computer.
Another meaning is that listeners become programmers, or rather, deejays, or better yet, webjays. Back in 2004 I became fascinated with Lucas Gonze’s webjay.org, which hasn’t changed much since then, or since its Jan 2006 acquisition by Yahoo.
In a December 2004 podcast, one of my first — and one of only a few that’s in the style of a story rather than an interview — I imagined how Napster-like collaborative recommendation would play out in a post-Napster world, thanks to the proliferation of free and legally-shareable audio, and to services like Webjay that would encourage and assist with annotation and remixing.
Things haven’t really turned out that way, at least not yet. Webjay remains a boutique offering. The dominant Internet audio applications — iTunes and Windows Media Player — optimize for consumption of commercial audio, not for production of free and legally-shareable audio. And by production I don’t mean just the ability to record and upload. What matters as much or more is the ability to annotate, curate, and share.
In the textual blogosphere we’re all webjays. When we find good stuff, it’s natural and straightforward to collect it, comment on it, and stream our remixed versions of it back to the blogosophere.
It’s nothing like that in the realm of Internet audio. Like others, I’m disappointed that Windows Media Player 11 does not support podcatching — I shouldn’t need to install iTunes on a Windows box to acquire that capability — but that’s a tangential point. More importantly, neither iTunes nor WMP11 invites me to annotate, curate, and share.
That’s largely because, as Dave correctly notes in his talk, the design center for these Internet audio platforms is music, and in particular, commercial music. There’s a very different kind of Internet audio, the kind that NPR mostly is, that ITConversations is, that my Friday podcast series is: commentary and discourse.
What could the mainstream platforms do to support this kind of Internet audio? They could offer blog this features. They could make quotation of audio as easy and natural as quotation of text. They could embrace and popularize the Webjay idea of shareable, remixable playlists.
For most people, of course, playlists are about music. When I made my open source audio podcast back in 2004 I was inspired by my favorite webjay, Oddio Katya, whose wonderful monthly Tunes in Overplay playlists have happily resurfaced after a long hiatus. A couple of years ago I imagined that, by now, there would be a flock of webjays like Katya, and that they would be helping me tap into the growing reservoir of free and legally-shareable music.
But iTunes and WMP11 aren’t designed to inspire future Oddio Katyas to curate and share what is freely available. And while I wish things were otherwise, I can understand why they’re not. The music business and the technology business are intertwined, and it is in neither party’s interest to facilitate the kinds of alternatives that the Internet invites and enables.
As Dave points out in his talk, though, there’s no such conflict of interest in the realm of public discourse. So there’s no reason why iTunes and Windows Media Player shouldn’t make it easy for me to create a playlist of his talk, and one of my own public radio commentaries, and a PopTech lecture from ITConversations, and a Long Now talk, and a LibriVox reading, and a Berkeley lecture, and then share that playlist on the web — where I can watch it morph as other people mix in related material that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own.
It’s possible today to treat public-interest audio and video as two-way media in this sense, but you have to be a bit of a propeller-head. I’d love to see that capability democratized, and I’d love to see my team take the lead in making it happen.