What would Steve Jobs do with podcasting?

Plus, actual feedback written for The Edit

Quick note: After this essay, I’ve copy/pasted real feedback on an actual podcast that happened in The Edit.

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The ideal blend of art and technology

Today’s the day to get ahead of the weekend traffic and take our van somewhere new. Thank you for joining me in this #vanlife of a podcast publication where we’re always relaxed, comfortable, listening to good road trip music, and exactly where we want to be. Our destination today is the intersection of liberal arts and technology.

I’m going to make the case that what Jobs was trying to do across all of Apple’s products in the mid 2000s is exactly what podcasting should be trying to do today.

As Apple fumbles about and fails to make software that inspires awe or even tell-your-friends excitement, I miss those Steve Jobs days. His belief in combining the humanities with technology, and his description of computers as a “bicycle of the mind,” were foundational to my whole career. As Apple loses sight of this goal we all lose a vision for a better future, and if we more broadly as humans also lose sight of it, we are lost completely.

But many of us outside of Big Tech haven’t lost Job’s vision. Those of us who remember and believed in it can continue to espouse it, manifest it, and teach it. We can make software that makes us better.

Podcasting should occupy prime real estate at the corner of liberal arts and technology. Whether you’re an RSS purist or are more of “a show is a show” type person, you probably agree that podcasting requires internet distribution, and that means it requires technology. But it is also storytelling and gets written about unironically in the New Yorker which is the litmus test of being part of the Arts.

Instead, podcasting is in a raging sea storm. Investors, entrepreneurs, creators, and influential listeners are trying to push it in directions involving more art, more tech, more platforming, more subscriptions, more independence, better tooling, more diversity, better inclusion, better discovery, easier sharing, more equity, closer ties to Hollywood, more stickiness, more advertising money, better audience insights, better privacy, and more control.

Because of all these largely at-odds pressures, it can be difficult to decide what’s good. Is Descript good? Is Spotify inherently bad? Has Apple become bad?

One way of measuring this is to think about the intersection of technology and liberal arts and whether the companies that are forming and building new products share the core value of making us better. (Remember: “bicycle for the mind”).

Companies that enter from the tech side—often with large VC war chests—are frequently not even considering the humanities side. I saw a recent launch of a social podcast player by founders that demonstrated no awareness of the existing industry. They just floated their new podcast player into the scene claiming to be the social solution for podcasting despite a raft of similar companies that have come before them. They didn’t think to acknowledge the people that have spent 15 plus years working hard to make podcasting important.

A couple of other pure tech companies have been making waves with alumni from Google, Spotify, and Uber. And so far, they are using their former employers’ playbooks. They’ve spun up business models that “monetize” other people’s creative work or labor. Building software with the explicit intent to collect rents on other people’s efforts in exchange for the software being free is not making us better.

As these tech companies try to to “do a Facebook” or Google with podcasting, they are notably scooping up more customers than their counterparts from the liberal arts end of the market. I have all the love in the world for my fellow NPR nerds, but you need some tech background to make a tech company.

Two companies that were too deep in the liberal arts world were written about fairly critically by Nick Quah this year.

Radio Public was recently acquired by Acast, and Quah wrote, “Terms of the deal were not disclosed... though, frankly, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s somewhat modest.” Also, “it never felt like the app was able to gain much traction in its bid to provide an alternative point of podcast listening designed to be in sync with the potentialities of the open podcast ecosystem.”

Likewise, Pocket Casts never really raged. From the same Hot Pod Insider, as of January 2021, the consortium of public media organizations that owns it is trying to sell it off.

New companies and new products are, by definition, meant to change podcasting. They’re a wave in the raging sea. When I hear about a new company, I think about how it will help or hurt listeners, creators, indies, and people of diverse backgrounds, but I also think about technology and ask myself questions about whether it’s extensible, programable, secure, scalable, and beautiful. Also, importantly, how will it be different in the beginning than when a billion people are using it?

Companies and new products that score high in both the liberal arts and technology worlds are very rare birds in podcasting right now, so I’ll close with a question. What software do you think best blends technology and liberal arts in the podcasting space today?


The Edit

We got permission from Celine Teo-Blockey, who has been through the The Edit process to share her reaction to the feedback she received.

Wanted to quickly say [you’ve given me] so much to think about @Skye Pillsbury but all really good stuff. I need to listen to that portion that both you and @Jenna Spinelle pointed out. I listen to all my various cuts very closely to make sure I answer those sorts of questions usually. But I think it’s great that these blind spots come to my attention. Will be back! But just wanted to say thank you both for taking the time. Love this editing room.

Here’s a link to the episode she had reviewed:

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Thanks for reading, and happy mic talking and filler chopping!

—Jon Christensen