What is a Museum Podcast?

I have been busy lately working on what will be my institution’s first podcast. In the past year or so, the idea of doing a podcast has been bantied about among various staff, and you won’t be surprised that we have have all had to formulate an answer to the question “What is a podcast?” One of the things I discovered is that while we all agree what a podcast is, we don’t all agree on what a podcast can do for us as a museum. So I ask: “What is a museum podcast?”

By definition a podcast is an audio program (more and more including images and video as well) that is  fed to listeners via an RSS feed. The serial nature of the content and subscription to the series is one of the key elements in a podcast. The other element is the ability to transfer episodes to a portable device. Many researchers have recently shown that quite a few of us never transfer these podcasts to portable devices. A great article from last year by TDG Research focuses the question of defining a podcast around this questionable quality: portability. I would like to question the other quality of a podcast: the subscription-based, serial nature of the content.  Many museums are posting “podcasts” that are in fact not series at all. These are things like audio tours, lectures, gallery talks, and interviews that are posted as a podcast all at once, not serially. For example, a museum may post all 25 stops of an audio tour for an exhibition as a podcast. All 25 files are immediately available to download at once. The idea is that you will download them all to yout iPod and then bring it with you to the museum for your tour. (There are even many “unofficial” tours available, not created by the institution itself.) A museum may also decide to post a single lecture, gallery tour, or curator’s talk as a “podcast.” This audio file may exist within a larger podcast of other lectures and tours, but the event recorded was essentially a stand-alone event, not a series.

So, how would a museum create a true podcast that is a serial program? What would that content look like? The Museum of Science in Boston has done this, and it’s great. Content is tied to exhibitions at the museum and they bring in experts from the field to discuss various science topics. It’s fascinating. But, I am assuming,  it also requires a lot of staff time and effort to produce this content that is made (I assume) purely for the Internet audience. The lectures and gallery talks I was citing previously don’t take as much effort to produce, as they involve simply capturing audio from an on-site event, or audio tour, that is already exists anyway, despite its future incarnation as a podcast.  It seems to me that most museums (especially art museums) at this point would rather make a podcast as a way of repurposing content already created for another purpose. Is this compelling content for a podcast?

Part of the answer to this must lie in asking how people are actually using podcasts. It seems to me that many people may not listen to a podcast in its serial form at all . Some – and I am guilty of this – once they find a compelling podcast, download past episodes that seem interesting, and stop there. No subscription needed. Thus, once past episodes of a “podcast” are posted, they simply become audio files posted on the Internet. I have many friends who grab podcasts just this way. They don’t subscribe. Or even if they do, they still pick and choose which files to listen to once downloaded.

I am still thinking this through. But I have this question hovering over my head: Does it make sense to “podcast” non-serial content? If it is just about posting an audio file onto your web site, what is the added value of creating the “podcast” – or simply naming it that? One clear advantage is to make the audio available in the iTunes store, where users who may not otherwise find your content may find you. This is very important. But even there, is it still a “podcast”? Does it matter? Will people still listen?

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