Too Long, Didn’t Listen

Let’s do a thought exercise together: do you prefer to call friends over audio or video? Why?

Now let’s say you are a frequent podcast listener. If I give you an hour of completely free time, would you sit down to listen to a podcast and do nothing else in the meantime? Why?

I think most people’s answers to both of the above questions will share one common theme: audio does not demand your full attention because you can multitask while listening. Our ability to do this but not with other media like video or text makes audio a particularly convenient medium to meet our modern obsession with efficiency. We can combine audio consumption with other semi-autonomous activities like driving or doing chores. This provides audio a unique platform to thrive.

Recently, I came across an ad about Luminary. It’s a podcast app offering an optional $7.99 monthly subscription for exclusive audio content from supposedly famous creators. The idea of paid audio content, of course, isn’t new. People have been purchasing audiobooks long before ebooks became easily accessible. Some podcasts even have started their own paid feeds to directly support creators. But paying a middleman to source and deliver podcasts is new.

The podcast ecosystem is similar to RSS in that they are both decentralized and free pub-sub models of content delivery. I suspect that Luminary, by offering valuable audio content, harbors the ambition to be the podcast app that owns the user relationship by growing into an aggregator.

However, I am highly suspicious of their growth potential.

One thing to realize about audio is its inherently linear nature in reproduction and consumption. It is the oldest form of communication and relies on the sequential delivery and processing of sounds to make sense. We simply cannot gloss over a long podcast episode as we skim through an essay or glance over a painting. Audio consumption and time investment are inseparable, but undivided attention is a limited resource in our restless society.

Podcasts exist in a symbiotic relationship with other routine tasks and, for most people, will not be the sought-after prime-time activity. Podcast listen time is then consequentially limited by the amount of routinized work people have to do—something humanity is on an endless quest to reduce.

This is the primary reason why I think the podcast industry, and by extension Luminary, will not become as indispensable or profitable as its traditional media counterparts.

In addition, from an information processing standpoint, the compulsory sequential reproduction and consumption of audio content make it hard to index, search, quote, and reuse. Audio content simply isn’t designed to be modular and manipulatable like words are, which makes most podcasts extremely hard to internationalize and spread through different cultures. This is a major friction in a computerized and global world. Without some technological and neurological breakthrough in how we consume audio, I doubt that the podcast industry is going to be mainstream beyond content that cannot be fully captured by written languages, such as music, sounds, or the soothing husky voice of a meditation guru.

Perhaps this is where the dissonance lies when I consider the idea of creating audio content rather than writing. The desire to create things that can be easily shared, searched, and quoted can be met with text, but hardly with audio. If I send a 15min clip of myself talking about something, I can’t imagine why anybody would listen to it. But text is easier to skim, and ideas get across much faster.

The properties of audio and how they dictate the products and media we consume are something I will continue to observe. I’m sure I will learn more and develop a more nuanced understanding in the future. If this is something you are interested in as well, I’d love to hear from you.

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