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The Frustrating Side of Podcast Listening

I love podcasts, but some can be so frustrating. The “some” I am talking about are those where a lecture or presentation was recorded.

With a simple Q&A session, the problem is the speaker not repeating the question from the audience. Repeating the question is good practice anyway, as pointed out by Ken Molay in a recent webinar. For the questioner, it is proof that the speaker comprehended the question. For podcast listeners, the question gets heard!

Any dialog in the audience during the Q&A is often lost on the podcast listener. Here I can understand that it is difficult for the speaker to repeat all the ideas discussed between two or more people in the audience. If audience participation through dialog is a big part of the event being recorded, I think more microphones are called for.

In some ways, that might be why it is nice to leave any discussion to the end of the lecture. That way, the podcast listener can hear the bulk of the message and then skip the inaudible parts in one step.

I have a great example of the situation I am discussing – unfortunately. The Tech Writer Voices podcast with Susan Burton, executive director of STC, was something I looked forward to hearing, and I was quite excited when I saw there were 90 minutes to listen to. What Susan Burton said was very interesting, and it seemed as though the audience enjoyed the event, too. They had a lot of lively discussion, all of which was lost on me. There were huge gaps where I strained in vain to hear what was being said in the audience. I sat with my iPod, turning the volume up and down throughout the entire 90-minute recording, which was quite tedious.

It was also painful. I turned the volume to maximum to hear (often in vain) someone in the audience, but I had to be attentive to when to turn down the volume before Susan Burton began to speak again. Otherwise, my eardrum received a painful blast.

This was such a disappointment, and I feel it is something podcasters must consider when recording such events. Do not depend on the speaker to think about the listening experience. Not everyone has experience with these recordings yet. At least, not at the less expensive level where the only recording microphone is the one attached to the speaker or somewhat fixed to the table in front of the speaker. The podcaster could encourage people, if the surroundings allow it without too much difficulty, to come up to the microphone to talk. The speaker should be taught to repeat the gist of the question before answering. Hearing vague mumbling followed by a clear “Yes” and nothing else is quite a frustrating listening experience.

It was a huge effort to listen to this podcast, but I did it because I wanted to hear Susan Burton. I met her back in October 2006, just when she began her job with STC. I have a very good impression of Susan as not only a nice person, but also an extremely competent director, the kind that STC really needs. There is a lot of cleaning up and modernization to do in many areas of STC, but she has some great ideas and is very motivated for success. I have faith in her and her reach her goals. I also look forward to participating in the efforts needed to achieve those goals. Podcasts are one (excellent) way of getting the STC message out to all members of the organization. Thank you to the Suncoast chapter and Tom Johnson for making this possible. I do appreciate the effort. I hope that next time is less of a strain!


  1. Lisa
    Lisa 24 April 2007

    Karen, I totally agree with you. I was planning to listen to the Susan Burton podcast during my lunch break today…

  2. Tom Johnson
    Tom Johnson 24 April 2007

    I’m glad you could sort of listen to the podcast. I didn’t realize how many gaps there were in the podcast. Trust me, I’m well aware of this limitation — I always tell speakers to repeat the audience’s question. However, doing so can break the flow of the presentation or make it stilted. Still, Susan really tried to move closer to the audience member asking the question.

    Setting up a second microphone is much more difficult than it seems. To do this, you need a microphone ($150), a mixer/preamp ($150), and then something to plug it into (a laptop or a digital recorder that accepts XSL jacks). Plus our room is kind of cramped and it’s not easy for people to just walk up to a mic. In short, it’s hard to arrange this affordably, and would require about $600 more dollars in equipment.

    This is part of the reason I like phone interviews better. There is no issue about gaps. But thanks for the feedback. I didn’t realize how much of a bother it was, so next time I’ll try to come up with a better solution.

  3. Karen
    Karen 24 April 2007

    Thanks for your comments, Tom. I think it is great that you are encouraging so many to podcast for their chapters. I do worry about those who are not so technically minded and who might not do the whole technical-communication-investigation job and look at the entire experience. They might overlook the aspect of the listener’s experience if they think it is just “have mike, will podcast”.

    I hope that those who venture into podcasting realize there is more to the process than just having the technical aspects in place. If they consider the entire process and plan wisely, they can provide an enjoyable listening experience. This is not to say that they need to plan for hours and days. They just need to remember a slight variation of the usual “know they audience” mantra for technical communicators: “think of thy audience”, or perhaps “respect they audience”!

    I refer people to your own blogs for more details about podcasting. I know that if I share these issues with you, you take them seriously and incorporate such gems in your posts, making your site an even richer resource for all of us to share. (Another way of saying you have a great site!)

    I should add that I also have a problem with telephone conferences, something I participate in a lot, where some participants are in a room with a conference phone, and they forget to consider whether those listening in on the phone can hear the comments from the person talking softly in a far corner of the room! Some of my frustration with that has probably spilled over into this discussion. 🙂

  4. Karin Høgh
    Karin Høgh 25 April 2007

    Good Point, Karen. I agree with you, and I know from the time I have been listening to podcasts from IT Conversations how important it is to educate and help contributors.

    We have come a long way from the old video conferences with jerky images and terrible sound, but this still needs a lot of attention – and skills.

    Many conferences have already engaged a company to provide sound for the audience, and with some planning ahead, these people can easily provide the audio for podcasting afterwards. And if organizers at venues like this realize how valuable the content can be – not only for the peolple presen, but for ten times more the number of people after the event, maybe they would even work harder on recording in a good quality.

    But this is a new medium – speak up, listeners, so we can hear you 🙂

    And this will change, I´m sure.

  5. Karin Høgh
    Karin Høgh 25 April 2007

    Byt the way. One of the absolute experts on this field is Doug Kaye from IT Conversations, GigaVox and more, and he was working with sound in film business, and is now focused on improving sound in podcasts from eg. conferences:

    On his blog Blogarithm, I just read his attempt to develop a sort of algebraic view on this.

    “The absolute need for quality is inversely proportional to the underlying value of that content. For example, if we had the only recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, I’m sure we’d publish it regardless of the quality.


    “My instinct is to implement something similar to the Loomia-based rating system we’re using on IT Conversations and Social Innovation Conversations. It’s essentially the same as is used by Amazon or Netflix: a five-star rating. One thought is to apply one rating to content and a second to the technical quality”.

    Anyone who has special interest in this can follow on:

  6. Karen
    Karen 25 April 2007

    Hej Karin

    Yes, I am speaking up so all you podcasters can hear us! Well put. 🙂

    I was listening to a (very excellent) podcast from IT conversations today with Caterina Fake (, which was from a conference. They set a microphone up somewhere so questioners could be heard. Of course, this was a conference (Adaptive Path) so they have a bigger wallet than a local chapter of a non-profit society, or any other small group who wants to dive into this thing called podcasting.

    That is indeed why I am speaking up – in the hopes that podcast evangelists like you and Tom and others can teach best practices to all the little newbies out there, both the newbies who want to stay small and intimate and the newbies who want to grow. It’ll be so much nicer for us listeners if they “do it right” from Day 1.

    Thanks for listening. 🙂

  7. Karen
    Karen 25 April 2007

    Karin, that’s a great about Doug Kaye and Blogarithm. Thanks!

  8. Tom Johnson
    Tom Johnson 26 April 2007

    I’m also a big fan of Doug Kaye. He is a true audio engineer, and has a lot of experience.

    I think podcasting faces four main obstacles when it comes to recording presentations:

    1. Lack of a second mic to grab audience questions/feedback.

    2. Presenter not repeating the audience’s questions.

    3. Presenter heavily relying on visuals of a PowerPoint that the listener can’t see.

    4. The conference organizer’s fear that recording and distributing the presenter’s talk for free would devalue the conference. Even though it it relatively inexpensive to provide podcasts of every talk at STC, and every talk at Doc Train, and every talk at every conference, only the people on the edge of technology (like SXSW) are moving forward into this medium.

    Karen, are you starting to listen to a lot more podcasts? I haven’t heard you approach this subject. I have a carcast that I recorded that I plan to post soon — I would love to hear your feedback on it.

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