Friday, February 23, 2024

History of digital publishing: from podcasts to audiobooks?

The current Walrus has a profile of the indigenous Canadian broadcaster Connie Walker, who broke out with the very successful CBC podcast "Missing and Murdered," from 2016 and then moved to Spotify for a series called "Stolen," that earned both a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Broadcasting Award in 2023. Spotify subsequently told her she was being cancelled. As the story says, "Walker, whose success represented a beacon of hope for despairing journalists, was now a symbol of the profession’s alarming, inescapable collapse."

There has been a spate of stories about the cancellation of podcasts, particularly the complicated, deeply researched ones in which Walker made her reputation. The pennies that digital advertising brings in don't often cover the overheads of that kind of work, it seems, not when there are a million people trying to break into podcasting, some with off-the-top-of-the-head chatty content that makes Top-40 Radio seem like Shakespeare.  Maybe a great retrenchment in podcasting is on the horizon, at least for those that aren't subsidized or feature a celebrity.

Meanwhile, I've been listening to "Miracle and Wonder: Conversations With Paul Simon" by Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam, produced by Gladwell's podcasting enterprise Pushkin Industries. It's a podcast except that it isn't. It's presented as and offered for sale as an audiobook instead. I can't help thinking that this may be Malcolm Gladwell observing the dismal economics of podcasting and seeing if audiobook publishing enables a different pricing regime more aligned with the real costs of production. Though since it seems that Spotify and Amazon already have some kind of monopoly control of audiobooks now (and everyone I know gets audiobooks free from the library app Libby), I'm not sure how that's going to work out. But "Miracle and Wonder" may be a sign or symptom of change working out in digital 'casting.

What started me on this post, however, was not thoughts on the evolving history of digital audio marketing. (That's just to justify putting this in a history blog, perhaps). It was how much I'm enjoying "Miracle and Wonder." 

Gladwell's team recorded thirty hours for a five hour audiobook, Paul Simon is fully engaged, and it all becomes a wonderful exploration of one musician and his music. There is a lovely balance of music  -- old Simon recordings, new Simon live demonstrations, clips of music that inspired him, whatever --  all fitted into a structured conversation about the shape and meaning of Simon's career. It would be a waste of paper, almost, to print this audiobook -- the music is absolutely central to it. Gladwell gladwellizes elaborate theories from sociology texts and musicological theorists to interpret how Paul Simon got to be Paul Simon,  and these deep-think dives actually work pretty well. But Simon hardly engages with those parts -- he's just talking and thinking and riffing on all the music in his head.

If you are a bit jaded with what you are finding in podcasts, or you have any interest at all in Paul Simon, take a listen. Malcolm Gladwell probably hopes you will purchase it here for US$14.99.  You have your own sources for audiobooks/podcasts.

These are the days of miracle and wonder.  Don't cry, baby, don't cry.

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