Tuning in to Soundwriting

The Bandwidth of Podcasting

by Eric Detweiler

2. Medium, Format, and Genre

Is the audio piece in the previous section a podcast? It's a deceptively simple question that grows more complicated as one considers the history of podcasting, the etymology of the word "podcast," and the technologies involved in the distribution and circulation of digital audio files. And as I'll argue in this chapter, it's an important question for rhetoric and writing teachers to ask. That's because the ways we name the assignments we give students have implications and consequences for how teachers and students conceptualize both those assignments and the future projects—audio, digital, and otherwise—students might want or need to create in various civic, professional, and personal situations.

Podcasts and other kinds of audio assignments have become increasingly prevalent in rhetoric and writing courses. This uptick in digital audio assignments is attributable to, among other factors, the field's ongoing attempt to "unseat the privileged place of text and alphabetic literacy as the center of composing processes" (Hocks & Comstock, 2017, p. 135). As Mary E. Hocks and Michelle Comstock put it, "Interest in sonic composition has emerged … as a complement to the field's interests in visual rhetorics and multimodal composition" (p. 135). This broad embrace of multimodal assignments also has to do with practical concerns about student learning and the kinds of digital media students might be expected to produce in their professional lives. However, I emphasize the matter of unseating "alphabetic literacy" because it offers a helpful framework for thinking about the simultaneous familiarity and novelty of podcasting assignments in rhetoric and writing courses.

On one hand, sonic rhetorics can be interruptive and novel in ways visual rhetorics and other areas of multimodal composition typically aren't. That's because writing courses, unlike speech courses, have tended to focus on language's visual manifestations: words as they appear on a page or screen (Selfe, 2009, p. 629). Visual rhetorics of course also focus on visual phenomena. Thus, despite the remarkable approaches to teaching and scholarship visual rhetoricians have opened up, scholars like Hocks and Comstock (2017) argue that sonic rhetorics can do something more. While the relatively static, stable forms of many nonalphabetic visual artifacts (e.g., print advertisements, paintings, photographs) allow viewers to grasp and return to them in ways that overlap with print- or screen-based alphabetic texts, "sound renders objects dynamic" (p. 135). In other words, sound—which, "ghostly and breeze-like" (p. 135), fades in, out, and away in ways different from many visual phenomena—affords different modes of composing, listening, thinking, and responding. I don't mean to inscribe clear, intrinsic lines between sight and sound, which would raise all kinds of questions related to disability, access, and phenomenology. As Salomé Voegelin (2010) argued, the senses are "ideologically and aesthetically determined," the distinctions we perceive between them emerging from culture, habit, and embodied experience, not just innate differences (p. 3). But that said, much of the hubbub around sonic assignments has had to do with the fact that sonic phenomena operate in different ways than visual phenomena.

On the other hand, sonic rhetorics are familiar. Cynthia L. Selfe (2009) told the story of nineteenth-century English departments that cut ties with oratory and speech education (p. 621), and she suggested that renewed attention to "aurality" can reunite rhetoric's various constituencies and modalities, allowing instructors "to teach students effective, rhetorically based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively as literate citizens" (p. 644). Sound can thus take us back to rhetoric's future. However, perhaps because the disciplinary connections between orality and literacy are so well-established in the longer historical term, scholars and teachers who have brought sound back into rhetoric and writing studies' fold have often done so in ways and forms that attenuate its interruptive potential. As Steph Ceraso (2014) pointed out, "Although rhetoric and composition scholarship is beginning to acknowledge a wider range of nondiscursive materials and modes, the ultimate pursuit of meaning making in this work positions multimodal approaches in the same realm as the discursive: a realm where objects are analyzed and interpreted" (p. 104). Within this pedagogical scene, "composing a podcast usually involves writing a script and recording narrative content—sometimes incorporating music or sound effects—using audio editing software. The process of composing a podcast is quite similar to writing a textual essay" (p. 113). But as I'm about to argue, to conceive of and teach podcasts as analogous to essays misses much if not all of what they have to offer rhetoric and writing courses (on similar issues with video projects, consider Alexander & Rhodes, 2014, pp. 70–104).

In everyday classroom conversations and assignment prompts, rhetoric and writing teachers often use "podcast" as a synonym for "audio essay." That's understandable: some of the last decade's most recognizable podcasts take a somewhat essayistic approach. Consider This American Life and Radiolab, two NPR-affiliated shows that have shaped what many people think of when they hear the word "podcast." While both shows incorporate interviews, ambient sounds, and narrative components in ways conventional written essays can't or don't, they often employ a let's just follow an interesting question and see where it takes us approach that echoes the essay tradition. For example, one 2017 episode of This American Life opens as follows:1 1 In this chapter, individual podcast episodes will be cited traditionally and listed in Podcast Episodes & Other Media References. Entire podcast series will be mentioned without formal citations and listed in Full Podcast Series Referenced.

Today's whole show came out of this thing that we heard that a politician said. And we wondered, is that true? Like, was he right? And the answer set us on this eight-month journey, where at some point, like the best journeys, I think, we forgot what the original reason was that we set out. And we just started to learn all kinds of things that we had never imagined back at the beginning. (Glass, 2017)

Montaigne, eat your heart out.2 2 For arguments in favor of the essay tradition's continuing relevance, see Ellis, 2013; Khadka, 2015. For more on Michel de Montaigne, listen to Linsenmayer, 2011.

In addition to the influence of This American Life and Radiolab, it makes sense that rhetoric and writing teachers might conflate "podcast" with "audio essay" because the latter gives us a way of anchoring our engagement with a multivalent, fluctuating medium in a longstanding classroom genre—one we know our way around pretty well.3 3 For more on how antecedent genres affect—and don't affect—encounters with new genres and novel rhetorical challenges, consult chapter 4 of Nowacek, 2011. However, I'm inclined to follow the lead of Adam Banks, who made the following proclamation in his 2015 Chair's Address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication:

I hereby promote the essay to dominant genre emeritus. I thank you for your loooonnng and committed service over more than a century. We still love you.… And yet, we also acknowledge the rise and promotion of many other activities around which writing and communication can be organized. (pp. 272–273)

While the audio essay is a viable and prevalent genre that is incorporated into many podcasts, podcasts themselves do not constitute a genre and can take a range of nonessayistic forms. If we and our students are to realize the rhetorical and pedagogical possibilities of podcasts, to engage their potential as an activity "around which writing and communication can be organized," we should not reduce the medium to the essayistic manifestations that may feel most familiar to us. Reducing the wide-ranging world of podcasts to one well-trodden form tunes out the inventive possibilities—the fresh genres, modes of inquiry, and media combinations—that are key parts of what podcasting offers. It is with that in mind that I created this chapter's audio sections. The first, as podcast-savvy readers may have recognized, imitates the essayistic style of programs like This American Life, Planet Money, and Serial. The subsequent audio sections adopt the conventions of other genres. In so doing, they are meant to illustrate the capacious, and arguably limitless, range of genres potentially gathered under the umbrella of podcasting. But because they are housed in a digital edited collection that operates quite differently from an RSS feed, these sections are also meant to call attention to questions of circulation and distribution, which—unlike questions of genre—might help us suss out the definitional limits of podcasting.

In short, I argue that rhetoric and writing scholars interested in studying and assigning podcasts need to attend to questions of circulation and distribution in addition to questions of composition and organization. And to do that well, we need some sense of the history and development of podcasting.

In 2004, less than a year after Christopher Lydon launched what was arguably the first podcast (Farivar, 2014; Walsh, 2011), The Guardian published "Audible Revolution," an article by Ben Hammersley, future editor of the technology magazine Wired UK. Hammersley (2004) began with this observation: "With the benefit of hindsight, it all seems quite obvious. MP3 players, like Apple's iPod, in many pockets, audio production software cheap or free, and weblogging an established part of the internet; all the ingredients are there for a new boom in amateur radio. But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?"

A mere year later, the answer to Hammersley's question was largely settled: "podcast" was the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2005 word of the year. "Audioblogging" and "GuerillaMedia" had been eclipsed by a "colloquial hybrid of ‘broadcasting' and Apple's trademarked ‘iPod'" (Sterne et al., 2008).4 4 Sterne et al. and Bowie both noted alternative etymologies for the term: "Personal Option Digital-casting" (Sterne et al., 2008) and "Personal On-Demand Narrowcasting" (Bowie, 2012b). However, both alternatives seem to be after-the-fact attempts to separate the term from its corporate connections, and neither got much use before "podcast" moved from being an obviously constructed and debated neologism to an everyday word. As Jonathan Sterne et al. (2008) note, this portmanteau captures a contradiction. On one hand, podcasting was celebrated for its utopian democratic potential. Because it ostensibly opened the means of digital audio production to a much wider population, podcasting was aligned with "notions of personal freedom and escape from the vice-grip of commercial broadcasting." On the other hand, the word "podcast" itself linked the medium with "a well-known and heavily branded product": the iPod (Sterne et al., 2008). But regardless of how advocates and critics balanced podcasting's democratic potential with its corporate connotations, what made podcasting noteworthy was the relative ease with which a podcast could be shared: "The most striking thing about the process is the simplicity of distribution" (Sterne et al., 2008). Sterne et al. identified three essential steps "involved in creating and disseminating a podcast": "A. The podcast must be made and uploaded," "B. The podcast has to be rendered ‘findable' online (these parts of the process are now usually automated)," and "C. The podcast has to be downloaded and listened to." In her definition of podcasts, Jennifer L. Bowie (2012b) likewise touched on distribution: "Podcasts are episodic digital media files distributed over the internet. They are downloaded through web syndication—often RSS feeds or podcatcher software" (see also Bowie, 2012a).

In short, one of the key factors that makes a podcast a podcast is its mode of distribution. Any audio file can be distributed as a podcast, but be it an audio essay, soundscape, or interview, it is not a podcast until and unless it is distributed digitally. Yes, podcasts build and riff on particular genres—something I will elaborate on later in this chapter. And yes, podcasts are packaged and distributed as particular digital formats, most notably MP3s and, more recently, AAC/M4A files (Flanagan, 2017; Sterne, 2012). However, "podcast" is not the name of a genre or a format. In terms of genre, a podcast does not have to contain, say, an interview, narrative, or essayistic inquiry to be a podcast. For example, Hammersley (2004) mentioned one early podcast that was simply "a beautiful collection of sound recordings made while travelling around south-east Asia." In terms of format, the MP3, a compressed digital audio format popularized in the late twentieth century (Sterne, 2012, p. 149), was central to podcasting's initial success. Because MP3 files were so much smaller than other audio formats (e.g., WAV and AIF files), they could be uploaded and downloaded in much shorter order, especially given the average speed of internet connections circa 2003. Jonathan Sterne (2012) argued, "The MP3 is a triumph of distribution, but it is also something more" (p. 1), and the same could be said of the podcast. However, a format like the MP3 is bound up with specific "software, operating standards, and codes" in ways that a podcast is not (p. 11). A podcast can created and distributed as an M4A or OGG file and still be a podcast. It can even, given the rise of broadband internet, be shared as an uncompressed WAV file or, in the case of video podcasts, an MP4 or MOV file.

In short, "podcast" names neither a genre or a format. It is perhaps best defined as a medium, though I offer that label tentatively.5 5 Cheryl E. Ball used the example of blogs to raise related questions about the lines and links between genre and medium (Ball et al., 2013, pp. 33–34). Like newspaper or television or film, podcasting is a way of communicating content. The narrative and genre structures may vary (to offer an analogy, nightly news programs, courtroom dramas, and cartoons are all television genres despite their many apparent differences), as may the technologies involved (consider the shift from analog to digital formats in both film and television), but the label holds because the modes of creation, consumption, and distribution remain relatively stable.

But despite distribution's centrality to the definition of podcasting, rhetoric and writing scholars interested in audio have, in research and the classroom, generally emphasized compositional norms, genres (Bowie, 2012a), and processes that precede distribution. That's not to criticize those who have approached audio scholarship and assignments from such angles. After all, the podcast isn't the only form of audio that's taken hold in rhetoric and writing scholarship and classrooms in recent years. For example, Cynthia L. Selfe's (2009) landmark article "The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing" mentioned podcasts alongside "mashups, voicemail compositions and sound poems, radio essays, audio documentaries and interviews, [and] audio ethnographies" (p. 640; see also Ceraso, 2014, p. 113). Many of those assignments (e.g., sound poems and radio essays) are in fact defined by genre features at least as much as modes of distribution. However, if we want to include podcasts among the aural "composing modalities" we bring into the classroom (Selfe, 2009, p. 641), we need to be prepared to address matters of distribution at least as much as matters of genre and "compositional mode[s]" (p. 617).

Fortunately, circulation and distribution are not new concepts for rhetoric and writing scholars (Rice, 2005/2018; Edwards, 2017; Gries, 2015). In the following section, I put scholarship in these areas in conversation with podcasting and pedagogy. But despite the fact that podcasting is not ultimately a genre, its development and historical precedents, as well as the entities that have influenced and seized upon it, have led to the emergence of particular genres that, while not in any way essential to what podcasting is, dominate both consumers' and producers' genre-based conceptions of what podcasts should sound like. For the sake of comparison, consider print newspapers. Regular readers of U.S. newspapers expect certain genres (e.g., news articles, editorials, crossword puzzles) and not others (e.g., image-driven listicles, fairy tales, business memos). That's not to say a newspaper couldn't include unexpected genres. However, doing so would stretch if not violate most readers' sense of what newspapers can and should be. In the case of podcasts, I advocate such stretching. However, I acknowledge that this relatively new medium is already settling into certain genres and that awareness of such genres can be helpful for those new to podcasting.

Because of that, before moving on I will offer a tentative taxonomy of four genres that prevail in the current podcasting landscape. Let me acknowledge that this taxonomy relies on a fairly traditional definition of genre. As Amy J. Devitt (2008) put it, "The conventional conception considers genre a classification system of texts based on shared formal characteristics" (p. 6). My taxonomy emphasizes the structural, formal features of various subsets of podcasts. It would be possible to construct other taxonomies that emphasized purpose or topic. A scholar well-versed in genre theory could develop a more nuanced schema based on Devitt's own conception of genre: "a reciprocal dynamic within which individuals' actions construct and are constructed by recurring context of situation, context of culture, and context of genres" (p. 31). However, because I argue that genre is a secondary concern in the case of podcasts, I stick to a more traditional conception for the sake of speed and simplicity. My taxonomy is indebted to a similar one offered in the fifth episode of Jennifer L. Bowie's (2012a) "Podcasting in a Writing Class." The following genres are not purely discrete; they exist on a sort of spectrum rather than in isolated containers.