Why You Need to Catch this Moment
Almost every medium, from fine-art to mass media, has a moment — that point in time when a form of expression not only affords artists (and others) the ability to express ideas, tell stories or advocate for change, but also seems to expand beyond what was expected to affect the culture in a surprising and visceral way.
Here’s an example: More than 100 years ago, Jacob August Riis created a photography book, How the Other Half Lives, in which he documented the decrepit living conditions of the poor in New York City using flash photography. (Riis was one of the first to use this new invention.) This photography book, one of the most important of all time, was not only influential on artists and the art world, but also had a profound impact on the politics of the day and greatly affected Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, when Roosevelt became president, he said that Riis had done a great service in helping to counteract the evils of poverty that lurked in the slums of New York City.
In 2015, podcasts are having their own moment. They are those audio segments or series of recordings that are similar to radio but are made available on the Internet. In fact, there were two significant moments for podcasting in 2015: The first was a real-life murder mystery podcast called Serial, which generated huge mainstream interest and became the most popular podcast of all time. The second was the moment comedian Marc Maron had President Barack Obama appear on his WTF podcast. Both of these events cast a new light on podcasting, a sometimes-overlooked medium and platform that’s been around since the early 2000s.
For artists, podcasting is a communications platform that’s useful for promoting works of art, exploring ideas, and more. And because of advances in technology, podcasting hardware and software is more affordable and easier to use than ever.
“For artists, podcasting is a communications platform that’s useful for promoting works of art, exploring ideas, and more.” ~ Terry Sullivan
Why Artists Podcast
To find out why podcasting is experiencing a renaissance, and how this might affect artists, I chatted with technology editor and writer Brian Heater, who’s been podcasting for years (riyl.podbean.com). One of his brilliant podcasts, RiYL (Recommend if You Like), focuses on his conversations with creative types, including cartoonists, graphic illustrators and others. Over the years, Heater has interviewed such notable artists such as Roz Chast, Art Spiegelman, Ellen Forney, Jillian Tamaki and Scott McCloud.
There’s a Wild West mentality to the medium now, Heater said, that can be exciting, because there aren’t a lot of rules for this format yet. He likens it to the early days of zine publishing and blogging, which means you have an opportunity to make your mark. “If you have a microphone and some reasonable names behind you, you can talk your heroes into sitting down with you for an hour or so over a beer,” Heater said. “I really enjoy discussing the creative process with creative people — and fortunately some folks have enjoyed listening in.”
In this social media age, where the conventional wisdom is that shorter is better, podcasts stand out because they’re long, nothing like the snippet-like tweets you get on Twitter or the ethereal nature of Snapchat. Heater points out that the long-form nature of podcasts is very attractive for many artists. “It’s funny, visual artists love listening to long-form podcasts. If they’re sitting and working on a canvas or a comics page, it keeps them company.”
In many ways, well-done podcasts, such as Heater’s RiyL, mimic how many artists engage in conversations and critiques in art schools and workshops. “A long-form interview is like any conversation,” Heater said. “You start with the small talk, follow the thread and then things begin to take shape. Really amazing stuff starts to come out when the person is engaged and comfortable.”
For artists, the podcast platform can be ideal for countless artist-related types of discussions, from audio artist statements, in-depth how-tos, critiques, and even full-length lectures and roundtables. Additionally, since some podcast platforms may include visual aspects, you might consider slideshows to accompany your audio.
“Software continues to expand by including new features that make it incredibly easy to edit and enhance audio podcasts.” ~ Terry Sullivan
Challenges of Podcasting
Freedom is definitely an upside to this medium. One downside, though, is that because there’s so much freedom, you’re tasked with setting up the whole operation. “Podcasts are like any other creative pursuit in the Internet era. You have to do everything and every part,” which Heater admits can be draining. “I don’t particularly like the promotional aspect — having to sell yourself and your show week in, week out,” he said.
Another successful podcaster, artist Leslie Saeta, who runs and produces Artists Helping Artists (blogtalkradio.com/artistshelpingartists), said that the technical side of hosting a podcast can be challenging. “The BlogTalkRadio platform is very inexpensive and doesn’t require any sophisticated equipment to host a show. But that is often our biggest challenge as we strive to offer the best audio possible. Fortunately, a lot of our listeners enjoy the human element of our show. We have been on the air during an earthquake, power failure and an occasional dog barking in the other room. I hope it adds to the personal nature of our show.”
Getting started as a podcaster was easy, Saeta said, but “sustaining it for five-and-a-half years has taken a lot of work. One of the most difficult tasks has been coming up with the weekly show topics. We are fortunate that our listeners are very active. I receive emails daily with questions or suggestions for upcoming show topics. I can promise you the show would not have lasted this long had it not been for my monthly co-hosts and the listeners’ input.”
What’s Next for Podcasts
Just like most resurgent art forms that are experiencing a renaissance, podcasts embody many of traits of the analog medium it most closely resembles, in the same way photography first mimicked still-life painting when it emerged in the early- to mid-19th century. “When a format is emerging,” Heater said, “it carries over a lot of the characteristics from the one preceding it — in this case, radio. In fact, for the longest time (and this is still the case to some degree) the most popular podcasts were repurposed radio shows. I think bigger companies are starting to catch onto what independent publishers have known all along — podcasts are much better when they’re developed with the format in mind.” At the moment, one of the main ways podcasts differ from broadcast radio is that they aren’t pinned down to a time limit. But new elements are sure to emerge in the coming months and years.
Another important factor in the evolution of podcasting, one that’s sure to change the form of the medium, is, of course, technology. “The technical side of podcasting is always improving,” Saeta said. “And new podcasts are starting up every month.”
But how exactly is technology affecting podcasting? One example is audio hardware, such as high-quality microphones, headphones, mixing boards and other accessories. They’ve improved and come down dramatically in price in the past several years. For example, since 2005, more microphones, an essential part of podcasting, now include USB connections, which means you can directly record into a computer.
One such model is Blue Mirophone’s Yeti USB Microphone, which costs around $125 and is extremely versatile. It even has a headphones jack directly from the mic for instantly hearing the audio you’re recording. Headphones, which can help you accurately hear the audio for your podcasts, have also dropped in price in recent years. You’ll probably want to go with over-the-ear or earmuff-style headphones, which are often the most isolating types. That means sound won’t leak out of the headphones while you’re listening, say, to someone you’re interviewing on your podcast, and create additional noise.
“The real magic of podcasting — it really is an amalgam of old and new media.”
~ Terry Sullivan
But hardware isn’t the only area where there’s change. Software continues to expand by including new features that make it incredibly easy to edit and enhance audio podcasts. So, for instance, Cyberlink, which makes an audio-editing software program called AudioDirector 6, includes an automated dialogue alignment feature, which lets you quickly re-record audio created in a noisy environment. It then matches the original audio with the overdub and seamlessly blends the two, so that the new version sounds like it was created in the original setting, minus the noise.
But podcast apps are probably the greatest example of how the medium is evolving, becoming exponentially easier to use and allowing you to take advantage of the power, connectivity and versatility of mobile devices. For example, although it’s not designed specifically for creating podcasts, Apple’s Garageband app for iPhones and iPads is a free app that allows you to quickly create, edit and generate audio clips, and export them to a variety of hosting sites. Or, you could also download an app specifically designed for creating podcasts: Opinion is an iOS app that claims to let you record, edit and publish online for free, with quick integration with Twitter, Facebook, iTunes, and any listening app as well as an RSS feed. It also will share to SoundCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive and others.
Improvements in technology also allow for more mobile types of podcasts: Since laptops, mics, headphones and other accessories have become smaller, lighter and more versatile, it’s easier for artists to take their podcasts on the road, and create podcasts as they travel.
Yet technology is just part of the equation. The real magic of podcasting comes from the fact that it really is an amalgam of old and new media. Like most things on the Internet, podcasting has really captivated people because it has fused some of the very best elements of traditional radio with the ease of use, accessibility and improved quality of today’s multimedia technology.
It’s easy to find great podcasts online, which make them a potentially powerful tool for many artists. “A lot of people don’t realize most podcasts are archived,” Saeta said. “Just search the Internet for art-related podcasts, and I think you will be amazed at the information that is available. It’s also great that you can listen to the podcasts while you are creating your art.”
This is a complimentary copy of an article in the October/November 2015 issue. Click here to get the whole issue. Click here to subscribe to Professional Artist, the foremost business magazine for visual artists, for as low as $32 a year.
Terry Sullivan is the former editor of Professional Artist and the former technical editor at American Artist magazine. He’s currently an editor at Consumer Reports, where he covers digital cameras, camcorders, smart phones, printers, digital imaging and audio. He is also an artist and musician.