Preserve This Podcast!

A new grant-funded project will help podcasters make sure their work doesn’t disappear.

Podcasts are all the rage these days, but there’s an unspoken problem brewing. A lot of people are making podcasts. But they’re not doing much to preserve them for the future.

Illustration by Mary Kidd

We are at a turning point in the podcast media landscape. Forty-two million Americans, or 15% of the population, listen to podcasts weekly. The Apple podcasts platform alone provides access to over 400,000 shows in over 100 languages. Podcasts’ ease and accessibility has given voice to diverse groups who’ve historically lacked a place in mass media or history books.

As both a popular mass medium and a platform for underrepresented voices, podcasts have cultural significance and scholarly value. But will they endure? Most cultural heritage institutions don’t collect podcasts. Most podcast producers, especially independent producers, aren’t familiar with preservation strategies.

Ten or twenty years from now, will podcasts that we listen to today be lost to the world?

The Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) has received $142,000 in grant funding from the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help independent podcasters protect their work against the threats of digital decay. The grant, titled “Preserve this Podcast: A Podcast Tutorial and Outreach Project,” will fund an education and awareness campaign to promote affordable, easy-to-implement archival techniques for digital audio preservation.

The campaign will take the format our target audience knows best: a podcast.

The grant will fund the production of a podcast series about how to preserve podcasts. (Yes, it’s meta. We know.) It will document the podcast preservation process in real-time. We will hear from leaders in the digital audio field, many of whom were instrumental in the development of the podcasting medium. An accompanying illustrated zine/workbook will guide listeners in building a preservation plan they can start immediately. Finally, a series of traveling workshops at conferences across the country will engage both the podcast and archival communities, and build important bridges between the two.

Our ultimate goal? Help podcasters bake preservation habits into production. We want them submitting files to the Internet Archive like they’d buckle a seatbelt when they get in a car.

Right now the preservation process isn’t so familiar to most podcasters. Allison Behringer is an independent producer who has a successful podcast under her belt (The Intern) and is currently working on a new podcast called Bodies.

“I’ll admit that I had never thought about podcast preservation,” she says. “There’s plenty of discussion in the podcasting community on how to start one and how to make a good one, but little talk of how to make a podcast that will survive the inevitable end of the RSS. As an independent producer, there are so many aspects of production to manage. We’re thinking about how we’re going to get listeners next month, not in the next century.”

We’ve seen how preservation issues have plagued other mass-produced digital consumer formats (CD-Rs, anyone?). These same issues will affect podcasts. If they don’t already, they will soon.

What makes podcasts a unique format to preserve?

Podcasts are compressed digital audio files that are released on the internet and podcast applications via RSS feeds. The first podcast was posted in 2003 as part of a still-running blog called Radio Open Source. Since then, the open podcast ecosystem, the proliferation of handheld listening devices, and the maturation of the creative medium has led to a marked increase in podcast production and listening.

The explosive growth of the podcast industry has led some to hail these years — from the launch of the popular podcast Serial to the present — as the “golden age” of podcasting. But the rapid growth of this medium also presents challenges to its preservation. As a nascent, distributed, born-digital mass medium, podcasts face specific risks: format obsolescence, link rot, the complexity of managing digital assets, the expense of storing multiple copies of lossless audio files, and the dangers of relying on costly third-party hosting platforms.

This project will dive into the weeds of how podcasts are created and distributed, from both a technical and historical viewpoint. In doing so, we hope to capture a historical moment in our shifting media landscape. And reshape media practices going forward, so that they incorporate preservation as a fundamental production step. By diving into the history of podcasts, we’ll be highlighting the problem hiding in plain view — that not enough is being done to preserve them for the future.

That Meta Podcast

In the fast-paced world of digital production, producers, who are understandably time-strapped, often have little time to stop and learn Preservation 101. The podcast series produced as a result of this grant will use the creative medium of the podcast to equip producers with the knowledge and tools that they need to save their born-digital audio files. The series will tap into those elements that make memorable podcasts so good in the first place — documentary-style storytelling, behind-the-scenes interviews, maybe even a cliffhanger or two — that can be listened to anytime, anywhere. In fact, we are confident that this will prove podcasts are not only helpful for teaching preservation to podcasters, but that the podcast in general is a good medium for teaching preservation to anyone.

The Team

This project was conceived of by three professional archivists/audiophiles who listen to a lot of podcasts. Mary Kidd and I are based in NYC at the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) respectively, while Dana Gerber-Margie is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We started connecting in 2016 at conferences and workshops, where we bonded over our love for audio, particularly the niche topics and diverse viewpoints that can be found in independently-produced podcasts. But, as archivists, we also saw that these types of podcasts, with no institution behind them to help archive their files, are in imminent danger of disappearing.

Mary Kidd works as the Systems and Operations Coordinator at New York Public Library (NYPL) and previously has worked in digital audio preservation at New York Public Radio (NYPR). She also volunteers in her free time for the XFR Collective, an all-volunteer group non-profit organization that transfers at-risk audio/visualAV media off of magnetic tapes for individuals and groups with limited means. She has worked in the weeds of audio preservation and knows that a lot could be gained from spreading knowledge about the nature of born-digital audio files and how they get shared via RSS feed. In general, she enjoys working on projects that make archives, and the technology that supports it, accessible, approachable and fun:

“As a professional archivist, I have become increasingly interested in the role of the so-called ‘accidental archivist’, a concept that describes those who care for a collection outside of their day jobs, often without compensation for their time and effort. The biggest issue an accidental archivist faces is whether or not their efforts can stand the test of time. This is especially worrisome in light of the fact that podcast production is entirely digital. Digital files surf the unruly tides of technological shifts, and often succumb to obsolescence. Today’s podcast platforms may become tomorrow’s Kazaa (extra points to anyone who remembers that application). This is why this grant project is so important: it raises awareness over digital preservation issues affecting creative people, and provides a roadmap with adaptable solutions.”

I woke up to the difficulties of being an independent producer when I started making a podcast about libraries. I benefited from New York City’s dense network of producers when I was trying to learn the basics, and I saw how quickly information can spread through communities of podcast freelancers. But it’s these same communities whose work is most at risk. It’s stressful to think that, even though the first podcast was posted in 2003, which isn’t long ago, some podcasts are already getting lost. Podcasters aren’t saving backups of their digital files, and archivists haven’t really started paying attention to this medium yet. So we decided it was time to do something about it and go about archival outreach in a slightly different way.

Dana is a podcast “super listener.” She subscribes to over 1100 podcasts, from the network hits to indies. She listens to a lot of them, too. Her favorite episodes make it into the influential “Outstanding Audio” lists that she compiles as a Co-founder and Editor of the Bello Collective, a podcast newsletter and review publication. Now an information professional at the IT Help Desk, in the past Dana worked as an A/V Archivist in Wisconsin. She first presented on podcasts at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2013 and even tried her hand at making podcasts for a bit (it didn’t last). She is excited that this project gives her a chance to combine audio and archiving again:

“I am thrilled that we are able to create this bridge between archivists and producers in the shared goal of better file management and ultimately preservation. We both have a lot to learn from each other, and we’re stronger together.”

All of the content created as part of the grant will be posted online under a CC-BY Creative Commons license. Grant work runs from February 1, 2018 through January 2020. You can follow the work on Twitter @preservethispodcast.

Note: Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie co-authored this announcement. I (Molly) edited this post on February 16th to change the parts about myself from the third to the first person. I hadn’t anticipated publishing this from my Medium account and I realized, belatedly, how awkward it was to talk about myself as “Molly Schwartz.”