The Plague Lit Pod: Reflections on New Radio, Learning in Lockdown, and Global Pandemic

by Mike Collins

Mike Collins recently developed, recorded, edited, and hosted a three-part podcast series called the Plague Lit Pod, with contributions from Dr. Jon Day, Dr. Kelina Gotman, and Dr. Emrys Jones on the subject of the relationship between literature and pandemics. The podcast is available through Spotify. Here, he reflects on the history of podcasting, his personal experience of the form, and how he intends to use it in future in research and teaching. Dr. Collins has previously published online on fiction podcasting at Alluvium and in collaboration with Danielle Barrios-O’Neill (Falmouth) for the journal Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural 

For a long time, I have been an avid listener of podcasts. If you will permit me a little misty-eyed nostalgia under lockdown, I was a fan of the form a while before the term “podcast” was coined. I know I sound like an aging millennial hipster for saying that. I guess that isn’t far from the truth. Don’t judge me. The story of podcasting is partly the story of a significant element of my life. Radio and sound recording is very important to me, personally. My first piece of paid work was as a voiceover artist for English-language tapes in The Netherlands in the mid-90s. As an English boy raised abroad, sound recording was how I connected with my native tongue, with home. I feel extremely happy in a sound studio. So, I remember the moment “podcast” appeared as a word. Audio scholars trace the term back to an article by the Guardian journalist Ben Hammersley in 2004 who, in what has become one of new media’s most retold anecdotes, made up the term to pad out an article that was too short for publication. Hammersley was reflecting on how it wasn’t just music that was going digital in those days (something that was seen as a great threat by many), but that online there was an emerging new body of cult, radio-like digital audio recordings that did not yet have a proper name. Prior to around 2001, these audio recordings (fannish, invariably pretty niche) were shared between individuals over email or hosted on sites for streaming directly. They were not portable and they were hard to find.

The innovation that changed all that came with the launch of a new version of the RSS feed technology, developed by the tech firm Netscape, that could support audio files, in and around the year 2000. RSS (standing colloquially for Really Simple Syndication) worked by automatically sending files to your browser that could be downloaded and distributed. RSS version 0.92 (the first to support audio) came in the year 2000, before 2.0 followed in 2002. It is not a stretch to say that RSS 2.0 effectively confirmed MP3 file compression as the dominant file format for legal music and sound distribution online. MP3s had first started to be used in the mid-90s for the file sharing of music, achieving something like standardization in 1997 with launch of Nullsoft’s WinAmp player. Then there was Napster and the rise of illegal peer-to-peer file sharing that relied on MP3 compression. But all of that was very grey market territory and got a lot of people in a lot of trouble. RSS felt different, because it drove a production of content that unlike studio music was designed to be freely distributed – rather than pirated.

At that same moment (following the controversy over Napster and file sharing in the late 90s) there was a significant shift in the landscape of intellectual property and licensing – including early moves for Open Access to academic and research work (beginning with The Budapest Open Access Initiative and the thing called the Bethesda Statement in 2002), Open Content for film and data, and other means by which it became legal and possible to freely share audio content. I’ve been interested in this from an early age, too, and am currently a trustee of the Open Library of Humanities, which uses Creative Commons licenses for its content as a means to permit the free distribution of academic articles. Podcasts produced now are often distributed using these legal Creative Commons licenses. I think I came to Open Access through radio and the rise of the podcast. My personal and academic engagements with file sharing run, as you will now know, pretty deep.

It doesn’t maybe seem like much, and I know when I talk about these things there is a tendency for people (especially literature/book people actually!) to glaze over, but RSS with audio support was an incredible development. It is worth bearing in mind that in 2004, when Hammersley drafted his article and coined his new term, Google was only just becoming the supreme search technology online. Facebook wasn’t big yet. We had sites we trusted and went to online for information, but you often had to know what you were looking for. Rarely did anyone just come across things in the way we do now. So, when RSS feeds popped up on your browser and permitted you to automatically download files from trusted media providers anywhere in the world the moment they launched it was kind of incredible. You weren’t required to go to one site and sit with that tab open to hear streaming media. Neither were you required to do anything illegal or dubious.

But still, so far, so hacker, so …ummm… 90s. The big shift came with a move in technology. With the launch of the iPod in 2001, with other affordable digital media players to follow (actually some predating it significantly), almost by surprise a new radio form appeared. Unlike other media technologies which were definitely driven by the top-down agendas of silicon valley – podcasting did have a legitimate claim initially to being seen as an alternative media form. A least for about a year, which was long time in the wild west of the new millennium’s digital landscape. Hammersley coined the new term “podcast” for this new genre born in the perfect storm of RSS audio support and portable media players: “Broadcast” + “iPod”¬= “podcast”. See? Brilliant. Of course, the end of conventional radio, the BBC, civilization itself was deemed by its critics to be the imminent and inevitable result of this disruptive new media. Ever with an eye to the main chance, and happy to leap on the bandwagon of civilizational destruction, Apple launched iTunes 4.9 a year after Hammersley’s article (an update that included a digital audio “aggregator” of its own and content search function that permitted any listed digital audio recording on any topic to be findable and instantly downloadable to the iPod). What a coup for Apple marketing that the thing some of us so loved and had nurtured from its birth was associated after Hammersley’s article in the common parlance, perhaps forever, with their flagship technology.

In retrospect, I see these were the birth throes of web 2.0 and social media (something I have never and will never love). But it wasn’t video-based. This was new radio. For an audiophile like me it was just incredible. I wonder, speculatively, about a world without Facebook or Twitter in which sound (not video or image) had been the primary route we took into the future. Where we would be now? Voice favoured over the visual online. The sound of human speech and human breathe. Interesting questions begin to emerge about politics, rhetoric, selfhood, celebrity. I might look at that more as a research question at some point. In about 2004 I could wonder about an audio-focused future with real sincerity.

I love radio as a medium. There is nothing comparable in the media landscape to the feeling of intimacy and immediacy one gets from the human voice speaking to you in a way that feels more direct and somehow too more unguarded. Moreover, it is possible, so King’s College media support tell me, to listen to far larger amounts of audio content and process it thoroughly in one sitting, than it is to process video lectures. Through headphones, in your own private “bubble” of sound, this experience is often beautiful and exhilarating. Sound is just closer somehow. At this moment when we are all working largely from home, we are living in designated “bubbles” of a different kind, far away from one another. It was for this reason that I began to think about ways of alleviating the strain of being isolated away from my work colleagues and research culture. So the Plague Lit Pod was born. It is not a surprise to me that I turned to the form I have always loved best, perhaps my natal medium, radio, as a salve for me in these dark and oppressive times. This was pragmatic too, because as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic we were being asked to think of new ways of doing teaching online (until January only!). Podcasting permits remote collective working between different people perhaps better than any other medium except writing. It is easy to record an audio file. You can do it anywhere. You don’t need to curate a space or prepare visuals. For the Plague Lit Pod I used a piece of free software – yes free software; the dream of the 90s is still alive – called Audacity. Through Audacity you can import multiple sound files recorded asynchronously and edit them together, then export the full content as a .wav or MP3, so it is portable. It also has useful features for cutting and repositioning audio in the sequence, a range of tools to add atmospheric effects, to alter levels, crossfade, overdub music etc. It is easier to listen to a podcast while you are trying to do your time-consuming shopping in a socially distanced way than it is to watch a video. Safer too I expect than risking life, limb, and disease walking into cars, walls or other people with your vision focused on a video.

So, the Plague Lit Pod was at once an experiment in building and maintaining the society of the university in the face of lockdown measures, and a means for direct and effective educational content to be delivered. Yet, as I have suggested, sound is also a source of comfort to me. There is a tremendous relief during isolation in hearing your colleagues and friend’s voices with high quality audio (not that horrible crackly Skype sound) – knowing they exist “out there” in the world and can speak to you directly – and editing them together so they can work in consort to present a topic of interest to your listeners. So much of who a person is is communicated by their timbre and form of expression, which you can only pick up if you listen closely to voice; something podcasting makes you do by necessity. Other forms push the visuals hard in a way I always worry makes the speaker somehow secondary to the content. Not to question video’s use in research and teaching. Everything needs to be on the table these days.

As I think of it now I am intrigued by the fact that the story of podcasting is itself a story of cataclysmic social change through which I have lived, and the topic I chose for my first foray into it was pandemics – incorporating discussions of new forms of media. We have an episode with Dr. Emrys Jones on Journal of a Plague year, one of the first novels. I discuss how Covid-19 has produced strange new terms, with Dr. Jon Day in episode 1. Questions of distribution and the flow of ideas are central to Dr. Kelina Gotman’s argument in episode 2 – as indeed they are to history of podcasting. Each of these episodes is designed to explore different ways of doing podcast content: interviews, lectures, and a hybrid form that recaps content as well as presenting new material.

I think these last few months have forced us all to change in ways that we didn’t expect initially. Covid-19 is, whether we like it or not, an epoch-defining moment. For me, I really think it might cause a shift in the way I think about my teaching and research. I don’t believe that that shift need result in something less intimate, connected, and rich. But I don’t see that richness and intimacy being maintained through video alone though. I think in this crisis we must work to keep the sound alive. To think with our ears, and pay attention to other voices – not in the abstract, but the literal sense.

You can listen to the Plague Lit Podcast series on Spotify.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

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