Using podcasts as research data

A podcast is a collection of digital media files (mostly audio files, but some may contain images or other type of media) that is distributed over the internet for playback on portable media players, cell phones, and personal computers. The term “podcast” (so much better than audioblogging!) was inspired by the Apple’s IPod and is formed by the combination of the acronym POD (which stands for “portable on demand”) and the term “broadcast”. Podcasts differ from other audio files available at the internet in that users can subscribe to them. Subscribers have new content automatically downloaded to their personal computers or Mp3 players as soon as it is released.
There are many websites dedicated exclusively to podcasts and their themes can range from education to yoga going through news, comedy, food, music, sports and sexuality. Many of them are professionally developed. The Apple online store alone offers more than 150,000 different podcast episodes produced by big media names like HBO, ESPN, CBS Sports, and The New York Times, but also by independent creators. Any person with some ability to make use of software can manipulate the technology needed to produce and broadcast audio files. Audio-recording devices are user-friendly and tools for editing audio files can be found at the internet for free or at low cost.
Because podcasts may combine audio, images and text in a single file, many events can be transmitted in this format. Television and radio programs, lectures, concerts, language courses, sport matches are a few examples of events that have been recorded and broadcasted as podcasts. Podcasting is evolving quickly and new features for categorizing, navigating, and indexing podcasts are already offered to users.

Podcasts can prove to be a rich source of data on researching consumer related topics. The exploration of this new format of computer-mediated communication and interaction can be achieved through netnography, as endorsed by Kozinets’ reflection on the adaptation of the method to the ever-changing nature of digital environments: “Anywhere there is online consumer activity and interaction, there are interesting sources of data for consumer and marketing researchers and the potential for netnography to reveal insights about online communal consumer culture, practices, and meanings.”
Netnography may suit better to the investigation of podcasts that are based on a website or webpage. A host webpage usually offers extra channels of interaction (such as forums and comment features) between the podcast producer and its listeners and also increases the amount of online activity around the podcast’ theme. The podcast host pages can be weblogs, commercial hosting services (like Podcast Alley) or, for professionally produced podcasts, corporate or personal websites.
One of the advantages of applying the method to podcasts is that the researcher can receive automatic updates on the field whenever new content is available. Because podcast files can be easily stored, accessed, moved and manipulated, the researcher can work with the data in its original format (i.e. audio, image) without incurring on the potential loss of contextual information that may happen when non-textual interactional data is transformed into text.
However, participant observation is not easy to define or manage in this research setting. There are no clear guidelines to define what participant observation accounts for when the research field is a website comprising alternative communication channels such as podcasts, forums, and a blog-style comments section. From previous studies on other computer-mediated environments we know that people may assume several levels of involvement with an online community, blog, or website. Involvement and participation in new online environments vary largely. For instance, one can merely listen to podcasts, while others will actually create a website of their own, link it to others and actively promote conversation at the web.
In my next post, I'll tour the geocaching podcasts and discuss them as an example of research data.