Screw you, Leo, I’m back up to speed with my podcasts!

December 23, 2009

Vista busy cursor This is the second post on the spin that I find myself having a pop at Leo Laporte.  It’s in no way personal.  I admire Leo greatly and enjoy listening to most of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) podcasts.

But I do have a genuine gripe, and it has to do with his blocking of the PodShifter web application when used with TWiT podcasts.  [Author’s note added 24/12/09: since posting this an innocent explanation has come to light – see the comments to this post including response from Leo] Podshifter is a tool that speeds up podcasts, to help podcast listeners get through more of them in the available listening time. Podshifter changes the tempo of the audio while preserving pitch, so that Leo and his co-hosts don’t end up sounding like something from Alvin & the Chipmunks.

It is very use to use. If you have already subscribed to the original podcast in iTunes, you right-click to copy the podcast URL then paste it into the box on the podshifter.com home page.  Next choose a target tempo;  I usually opt for 1.2x or 1.4x the speed of the original.  Click the “shift it” button and the tempo-adjusted podcast is created with a new URL which is displayed for adding to your preferred podcatching software.  Or you can just click the link to have it added automatically to iTunes.

Note that you can’t in general download each new podshifted episode straight away, because it takes a while for PodShifter’s servers to carry out the audio processing from the time that the original episode is first published.  No doubt some heavyweight Digital Signal Processing is required, probably involving Fourier Transforms.

Ironically, I first heard of Podshifter on a TWiT podcast, the Daily Giz Wiz.  Co-host Dick DeBartolo read out a listener’s letter which mentioned it.  I recall Dick and Leo having a good laugh about it, deliberately speaking very fast or very slowly, in a  mock effort to trick anyone listening to a podshifted version.  But Leo also immediately spotted the threat posed by PodShifter. Downloads of podshifted podcasts would not count towards the iTunes official TWiT podcast download numbers which drive Leo’s advertising revenue.  Ouch!

I saw that as Leo’s problem.  For my part, I valued the saving in time.  I have a lot of podcasts on my subscription list, many of them from the TWiT network, and only so much time in which to enjoy them.  Even after reluctant pruning of the least essential listening, I was still struggling to fit my podcasts and audible books in, and my audible.com credits were starting to mount up.  PodShifter made a big difference. Even  just sticking to 1.2x freed up 20% listening time and some podcasts are perfectly listenable at 1.4x.

It is surprising how well the human ear tolerates the speeding up effect. I guess we can listen to and absorb the spoken voice at much higher speeds than people normally speak.  We can’t ask Leo and friends to speak (and think) faster but we can keep up quite comfortably when a machine does the speeding up for them.  I tend not to go beyond 1.4x because it starts to become less comfortable and I don’t want my podcast listening to become hard work.  Some podcasts really can’t be sped up much because of the gabbling co-hosts. You can listen to Leo quite effortlessly at 2x or more thanks to his polished radio voice, but Gina Trapani on This Week in Google naturally speaks like a machine gun out of control and 1.2x is the absolute limit for TWiG.

The Podshift Party had been doing the business for me for a number of weeks when Leo decided to step in and spoil the fun. I guess he felt he had to try to limit the erosion of his official download numbers.   It looks like TWiT has done a behind the scenes deal with iTunes so that URLs pointing at shifted versions of TWiT podcasts get replaced automatically by the official unshifted podcast streams.  No warning.  It just happened.   I had copied the latest batch of podcasts to my phone one morning and started to listen on my car journey to work. The theme tunes were playing at the right speed.  Very odd. And the voices sounded plodding.  Back at home I checked iTunes and discovered the URL substitution.  I tried creating new podshifted streams.  In all cases shifted TWiT podcasts were replaced by the URL for the original unshifted stream. Other podcasts were not affected.

Happily I found a work-around, using a desktop podcatcher application called HappyFish. It accepts PodShifter URLs for TWiT podcasts without substituting for the originals.  I am back up to speed.

Now I understand Leo’s concern about PodShifter but I think he’s wrong on a couple of counts.  The first is that he is guilty of the same “put the genie back in the bottle” thinking that he berates “Old Media” for, and Rupert Murdoch in particular.  You can’t fight innovation with protectionism.  Blocking PodShifter on iTunes is an example of Murdoch Mentality and it doesn’t work.  He would have done better to work with both PodShifter and his advertisers to get the Podshifter TWiT stats counting towards the advertising totals.

The second point relates to a comment Leo made in the most recent episode of TWiG.  He suggested podcast consumption numbers had stopped rising because with the proliferation of podcasts people couldn’t easily find new ones they’d like to listen to.  Too much out there to find the right podcast for you.  He saw it as a search problem. I disagree.  From the perspective of a dedicated podcast listener I can tell Leo that I get plenty of “leads” for interesting new podcasts just from listening to the existing ones.  That’s not the problem.  It’s just that I’m maxed out on available listening time.  You can only spend so much time driving to work, walking the dog or at the gym.  After establishing a list of favourite podcast subscriptions you tend to stick to it.  I don’t try out any more new podcasts, however tempting, because I struggle to find time for the ones I already subscribe to.

The irony is that PodShifter is actually a potential solution to that problem.  An opportunity to achieve an expansion in the size of the podcast market.  So listen up, Leo.  Don’t try to kill PodShifter.  You’d do better to give them a helping hand.  They could be your best bet for getting your business growing again.

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  3. Um, hello.

    A few little elements. Leo doesn’t seem to be blocking any applications, and when called out (in an inappropriately forum), Leo’s response wasn’t to get all snippy, but suggest where the technical glitch might be explored.

    I heard the program where Leo and company discussed podcast users leveling off throughout the industry, but you shouldn’t extrapolate that to some idea that the TWiT network has stopped growing. Quite the contrary, TWiT is growing just about as fast as they can hire staff to keep turning out the programming. The number of shows is expanding rapidly and the datastream leaving the TWiT Cottage just keeps growing and growing.

    You may have been tuning into TWiT programs for some time, but perhaps you’ve not been listening very closely. Leo is all about producing programming and getting it to the audience in the way that serves the audience best. Everything else, including sponsors and metrics, comes second to consideration for the audience.

    To that end, Leo has piped out twit.am, has graciously given permission to ODTV.me to record and redistribute all his video streams. He pipes out everything he can in every medium he can, though the sponsors only give him consideration for the audio podcasts.

    Leo’s a class act. That’s one of the reasons TWiT is growing so fast they have to keep it reined in to keep it manageable.

    If you had approached him with a bit of class and inquired about technical issues, I’m betting Dane or Colleen or one of the TWiT Army would have done their best to point you in the right direction. Hell, they still might, despite this unwarranted nastiness about his character. But if he does, it’s because he’s got more class than me.

    • Thanks, Ross, for taking the time to respond at length, and in such restrained terms given that you feel Leo is under attack from me.

      Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m a fan of Leo too. I possibly hold him in as high regard as you do. I made my admiration for him clear right at the top of my post. I am grateful to Leo and the other TWiTs for a large proportion of my spoken word entertainment and for keeping me up to date on technology and other topics.

      If I gave the impression I was picking faults in his character then I humbly apologise. That was not my intention.

      Maybe the deliberate colourful use of language might have misled you. The “Screw you, Leo” was intended to be a comic reference to Leo’s famous exchange with Mike Arrington which, by virtue of coming over as so extremely out of character, speaks volumes for Leo’s unflappable good nature. And when I talk of “having a pop” at Leo it was intended in the same spirit as Leo’s challenge to David Pogue about being conflicted due to his relationship with Apple. Leo was fair and gave Pogue airtime to defend himself. Leo was just “stirring the pot” a bit, in a mildly mischievous and entirely non-malicious way, and that’s what I’m doing with this post.

      If anything I am not even going as far as Leo did with Pogue. I am not suggesting any questionable intent at all, just the possibility that Leo may have got it wrong, guilty of no more than an error of judgement.

      When it comes to Leo’s views, I can only go by the clues I pick up from the TWiT shows. He did seem concerned about a possible threat from PodShifter. He did seem to be bemoaning a tail-off in growth of the podcast market. I happen to disagree with his suggested explanation based on my own experiences. The personal listening time saturation argument makes intuitive sense to me but that’s just my opinion.

      And I never considered the possibility that the apparent “blocking of Podshifter” might be down to a technical glitch. It did not seem likely that a technical fault could explain how I could give iTunes an RSS feed and have iTunes automatically replace it with a different one that happened to correspond to the unshifted equivalent from a different source, and have this happen with all TWiT shows and no others, and not at all with other podcatchers. If I am wrong then I would welcome being pointed at whichever discussion you came across that identified a technical glitch as the culprit.

      • OK, I’ve found it.

        It looks like Leo and Lina Calabria of PodShifter have been thrashing this out on twitter. See here. It seems Lina picked up on one of my tweets referring to this post.

        Leo, should you ever happen to read this I apologise unreservedly.

        But then if by posting about the problem I contributed in some way to getting it resolved then at least something positive came out of it.

  4. Actually I didn’t block podshifter or anything like it. Looks like what happened is that we started using a feature of iTunes (but not any other RSS aggregators or podcatchers) to redirect people to the official URL when they subscribe using a non-standard URL.

    Our chief concern was that people using, for example, http://leoville.tv/podcasts/twit.xml might get lost if we move the xml file. The official feed http://leo.am/podcasts/twit is guaranteed to always work. So if folks subscribe to the former, iTunes corrects it to the latter. We also use this to re-direct people subscribing to deprecated feeds (like the TWiT AAC version) to the current feed (the MP3 version).

    Sorry if this breaks podshifter – but this is an iTunes only issue – it won’t happen with any other podcatcher.

    • Leo, thanks for that lucid explanation and I’m delighted (not to mention relieved) you did not take offence.

      Your TWiT network gives an enormous amount of pleasure to so many people, myself included, and I wish you every success.

      My best wishes to you, your family and all the TWiTs for a great XMAS and Happy New Year.

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