While listening to the first episode of a new podcast by a pair of my favorite bloggers Jeff Atwood (of Coding Horror fame) and Joel Spolsky (from JoelOnSoftware.com), I heard a discussion about their new developer community site Stack Overflow and its associated podcast. They described the site, but also gave reasons for doing a podcast. This got me to thinking more about why I like listening to podcasts so much and which ones and what types of shows I have gravitated towards listening to since I started listening to them a few years ago.
First, a disclaimer: If you don't like the idea of podcasts/audio books, that's perfectly fine. Some people tend to have an aversion to them and prefer the printed word. That's fine, and you're probably better off for it. Reading's better for you brain anyway, and you can consume information faster by reading than listening to it anyway, or something like that... So, you can just stop reading now and come back in another 2 months when I write my next post.
Still with me? Here's another disclaimer: I am now sure that I have a weird, geeky, anti-social, possibly unhealthy podcast habit. I can't stop listening to them, all the time. I practically always have my iPhone's earbuds in: at work basically all day (I work on a project by myself and communicate mainly with my client through email), while I'm at the gym, driving by myself (or, if my passengers are particularly uninteresting), while I'm at home doing chores, basically most of the time. I'm writing this listening to a podcast (Armin Van Buuren's State of Trance music podcast). As such, what I'm writing is coming from this perspective of podcastaholism. As soon as it's possible to get decent earphone implants, I'm in. You need the right equipment to make this practical and seamless (read - an all in one pda/phone/media player). I'm still loving the iPhone, and it look like there are plenty of these devices popping up and it's the way things are going. It's truly a geek orgasmic experience to be jogging while listening to a podcast, get a phone call from the Red Cross about setting up a donation, have the audio gently transition from iPod mode to phone mode (as the iPhone so slickly does), make the appointment, then be gently transitioned back to the audio program without skipping a beat.
Enough disclaimers. Here's a few reasons why I love audio programs:
Above all, you can listen to a podcast and still use your eyes. This means you can listen while commuting, while exercising, while working even. For my adult ADHD self, this always multi-tasking behavior is well suited.
I don't get angry in traffic (really, never). In fact, if there's an accident and I'm forced to stand in line an extra 20 or 30 minutes, I'm actually a bit glad for these, what Dale Carnegie called, "gifts of time" and I'm able to listen to more material.
Podcasts make exercising fun. I love exercising now, both because of the runner's high thing, and because I get to listen to a (usually) stimulating audio program while I'm at it.
When I can pair doing chores with listening, it makes them enjoyable. There's nothing like ironing clothes while learning about Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras.
People speak or converse differently than they write. While with good writing you can express a complex thought maybe more elegantly and definitely more concisely than with speech, listening to someone explain something or a group talk about something of interest gives you a better feeling for their personalities and tends to bring out more dynamic, improvised, and somewhat cruder thoughts (like everyday conversation). This can go either way. While there are many delightful, entertaining, and intelligent speakers, I've been unpleasantly surprised several times by how people (John Dvorak, Joel Spolsky, Paul Thurrott come to mind) can be fairly competent writers but stumbled through hours of bad jokes and off topic side conversation that forces me to skip to the next show in my queue.
I'm able to get a very candid and personal impression of various personalities or micro-celebrities. I'm a motorcycle racing fan, and it's very entertaining to hear a mechanic and blogger on one of Ducati's teams speak about his experiences traveling around the globe on the excellent MotoGPod podcast.
I can also hear from professionals closer to my field, such as on the This Week in Django podcast. To hear insightful talk from core Python developers data access and internationalization problems is fascinating. As a developer dealing with bugs everyday, it's particularly fun and a little comforting to hear from prominent developers on a major project deal with nuanced issues and committing fixes to a public source control repository (they discuss specific changesets even!).
I think it can be a good educational tool (if used correctly). Most notably for me, I think it's helped me as I try to learn Russian. It seems important to be exposed to a lot of spoken language if you're trying to learn another tongue to get a halfway-decent pronunciation, and I it has helped me listening and repeating the Pimsleur Russian courses and various podcasts aimed at those learning Russian (although Jamila and my Russian-speaking friends might disagree :).
There are disadvantages I've found. It's anti-social to walk around other people (especially co-workers or your girlfriend) with earbuds in for a very long time while tuning them out. I've had to learn how to politely take the earbuds out and pretend like I'm listening. I still can't decide if it's dangerous to drive with earphones, but this is probably fine judging by how many crazy drivers I see without earphones in or listening to loud crappy music blaring as they barrel down the interstate. Also, I have to be careful of what material I listen to when. It's possible to listen to a dance podcast or two while programming, but if there's a show that is particularly technical or detail oriented, I'd better save that for a jog sometime.
I'm posted a list of the podcasts I listen to here. It's really a .opml (podcast subscription file) but named "podcasts.txt" (because I couldn't get my web server to serve it correctly), so you can rename it as .opml to use with iTunes, etc or just browse through it in plain text if that's not your interest.