Limiting Access: Technical access in the Podcasting Bible

Sean Zdenek
Texas Tech University
Computers & Composition Online (Fall 2009)


  1. Introduction
  2. Limiting access in the Podcasting Bible
  3. A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 1, 2)
  4. Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 1, 2)
  5. References
  6. About the author

Accessibility is virtually invisible as a topic in mainstream podcasting discourse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Podcasting Bible (2007) by Steve Mack and Mitch Ratcliffe, a 570-page tome that by its sheer size and name alone should have something to say about designing audio and video podcasts for people with disabilities. Indeed, the Bible comes awfully close in a few key passages to considering the role that writing can play in making podcasts more accessible. But because the Bible is informed by a presumption of full hearing and seeing on both sides of the podcasting transaction, it continually stops short of working out the implications of its own “ease of use” argument (p. 397). A podcast that is easy to use and readily available is not one that is, strictly speaking, accessible to people with disabilities, because in the Bible Mack and Ratcliffe have already assumed that designers and users can hear audio and see video well enough not to require assistance in the form of transcripts, long text descriptions, or captions. As a result, the authors miss an opportunity to explore the importance of text alternatives for making audio and video podcasts easier to use for both deaf and non-deaf users. It is not that the authors explicitly refer to the irrelevance of text alternatives and other supplements such as captions. The Bible simply makes no reference to them – or to people with disabilities.

The Podcasting Bible reduces accessibility to availability. When Mack and Ratcliffe suggest that older podcast files should be readily available to users (rather than purged in the interest of saving money or freeing up disk space), they frame accessibility as a technical problem:

Podcasting’s history is evaporating as quickly as storage limits for hosting accounts fill up. We can’t tell you what [pioneering podcaster] Adam Curry said, because there’s no copy of the file accessible through any links exposed by Google and other search engines. Podcasters are often forced to purge their archives to keep their costs low, yet all these older programs make up the “long tail,” the vast catalog of content that can serve the incredibly diverse interests of listeners for many years, but only if the programs remain available. (p. 32, my emphasis)

Here and elsewhere, accessibility refers narrowly to the public availability of podcast files on a Web server, and not to the broader, user-centered notion of accommodating technology to people (see Dobrin, 2004). Availability is obviously a crucially important criterion when “history is evaporating.” Indeed, Mack and Ratcliffe write that the “most important idea to keep in mind as you begin to produce” podcast shows is that “Your shows need to be accessible for a long time in order to earn the most that you can from your efforts” (2007, p. 83). But availability, which is what they mean by “accessible for a long time,” is only one dimension of accessibility. For those potential users who can not hear, availability is meaningless when the file and/or accompanying documents do not adhere to Web accessibility guidelines that call, among other things, for text alternatives to multimedia content (e.g. see Guideline 1.2 of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 in WCAG Working Group 2007). Because access is treated as a binary – you either have access or you do not – Mack and Ratcliffe (2007, p. 393) inevitably consider the obverse of availability – i.e. content restriction – in a discussion of “[s]ubscriptions that limit access to your podcast.” In a section entitled “Controlling Access to Your Podcast” (p. 397), they discuss the importance of limiting access to subscribers and providing users with the convenience to “get your podcast.” But by defining access as either available or restricted, the Bible fails to consider the broader issue of accommodating technology to people with disabilities.

At the same time, the Bible seems on the verge of including a definitive discussion of this broader notion of accessibility as accommodation. When Mack and Ratcliffe discuss enhanced podcasts, metadata, and RSS tags, they open the door to the role that written texts play (as opposed to audio or video only) in podcast production. Although the process of editing podcasts for content, quality, flow, and convenience (pp. 137, 207) does not, according to Mack and Ratcliffe, include captioning video or transcribing audio content, the process they describe of making podcasts available to the public does include translating some of the audio and video content into written text. For example, the Bible discusses adding titles and PowerPoint slides to video podcasts (pp. 226-7), and logos, chapter markers, images, and links to audio podcasts (pp. 295-308). The process of adding multiple chapter markers to an audio podcast is very similar to the (admittedly much more time consuming) process of adding sub-titles to a video podcast, but the Bible stops short of taking its discussion of textual supplements to its logical conclusion. The same is true for the Bible’s discussion of metadata and RSS tags. The book stresses the importance of encoding “as much metadata as possible” (p. 279) about each podcast – “name or title, an author (you), and possibly a description” (p. 279). Likewise, the authors refer to the importance of descriptive text in RSS feeds: titles, links, and short descriptions, but also blog announcements for each new podcast that contain, in addition to RSS links, “show notes or links to other Web sites mentioned in the podcast” (p. 322). Presumably, show notes in a blog entry might contain a longer description of the show, maybe even a transcript. But the Bible makes no reference to transcripts, captions, or descriptions longer than one or two sentences, even as it opens to door to the possibility that written supplements to audio and video podcasts might be a more accommodating solution for many disabled and nondisabled people.

Despite reducing accessibility to availability and not having anything to say about accommodating podcasts to people with disabilities, Mack and Ratcliffe could still have integrated a much broader notion of accessibility into the current framework of the Podcasting Bible. To do so, however, would require a greater sensitivity to human difference, a willingness “to view bodies and minds as inherently and wonderfully divergent” (Lewiecki-Wilson & Brueggemann 2008: 1). It would also require not only a greater familiarity with Web accessibility guidelines (e.g. see WCAG Working Group 2007) and their transformative effects on current podcasting values, but also a willingness to consider the possibility that deaf and hard of hearing people might actually want to participate – indeed, they are participating at this very moment, though at times with unnecessary difficulty – in the podcasting revolution.

Next: A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 1)