Podcasts and the question of accessibility is a vital, important topic, and it’s something I’m always interested in. This recent article by the writer Robert W. Kingett about how he experiences podcast websites with his screen reader and how poorly many are set up for visually impaired people really grabbed my attention. I got in touch with Kingett to find out more about his thoughts on accessibility and the podcast industry, and what changes he believes need to be made to improve matters.
Oh, and before we jump in: you can support Robert W. Kingett’s writing on Patreon, or visit his website.
Hot Pod: What part do podcasts play in your life?Robert Kingett: Podcasts play a huge part of my life now, much more than they did, say, three years ago. Even when I was legally blind (I’m now totally blind) I assumed that podcasts were just on-demand talk shows. I never even considered a podcast could be an audio drama, for example, or an audio-described public domain movie. Podcasts are a level playing field for me and so many other visually impaired people, especially audiobook listeners. There’s even a category of podcasts called spoken editions, where articles from publications like Playboy and Wired are read out loud, which is great, because I don’t have to navigate the website, I just press play. I’d even say I consume more podcasts now than TV and or movies because, well, it’s free entertainment and information. I’ve even started sharing podcasts with my sighted friends, who still don’t get it, like, there’s nothing to look at! Or, they assume, like I did, that all podcasts are talk shows. It’s a work in progress. Still, I’m starting from an equal place when I’m sharing podcasts. Nothing is tacked on as an accessibility tool for the blind later. My sighted friend doesn’t have to hear the special audio description, for example. We’re starting from the same place.
HP: What are the most common accessibility issues you find as you look for, subscribe and listen to shows?
Kingett: The most common accessibility problem I’ve ran into is the lack of accessible podcast apps and websites. It’s completely backwards. The blind and the visually impaired could have access to all this great free audio content and entertainment, but there’s only a handful, actually, less than that, accessible podcast players.
As much as people don’t like Apple, other companies should take accessibility cues from Apple. I get why many listeners hate the Apple application, but for us visually impaired people, it’s one of the few options we have. It works, and it works well. Plus, Apple podcasts works with Apple TV, which is also accessible. Outside of Apple though, your choices are extremely limited, especially if you’re on a budget and can’t afford to pay for a podcast application, for example. Android, luckily, has Google Podcasts. Spotify is accessible, mostly, but it’s not user friendly for people who are seniors who want to know what’s this podcast audio fiction kids are talking about these days. Overcast is extremely accessible but doesn’t come on every device. That’s it. That’s all the free podcast apps we can use with screen readers. All the rest, especially RadioPublic, have extremely bad accessibility. I mean, buttons and links are not even labeled in their apps and that’s really, really, basic stuff.
Websites are a huge problem too. I hear so many advertisements for Squarespace and it saddens me, because Squarespace does not make it easy for people looking to create an accessible website, at all. Yet, that’s what many podcasters use, and it makes me want to pull my hair out. Squarespace doesn’t have the accessible content management system down at all, so when creators are creating their website, and they are inserting a form, for example, creators don’t know that HTML code working behind the scenes isn’t accessible. That’s Squarespace’s fault, though. If you want your podcast website to be accessible, don’t use Squarespace. Period. Don’t embed the RadioPublic player. Period. Use wordpress.com if you want to make an accessible website for free. Don’t use Tumblr, either, whatever you do, because again, in order to make it accessible, you have to do extra things, and that’s something creators shouldn’t have to do.
Along the same lines, I find it’s extremely difficult to subscribe to podcasts. For example, The Bright Sessions has an inaccessible subscribe page. When navigating with a screen reader, it doesn’t say ‘subscribe with Apple’, or whatever choices. The links are not labeled. The images are not labeled. So I can’t tell visually impaired people ‘go subscribe with your app of choice here.’
Instead I’d say use a service like PodLink. I don’t know if these pages look pretty, but they do the work for you. Plus, PodLink is working with me on accessibility consulting, so, it will get better soon.
When I do muster up the strength to listen to a talk show podcast, no offense, but I hate them. They don’t insert chapters into their three-hour long episodes. Apps are supporting chapters now, so I wish more creators took advantage of this.
HP: How can the podcast industry do better on accessibility?
Kingett: It’s so basic, but it’s the biggest problem. Make sure your websites are accessible to screen readers. Make it wicked easy to find your subscribe links. Provide clear show notes. Also, provide transcripts. Not only do transcripts help people who are deaf enjoy your show, but it makes it really easy for reviewers to quote things you’ve said. Also, have accessible press kits. Accessible press pages. You will have blind journalists reviewing your shows someday. Make it as easy for them as possible to do so. Label your images when including them in your zip file, for example. Be clear about what this high resolution image is. Again, all of this is basic stuff, but the web and app accessibility is a rarity. Transcripts are getting better, but basic web and app accessibility isn’t catching on. I don’t know why.
HP: If you could alter how podcasting works, what would you change?
Kingett: Honestly, and maybe this is because I’m such a huge audiobook listener, but podcasts seem to be completely confused on how to market themselves to audiobook listeners. I don’t get it. They are billing themselves as different from audiobooks when, in reality, if they used more audiobook friendly language, maybe people would try it more, especially older people. It’s free, but still, so many people would rather buy an audiobook because they tell me that a podcast is way too complicated for them to try, but podcast creators and otherwise seem to have no clue how to approach audiobook fans. That’s a huge untapped market.
And, in a way, they are right. This podcast link, for example, will only work in that podcast app, which makes sense to us, but an audiobook listener can download an audiobook on any device they want. Google Podcasts is doing something great with their website. Make it as easy as possible for cross platform support and it will be easy to share.
Personally, I’d like the industry to take more written prose and turn it into audio. Modern Love [the podcast version of the New York Times column] is great! I wish more Modern Love type podcasts existed, because, there are tons of people who can’t write scripts, but who can write killer prose.
I’d actually love it if people would sell their podcasts on audio CDs or as one huge audio file. I know this seems counter to what podcasts are, but people still listen to CDs in their DVD players. Have episodes as separate tracks with no advertising. It would be a really easy way to gift people a new kind of audiobook, for example. It may not sell rapidly, and I know it sounds like I’m trying to go backwards, but you could reach a new market that way, especially with commercials taken out. I’d like to see podcasters release seasons as audio CDs with special packaging, higher audio quality, and neat art! This way, I can gift my audio book buddies something for Christmas!
This interview has been edited and condensed. Once again, you can support Robert W. Kingett’s writing on Patreon or visit his website.