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The Case for Transcription

One thing about producing audio for the internet that a lot of people I talk to really like is the relative tranquility of the whole experience, especially when contrasted with all other forms of online publishing. There’s no comments section, and audiences generally have to explicitly listen to a whole show to hear what’s actually said — rather than being able to Ctrl+F their way to outrage. As one female political podcast host told me, the comparative isolation really “cuts down on the number of drive-by haters.” (The flipside of this isolation, one might say, is podcasting’s infamous problems of shareability and discoverability. You can’t have everything, I suppose.)

Yet there are plenty of good reasons for expanding the publication of podcast transcripts. Chief among them is accessibility: having text alongside audio means that people who are hard of hearing or with auditory processing issues can still enjoy the show, as can those who aren’t fluent in the original broadcast language. (The regular English translations are how I enjoy the Spanish-language NPR podcast Radio Ambulante, for instance.) Increasing the accessibility of podcasting to these groups is innately the right to do; it’s a moral need as much as it is an audience growth tenet. And then there are the secondary considerations: notably, SEO and archiving. Plus, it’s also just good practice to preserve your stuff in several forms, as I’m sure the good people at the Preserve This Podcast project would tell you.

For some, transcriptions are baked into the DNA of the podcast’s goal. Amanda McLoughlin and Eric Silver, co-hosts of the Join the Party podcast and founding members of the podcast collective Multitude, told me that transcribing is foundational to their show. “In pre-production for Join the Party, we were designing the show to be more accessible than any other Dungeons & Dragons podcast out there — or any podcast in general,” they said. “We knew we had to have transcripts from episode 1 to make our episode accessible to people of all abilities, processing styles, and language backgrounds.” The transcripts were part of a broader effort to open up their subject (in this case, the playing of Dungeons & Dragons) to more people, no matter their background or subject knowledge. To this end, in addition to the transcriptions, they also purposefully introduced LGBTQ+ characters early on, cut down on the pop culture in-jokes, and released versions of their episodes that explained how to play.

However, producing accompanying transcripts isn’t yet a widespread practice in the podcast industry. Bigger publishers mostly don’t provide, or provide them sparingly. Sometimes, if you search around for long enough, it’s possible to find a listener who has done it for themselves (e.g. these transcripts for Dirty John), but on the whole, it feels like the majority of podcasts are simply left untranscribed. There’s an obvious reason for this: producing transcriptions can be expensive and time consuming. I’ve seen rates of around £1.10 per minute ($1.50) for human transcription services; there are also various paid-for automated options that cost less, although they can be far less reliable. Even formatting and posting the final transcript can be onerous for already overworked producers.

The amount of work involved in producing useful transcripts also depends on the type of show. For narrative formats, it’s theoretically fairly easy to assemble a transcript that effectively serves as proper representation of the final episode, whereas for conversational podcasts with several speakers — in which the enjoyment occasionally comes from its chaotic cross-talk — it can take a lot longer. I’ve found these huge disparities in the show I’ve worked on: for Shedunnit, where the episodes are scripted and sub-20 minutes and the interviews are already transcribed for editing purposes, it’s a matter of a couple of hours, whereas for some of the round-table shows I produce, creating a complete transcription of an episode can take all day. Longer still, if I’m adding footnotes and links. When I’m in the middle of trying to untangle all the overtalking and track down precise sources, I can see why there are those who would rather not bother.

McLoughlin and Silver argue that just time and labor resource intensiveness is no reason to skimp on transcribing podcasts. “Accessibility is a right, not a privilege. Making great transcripts involves extra work for podcasters, but doing it demonstrates that you truly care about all of your listeners,” they said. They also pointed me towards this guide they published with the Bello Collective, which details some cheap and even free ways of doing it. (Private YouTube videos are great, the automatic caption service does most of the work for you!).

Counterintuitively, they posited, it’s actually the relative ease of taking a podcast from idea to final episode that has stopped transcripts going mainstream. “We all love that podcasting has such a low bar of entry for creators. . .Transcripts and other features that can improve accessibility, discovery, and potential audience growth are left by the wayside because they’re not required by your podcast host to launch a show.” They also feel strongly that transcripts are not to be released as paid-for extras to Patreon supporters or similar, writing in the aforementioned guide: “Accessibility should never depend on a listener’s income.”

Personally, I find podcast transcripts a great aid to memory — I frequently use them to track down something I half-remember from an episode before I pass it on to a friend. I think McLoughlin and Silver are right about the accessibility argument, too. Just as it is standard for TV to offer subtitles and cinemas to have signed screenings, maybe it’s about time the podcast industry took responsibility too.