Issue 194,  published February 5, 2019

Why File Organization Matters

Preserve This Podcast (PTP), a project funded via an $142,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, started work in February 2018. It exists to help podcasters protect their work against digital decay. This, they argue, is a problem that is likely to hit podcasts harder than work made using other mass media because most cultural heritage institutions aren’t as yet preserving them.

A big part of the project is concerned with improving awareness, but they are also collecting data about how people create, back up and preserve their podcasting work to give a snapshot of the status quo. To this end, they’ve conducted a survey, and I’m going to digest some findings from that work for you now.

To start, a brief note about terminology. As I’ve learned in the course of writing this, there’s a substantive difference between what we might commonly refer to as “backing up” your audio work (saving working files in multiple locations to guard against a laptop failing because you spilled coffee on it, for instance) and properly “archiving” it. I’ll let PTP team member Molly Schwartz of the Metropolitan New York Library Council explain it.

“There’s a few things that go into it,” she told me on the phone last week. “One is having file organization in some kind of setup so that if someone else is looking at it they would know what is where. . . Also, have all the necessary metadata and forms and other files with your podcast collection. Release forms, photos that you’re using, transcripts. Keeping those in a collection with the audio files is something I would consider part of archiving a podcast.” Other good archiving practices include preserving raw tape and draft cuts in uncompressed formats as well as any final versions.

That said, PTP’s survey revealed some interesting insights into podcasters’ tech habits. There were 556 respondents, 72 percent of whom were based in the US. Around a third produce podcasts full time and two thirds make audio independently. With this last stat in mind, one of the biggest trends to emerge was the gap in digital preservation practices between indie producers and those working for an institution. Of the 27 percent of respondents who back up uncompressed versions of all of their files (what Schwartz calls “preservation completists”), 68 per cent of them work for institutions.

This isn’t necessarily that surprising, since those working inside a media company or podcast network are more likely to have had training or guidance on how to organise their files. Within that institutionally-based cohort, though, there was a substantial knowledge deficit, Schwartz pointed out.

“What was interesting to me was even though people who worked for institutions were more likely to have stronger preservation practices, they didn’t necessarily know what their institution’s preservation policies were,” she said. “And that’s actually a big outcome of this: it makes us aware that this should be a wider conversation within podcasting networks and public radio stations.” Of the respondents, 28 percent said they were unaware of their institutions’ procedures and 11 percent said their organization had no system in place.

Another trend that emerged concerned the Internet Archive: podcasters who submitted their work for preservation there were more likely to be clued up and to feel strongly about keeping their work safe. “They were very likely to be preservation completionists and they were significantly more likely to actually back up uncompressed versions of all their files,” she said. “They’re more likely to have what I would consider their own self-made systems such as a hard drive or Apple Time Machine as opposed to relying just on cloud storage.”

The survey also threw up some intel about what PTP are calling the “precarious outliers”, that is the 7 percent of respondents who said that they don’t back up their files at all. Around half of these also don’t rename or organise their files, and have little or no knowledge of institutional policies. Although the small size of this group is relatively positive, PTP hope they can help these people keep their files safe.

PTP have their own podcast launching on 21 March. They are also adding resources to their website preservethispodcast.org, and through 2019 they will be running in-person workshops (the first one is in New York City on 22 March, keep checking the website for more dates and locations). At these events, Schwartz says, podcasters can bring all of their hard drives and equipment, and get help to put a preservation plan in place on the spot.

“There’s a bigger purpose behind all of this,” Schwartz says. Podcasting has so far been a relatively accessible medium, attracting creators who wouldn’t always be able to air work through traditional channels. If individuals can preserve that work for the future, it’s a way of saving a record of that diversity, even if it isn’t yet collected officially. “Podcasting has been such an open medium and everyone has stories to share and this space to put them and we think it’s equally valuable,” she says. “I hate the idea that just because people aren’t aware of certain file management practices that they don’t make it into archives or in history books.

Find out more about the project at preservethispodcast.org and keep an eye out for the podcast of the same name, which drops next month.