I just want my TAL

I’m fascinated by the conversation that’s developing around the recent availability of mp3 files of the public radio show “This American Life.” TAL, which doesn’t offer a podcast feed of its show (listeners can purchase episodes from audible.com), recently switched from streaming audio on its site to mp3 files. By doing this the show inadvertantly (apparently) made it possible for listeners to generate their own RSS feeds by “deep linking” to the mp3s.

Jon Udell blogged about this change and the creation of his own TAL feed a few weeks ago , and this week a new post on his site referenced a (very polite) request from TAL to please stop this practice. Over at Boing Boing, the editors have been posting fast and furious about the same issue. Their argument (my distillation of it anyway): linking is a fundamental to the Web and no one should be able to (or has ever been able to)regulate it. I agree. Linking is the Web.

First, one thing that’s jumped out at me is how overwhelmingly polite the discourse about this issue has been. The blogs I’ve been reading have all stated what big fans the authors are of Ira Glass and TAL. The request from TAL (which Udell has since removed) was extraordinarly polite. No one — that I’ve read — has resorted to name calling or flaming. It’s kind of sad that this takes me by surprise. But these days, it seems like people can rarely disagree about something (particulary online) without engaging in ad hominem attacks and generally terrible behavior.
If anything, the arguments back and forth have had a tenor of bewilderment. Udell and the editors at Boing Boing seem taken aback that TAL would or could object to deep linking. My own impression upon learing that TAL had moved to mp3 was that they must have decided they were okay with the potential that this activity would crop up.

Over at Boing Boing, Brendan Greeley, a producer of another PRI show (Open Source), weighed in. His comments are measured and thoughtful. But, I think, he’s wrong. I encourage you to read for yourself and form your own opinion. One quote that jumps out at me:

The second you take those mp3 files, wrap them in your own packaging and make them available to others in the way most convenient to you, you’ve reduced a radio program to a provider of one-hour weekly audio files. Maybe that’s all TAL wants to be — certainly every week it provides extraordinary one-hour audio files — but shouldn’t TAL get to make that decision?

I would argue NO. TAL does get to decide what it wants to be, and it should offer its listeners avenues for experiencing that definition of itself. But, any creators of content should recognize that, ultimately, it’s not possible to dictate the way listeners/readers/audiences choose to experience the media they create.
If these audiences were trying to generate an RSS feed and republish it publically for commercial gain, I would argree that a line had been crossed — and a very serious one. No one has the right to benefit financially from the hard work and sweat that goes into producing a gem like This American Life, except for Ira Glass, his amazing team, and PRI.

However, as a listener, I should be allowed to decide what I listen to, how I listen to it, and when I listen to it. I should be able to “wrap” it anyway I like in order to make the most meaningful context for me. I should also be able to share my experience of that media with others (again, assuming that I don’t stand to gain financially from that sharing).

And you know what? The creators of that content should be thrilled! The point at which you are generating something that people are so drawn to they must find ways to recontextualize it for themselves, you have created something great. The wisest course, in my opinion, would be to tap into those experiences. Find out what it is that your audience is drawn to and use it to make your product even better and more compelling.

A couple more things. I recognize (from the reading I’ve done this week) that TAL’s actions on this front are dictated to a great degree by the contracts with artists whose work appears on the show. I’m not a lawyer (as if that isn’t obvious), but this situation seems to be further evidence of what’s wrong with intellectual property in the US. If the only way (or the primary way) TAL can get artists to contribute content to the show is by promising royalties on every downloaded episode, there’s something seriously broken with the system.

I’d go so far as to say any musician who is contacted by TAL because the show wants to feature his or her music, should be over the moon. We’re talking about a big audience that might hear that small clip and say, “Gee. I liked that. I should buy that artist’s CD!” What? Am I going to hear a song I love on “This American Life” and think, “Great! Now I don’t need to go out and find more wonderful songs by that artist because I can always go online and listen to that small, compelling clip for free?” Of course not. I’m going to login to iTunes Music Store, do a search, and whip out my credit card!
And, on a final note, I’d just like to say (if it isn’t obvious already) that I’m a huge fan of “This American Life.” Ira Glass is seriously one of my heros. He and his team of producers manage to capture the human experience through narrative in a way that regularly brings tears to my eyes. I’ll listen to the show wherever they’ll let me. That said, if TAL wasn’t available online (as a stream or mp3), I’d listen to a lot fewer episodes. Life is complicated and finding a way to carve out that hour every Saturday afternoon gets harder and harder. I just want to listen to this great show and tell everyone I know where they can listen to it too. Seriously.

3 thoughts on “I just want my TAL”

  1. As an artist, I do understand being emotionally tied to one’s work. My own vanity would indeed make me thrilled about having someone podcast a song or two without my knowledge. However, professional artists are really put through the ringer by contracts and broadcasters owning big chunks of the proceeds of their work, and, over the years, have grown wary of being exploited, with good reason.

    The tide will finally turn when the middle men of media are bypassed entirely in favor of these more direct relationships which is where the arts began: a gift shared within a society which in return sustained the giver, not as a commodity designed to sustain the middlemen and a very small elite set of artists. Until then, I think the world for artists is a bit topsy turvy: The more they sell of themselves to the middlemen, the less they are comfortable sharing of themselves directly with the wide world. Let’s wait for the middlemen to worry themselves out of business by suing the kids on YouTube, and I think you’ll see less fear about this stuff.

    At least, I hope so.

  2. Fascinating post.

    I’ve had the TAL feed in Bloglines ever since Jon did his blog. It never occurred to me that TAL wouldn’t want me to.

    FWIW, I think you’re exactly right, Martha, and I think Cathy has absolutely nailed the reasons why artists are so skittish in this regard. It really is the broken distribution mechanism that’s to blame. CDs are expensive not because of royalties but because of marketers, rack jobbers, industry execs., etc. etc. The artist gets a very, very small cut–and there are times when they don’t get anything at all because of sharecropper tactics on the part of the honchos and honchas.

    Places like Magnatunes really get how the ‘net could turn all of this on its head. And I just read in the NYorker that Radiohead is letting their EMI contract lapse. Looks like direct marketing on the horizon for them. Works for me, and I hope it’s another crack in the dam.

  3. I’m not a regular listener of TAL (maybe that would change if I could get it as a podcast – sitting in front of the computer or by the radio at a prescribed day and time just doesn’t fit into my life). That said, I’m simply wondering why TAL would change to a format (MP3) that they know users will get ahold of and move around as they see fit if they didn’t want them to do that? What did they think would happen, that no one would notice?

    There are all kinds of economic issues here as well – but I’m not sure I can get my head around them all. After all, if TAL goes towards podcasting, they leave out the local distributor, the local PBS station. Now we are jeopardizing the local PBS stations revenue stream – what about TALs revenue stream of selling that program to local broadcasters?

    But let’s go further. If users prefer to get their programming via podcast, why not have the local stations provide podcast feeds to their paid members? I would gladly give WETA $35 dollars a year for access to the podcast feeds. (Actually, they could get more than $35 from me for that!) This way TAL could sell the program to WETA, WETA could offer the podcast feeds to paid members and make some payment back to TAL for downloads.

    Once again is seems to come back to money – costs to produce the show, costs associated with licensing content, costs for distribution. It all needs to be looked at in a new way. The technologies are already out there to allow this to happen.

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