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PodcastRE Podcast Search Engine Aims to Help Researchers

Podcasting, as a form, is now more than a decade old. However, owing to its origin as a grassroots online medium with no centralizing agency or organization, finding and researching shows that are even just a few years old can be lesson in frustration. There are no physical assets for libraries and repositories to collect, and no central catalog. Even though iTunes has been indexing podcasts for most of this time, participation is up to the podcaster, and shows no longer in production can, and do disappear.

Coming to the rescue is a group of scholars and technologists from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, led by Prof. Jeremy Morris. The PodcastRE project is a growing database of over 150,000 individual episodes from over 1,000 different podcast feeds. You can search across show titles, episode titles and episode descriptions, and then stream the program audio if the show is still available online. Even if the audio is no longer hosted anywhere, having access to that metadata at least lets you know that a show existed, and may provide a lead to learning more.

Basic searches are available to anyone. Confirmed researchers at educational institutions can obtain original audio files for some podcasts that are no longer available on the web, provided that a research project qualifies for fair use access.

One way to think about PodcastRE is that it’s like an Internet Archive Wayback Machine for podcasts. The Wayback Machine crawls the web and archives pages by date so that future generations can find text and data that has since disappeared from the internet. Although the Internet Archive gladly hosts any podcast that a creator wants to upload, save for a brief period in 2005, the Wayback Machine automatically archives no actual podcast files. Moreover, podcasts are not so much a phenomenon of the web–they are distributed using something called an RSS file, which isn’t necessarily read by web browsers, though it is used by apps like iTunes and Stitcher, or websites that attempt to index podcasts.

That means there are likely dozens of podcasts that never had much of a web presence at all, utterly invisible to the Wayback Machine. Evidence of their existence are left to the podcast platforms that indexed them, if that happened at all.

Turning back the clock to reclaim an obscure show that might have only had a dozen or so episodes eleven years ago may be asking too much. But it is never too late to start to archive and index what is available and findable now.

Taking PodcastRE for a test drive, I started looking for a podcast that covers high fidelity audio. I’ve never been able to find such a show, and it’s a striking gap that I’ve mentioned before on our own podcast. Now, I did not turn up such a show (probably because it doesn’t exist), but I did find a podcast about vinyl records, “Sharing Needles with Friends,” that’s been around for 172 episodes–I’ll definitely be checking it out.

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