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Monday, May 30, 2011

Podcasts and RBM 1: How to use audio podcasts to reinvigorate thinking on indicators and results

Greg Armstrong --

Indicator discussions don’t have to be boring.   A wide range of audio podcasts, easily accessible to listeners throughout the world, are available online from the BBC, ABC and NPR.  This is the first of three posts surveying audio programmes available online, and relevant to results-based management.

Level of Difficulty: Moderate-complex, but entertaining
Primarily useful for: People who don’t have experience with downloading podcasts
Length: Usually Vary from 15 minutes to an hour. (mp3 format)
Limitations: Audio podcasts are difficult to reference, and follow up, compared to other media.

Who this post is for:

This is the first of three posts dealing with how, and which audio podcasts can be useful for people working on results frameworks and indicators.  This introduction explains why podcasts can be useful, what their limitations are, and how to use them. This post is intended primarily for people who do not already know how to get access to, or use podcasts.  

The second post in this series will survey the broad range of podcasts available primarily from the BBC, Radio Australia and one from the U.S. National Public Radio.  The third post will review in more detail one particular programme on the BBC, More or Less which always has something useful to say about indicators. 

Those readers who already know how to subscribe to, or download podcasts may wish to skip this post, and move on to the next two.

Why use audio podcasts in RBM? Because (gasp!) RBM can be boring

All of us who work with international development projects or with Results-Based Management, are  familiar with the reams of paper, log frames, risk management frameworks and charts, generated in results and indicator discussions.  These can put even the most enthusiastic proponents of results-based management into a coma.

But there is a range of very entertaining material available for listening, that can reinvigorate interest in how results and indicator data can be manipulated, misrepresented, forged, and in some inspiring instances, creatively interpreted --and not just in politics, or development assistance, but in daily life.  For this, the audio podcasts available for download, or for online listening from a number of sources, are a useful and energizing source of not just learning, but entertainment, for people who work with results and indicator data on a regular basis.

Podcasts provide an escape from the drudgery of reading about RBM

I am a late adopter, someone slow to embrace new technologies, after an early, expensive and ultimately futile early adoption of the Betamax in the 1975.  While my closest colleague has for many years been downloading to her MP3 player and listening to not just music but documentaries, and fiction, I only grudgingly started to do so a few months ago, when I began an exercise regime that put me in a boring environment for an hour a day.  Music doesn’t provide the escape for me it does for many people, and I wanted to use the time productively.  Early misguided attempts at reading while exercising  produced unintended (but in hindsight predictably disastrous) results.

My  colleague pointed me  to the BBC website  and its literally hundreds of podcasts; I continue to use it, but also moved on from there to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s smaller but worthwhile set of documentaries and then to the National Public Radio site.  Now I find that an hour of exercise is intellectually productive and, best of all, entertaining.  These podcasts provide insights on how other people deal with results  and indicators in the real world, challenging my understanding of issues, and ways of thinking about them, and providing me with alternative approaches to data analysis, often things that I had skipped over, or forgotten in my daily reading.  Some of these programmes are engrossing enough that I double my exercise time to complete them.

The drama of results and indicator discussions

The major attraction of using audio podcasts, for me, is this entertainment value.  It is rare that a discussion, even on apparently boring topics related to results or indicators will make its way to an audio podcast on any of the major radio networks, unless there is an interesting or unusual  twist to it.  These programmes are often presented in a way that will stimulate the listener intellectually or emotionally, sometimes reawakening a dying interest in how to use data productively.

Listening to politicians or pharmaceutical manufacturers  twist data, and then face the challenge of someone who knows enough to ask pointed and challenging questions, is much more interesting than reading the same discussion in a journal, a newspaper or online.  Debates on issues such as health services, school quality, risk, crime, disastrously unintended results, and a wide range of other topics, can generate new ideas for people working with results frameworks, and struggling to recognize, generate or interpret convincing indicator data.  

Some programmes such as WNYC’s Radio Lab  deliberately dramatise the discussions to keep listeners involved, and that approach is effective. But most programmes benefit simply from focused questions, good editing, and the energy and passion of the people they are interviewing, to keep a listener’s interest.  Many of them remind me of the best indicator discussions in a project context, when stakeholders understand the importance of indicators for defining results and activities that are important to them, and look forward to and passionately engage in the discussions about what they mean.

Podcast length

Most of the podcasts I listen to are about 30 minutes long.  Some programmes such as ABC’s Counterpoint are an hour long, but listeners can download individual components of the episode, that might vary from 10 to 30 minutes in length.  Some sites, such as The Scientific American /, have podcasts that last only a minute or two while others last roughly 15 minutes. ,

Difficulties in referencing or sharing podcast data

The primary disadvantage of using podcasts as a source of new ideas is that it is very difficult to footnote or bookmark the programmes. Only a few podcasts provide transcripts of their audio programmes and  among those which do, such as ABC’s Ockham’s Razor , even fewer make use of the primary advantage of the internet – web links.

With paper,  we can footnote references, drawing attention to individual words, sentences or ideas,  and move back through an article to check consistency or the spelling of a name or an organization.

With electronic data, available on websites, we can provide links, from a blog such as this, so readers can jump to original or alternative sources, to document or challenge an idea, and readers can easily supplement ideas by using search engines.

But if you download a podcast, and you find a startling new idea you want to reference, while you are, for example, jogging, climbing stairs, lifting weights, or walking, how do you do it?  I tried carrying a notebook and jotting down the ideas, but this is distracting and sometimes dangerous if you are exercising.
And it doesn’t work well in the rain.

In these cases the only useful way to actually use the podcast as a source of potential learning and a reference for other people, (at least as far as I know) is to listen to it on a computer, then go to the podcast home page, to note the web links to the individual podcast, and sometimes to note the running time of the particular quote within the podcast.  Then, too, we can check the website’s home page and links for supplementary information.

So, while I often start now listening, for example, to BBC’s excellent More or Less  as I exercise, I often end up listening to it again, in front of a computer, where I can pause the programme,  make notes, rewind, or fast forward to relevant sections of the discussion – or jump to the web where I can seek supplementary information.   I will be reviewing More or Less in greater detail in my third post in this series, and the difficulty in referencing individual stories in a programme will be illustrated more clearly in that post.

In any case, I assume everyone who reads this blog will have access to a computer – so it should be possible to go directly to some of the sites and programmes I list in my next post, and listen to them online.

The Mechanics of accessing and listening to podcasts

The most common format for podcasts is MP3. While not providing great sound for music (so I am told) this format is, certainly to my impaired hearing,  good enough to deliver an audible conversation, debate or discussion.  MP3 players such as the iPod all include software to play podcasts automatically.  You can spend a lot of money on MP3 players if you want to, but there are perfectly serviceable models, such as the one I use, available in most countries for roughly $20 U.S.   And if you decide you want to listen to these on the computer, any reasonably modern computer with a media player, such as the ubiquitous Windows Media Player, Apple’s ITunes  or one of the many free alternative media players, will automatically start playing these programmes once you click on them.

There are also other formats, sometimes proprietary, used by individual websites.  BBC, for example,  while making podcasts for almost all of its programmes available in MP3 format when they are first put on the site, has a few that can only be listened to with its BBC iPlayer, online.  This requires an updated flash player and  I have had uneven success in using this where internet connections are slow. Some older archived BBC episodes from 2005 or earlier, may only be available in the ram format, which requires RealPlayer or an alternative, and these will still start automatically on most computers when you click on the file.  A few of these BBC radio programmes, primarily music, are restricted in places like Canada, by the BBC licensing of its products.

Listeners can also subscribe to audio programmes through links on the site, or through aggregators such as iTunes, or Google Reader, or directly through links on the podcast webpage. Episodes can then be automatically delivered to the computer or mp3 player.  Personally, I prefer to select the individual programmes, read the background, and download them myself, but many people prefer the convenience of automatic delivery.

There are, then, as far as I know, two primary ways of listening to some of this excellent material

a) With earphones, downloaded to an MP3 player or smartphone, or
b) Through your computer, by clicking the appropriate link.

Most websites can use all of the major web browsers, but there are sometimes minor differences in how you download a podcast using Google Chrome, or for example,  Internet Explorer,   Opera, Firefox  or Safari. Most of the time, on most of the sites, the link to the specific audio programme or episode you want will give you fairly straightforward instructions, to either click to download, or click to listen at your computer, and where it doesn’t do this, left clicking will usually lead to the programme playing immediately on your computer while right clicking will often download the whole programme to your computer, for listening later either on the computer or on the MP3 player.

Time limits on available programmes

Websites vary widely in how long they  will keep  an individual podcast publicly available.  Some do it as a matter of policy for  three months, others for a month, some only for a week and some, such as NPR’s Krulwich Wonders  -- basically a written blog -- appear to have only monthly episodes in audio, but many more episodes as written blog posts that can be read later.

In the case of the BBC podcasts, the length of time differs depending on the programme.  Some are available for download for years, others for only a week, after which they may completely disappear, or be available only for immediate listening at your computer, but not for download.

As the BBC’s podcast website help page explains it
 “But please don't forget that once you have downloaded a podcast episode, it is yours to keep forever and will not expire. Unfortunately, if you missed an episode and didn't download it within the period of availability we are not able to send you a copy.”
So, if you find something that is only potentially interesting, it is worthwhile downloading it for further review first to a computer, and then moving it, if you want, to an MP3 player, or simply keeping it for later listening.   The files, because they are relatively low-fidelity for conversation, do not take up as much space on the computer as would higher fidelity music files.

What topics are available?

In my next post I will provide an overview of some of the most interesting radio programmes available, that are relevant to Results-Based Management.

The bottom line:

Podcasts can be difficult to work with as references, but they are stimulating additions to the dense written material we work with regularly, and can be a useful additional tool for people who think about and work with results and indicators.

Further reading on how to listen to podcasts:

BBC podcast help 
ABC podcast help
Apple iTune podcast help 
Advice on buying MP3 players


Greg Armstrong is a Results-Based Management specialist who focuses on the use of clear language in RBM training, and in the creation of usable planning, monitoring and reporting frameworks.  For links to more Results-Based Management Handbooks and Guides, to to the RBM Training website

This post edited to update links July 2, 2011

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