At the Northern Voice blogging conference, Tod Maffin offered his vision of podcasting, (in brief: audio blogging). Tod sees podcasting as a way of letting people create “vertical” audio feeds; instead of listening to general interest radio shows like As It Happens, listeners can create their own personal streams of audio, based on their own particular interests.

This is just the kind of scenario that keeps Cass Sunstein up at night. Sunstein worries about the political consequences of a world of custom media — a world in which the public sphere of common news and common dialogue has disappeared.

Tod’s response to this concern is that ideally we will have a world in which people consume both custom and general streams. Fellow panelist Marc Canter argued that quality topical content almost necessarily corsses fields and engages people with new issues — because a good story weaves in related topics. We should have faith that people will not get stuck in information ghettos.

I’m not so surea that the issue will self-resolve. What makes us think that a majority — or even a critical mass — of readers (listeners, viewers) will pull content that isn’t of immediate, personal interest. Look what’s happened to network news, or daily newspapers. Far from being an ennobling force, consumer interests have pushed “hard” news off the front page and down below Charles & Camilla or Michael Jackson.

Then again, maybe that’s the best argument that can be made for podcasting and other enablers of niche media. In an era that’s seen most of the mass media turned some version of People magazine, what have we got to lose?

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