March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: ‘Artcasting’ at SFMOMA: First-Year Lessons, Future Challenges for Museum Podcasters broad audience of use

Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), USA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s monthly series SFMOMA Artcasts, coproduced with Bay Area audio experts Antenna Audio, Inc., explores current issues and ideas in modern and contemporary art. While we are still honing the program, we have learned quite a bit over the last six months about what makes a successful podcast. We have preliminary answers to some questions. What is the best use of this new medium? Is a podcast just a traditional audio tour in a new guise? If not, how is it different? How does its distribution model facilitate communication? How can it be used to initiate dialogue with younger audiences? What are the institution-wide challenges of launching a new – and, for some, completely unfamiliar – means of delivering content? Using SFMOMA's experience as a case study, this paper offers insights into the challenges of producing content in-house versus outsourcing the task to professionals. It also examines the Museum's use of podcasts as a way of inviting artists, musicians, writers, and the general public to submit their own content, addressing the hurdles associated with bringing what was initially considered a “guerrilla” medium into a curatorially sanctioned space.

Keywords: podcast, MP3, audio tour, 2-way communication, cell phone, PDA


A hybrid of the terms iPod and broadcasting, podcasting has been touted as a revolutionary mechanism for distributing content directly from provider to client – specifically, for serving audio, video, and other media files directly from a podcast creator’s Web site or blog to a subscriber’s mobile device or personal computer. Unlike streaming files or direct downloads, which offer a single source of content on a one-time basis, podcasts allow users to subscribe to many content streams simultaneously via feed-reading programs called aggregators. As new files become available, listeners are notified automatically; depending on their preferences, subscribers can opt to have the new content transferred directly to their computers or mobile devices or to download files selectively at their leisure.

The Internet’s own form of ‘pirate radio,’ podcasts have proliferated organically and broken from the polished conventions of mainstream radio, leveling the playing field between ‘outsider’ and ‘sanctioned’ content providers. Inexpensive software and freeware such as GarageBand, Propaganda, and Audacity have simplified the editing process, enabling people with limited resources to post their own podcast ‘shows.’ The resulting podcasts are often characterized as much by their irreverence and homemade production values as by their delivery mechanism. Today a diverse community of podcasters flourishes on the Web, still bound by a tacit understanding that content should be shared freely – in both the democratic and monetary sense. A new genre of programming has been born.

Ironically, it was the buzz around the early renegade podcasts that first brought the genre into the purview of museums and other established institutions. In May 2005, New York Times journalist Randy Kennedy reported on Art Mobs, a podcast project created by the students of David Gilbert, a professor of organizational communications at Marymount Manhattan College, to provide alternative audio tours of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Described on the Art Mobs blog as a means to “hack the gallery experience” (Gilbert, 2005), the project alerted many museums to the genre’s potential as an effective tool for facilitating interpretation. In an interview, Gilbert explained the sense of empowerment that podcasting inspired:

The platform is already out there, in our bags, our coat pockets, on our belts … [W]e have a seamless system – from Web to application to player – for delivering any sort of homemade audio content we want. In a sentence, we are democratizing the experience of touring an art museum; we are offering a way for anyone to ‘curate’ their own little corner of MoMA. (Gilbert, 2005)

Podcasting at SFMOMA: Learning Our Lessons, Finding Our Form

The SFMOMA Interactive Educational Technologies team began exploring podcasts in the summer of 2005. We started slowly, with our first podcast comprising a curatorial exhibition tour that parroted the classic audio guide format (September: The Art of Richard Tuttle). Our next podcast was a more generalized tour that enhanced the visitor experience with audio recordings of an artist’s writings (October: Robert Adams: Turning Back, A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration). From there we developed an audio “zine,” copublished with Antenna Audio, that contained multiple short features and one longer exhibition tour (SFMOMA Artcasts: November-present).

Faced with the task of illuminating an ambitious but visually puzzling exhibition, IET’s first foray into podcasting took a straightforward and didactic approach. Armed with a new Marantz digital audio recorder and microphone, the IET team tagged along as SFMOMA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn led a staff tour of The Art of Richard Tuttle in July 2005. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We thought it would be a relatively simple matter of editing the recording and posting it to the Web, serving up Grynsztejn’s insightful commentary for the remaining three months of the show’s run.

Fig 1: IET producer Tana Johnson, right, trails curator Madeleine Grynsztejn on a staff walk-through of the exhibition The Art of Richard Tuttle, July 2005.

Fig 1: IET producer Tana Johnson, right, trails curator Madeleine Grynsztejn on a staff walk-through of the exhibition The Art of Richard Tuttle, July 2005.

In fact, we quickly realized what every audio tour company knows at the starting gate: being acoustically present with a speaker in a gallery is a pale imitation of being physically present. All kinds of supplementary cues and navigation become necessary when the expert is reduced to a voice alone. Which work is she discussing? In person, she points (or, worse yet, indicates “the one behind you”). On audio, each work must be named – and not just named, but located in the physical space of the gallery so listeners don’t have to seek out labels in order to identify the work. We realized that we could illustrate the artworks using the enhanced podcast feature, but listeners without image-capable MP3 players would still be at a loss. Furthermore, unlike cassette or random-access audio tours, MP3 players seamlessly segue from one track to the next; therefore listeners may be still in one gallery when commentary for the next gallery begins. By the time we transcribed and cleaned up the source soundtrack, added a narrator’s voice to provide supplementary directions, identified and secured all requisite illustrations, tried out three different enhanced podcast authoring tools (all freeware in various states of beta testing), edited the images into the soundtrack, took summer vacations, and tested the tour with staff members, it was September. Not exactly the facile overnight delivery podcasts had seemed to promise. [Tips if you are considering turning a curatorial walk-through into a podcast: Ask the speaker to name the objects s/he is discussing and to orient the listener to the objects' locations in the gallery. For best results, consider transcribing the initial gallery walk-through, editing the script for clarity, and asking the speaker to re-record it under optimal sound conditions.]

That said, in its first weekend alone the podcast was downloaded more than 250 times, confirming the Museum’s belief that an audience existed for educational podcasting.

For our second podcast, we decided to depart from the standard exhibition tour audio guide format. Rather than tying ourselves slavishly to specific artworks in the Robert Adams exhibition, we asked the artist’s permission to quote from his writings and hired an actor to read the excerpts. This provided for Adams’s photography an overall introduction that visitors to the exhibition could absorb even as they looked at the individual pictures. It worked rather well, though questions of whether to accompany the soundtrack with images and how to signal the presence of changing images without making visitors think they should be standing in front of the work that appeared onscreen led us to make the tour audio-only. The other milestone in this podcast was the inclusion of background soundscapes recorded in the field, contributed by Steven Dye and Jefre Cantu, two sound artists on the Museum’s staff.

Despite our use of scripts for this second podcast (the initial, unscripted podcast having proved so problematic), the podcast took many hours to edit, and we could see that our lack of audio training was putting a crimp in our overall productivity.

Up to this point we had produced the podcasts exclusively in-house. The process had been labor-intensive and a moderate success. But we had been in talks with Antenna Audio, which is based in nearby Sausalito, since the early summer. The people there, too, were interested in exploring the podcast phenomenon and gaining a better understanding of its implications for their future: Was it an opportunity or a threat? Would it make every museum self-sufficient, giving away audio tours for free, or would it make every museum a potential client who might hire an audio production firm to deliver podcasts? The answers to those questions are still uncertain, but SFMOMA and Antenna Audio agreed to a developmental partnership in this case to help each other determine what might be the most interesting aspects of this new medium for museums.

While the Tuttle and Adams tours served as valuable testbeds, we were aware that a linear curatorial tour – in effect, a low-budget audio guide – fell into the trap of mapping an old medium to a new one. It failed to make the most of podcasting’s potential as a new medium. What would be its particular, salient characteristics that could help us to build new relationships between the Museum and its public? Before embarking on the first podcast in the SFMOMA Artcast series, we defined a set of characteristics particular to the medium. Each of these became an aspect of our emerging podcast model:

  • An informal, spontaneous tone, corresponding to a generation of ‘digital natives’ and their casual relationship with technology (Prensky 2001, 2005)
    The twenty to thirty exhibitions and thousands of artworks presented in the Museum’s galleries each year offer a constantly changing, multi-threaded parade of objects, perceptions, and ideas. The general public only hears about a handful of headliner exhibitions, but the informality and flexibility of podcasts allows us to bring to the fore more of the fascinating and provocative ideas at play in the Museum at any given moment.
  • Encouragement of dialogue and the inclusion of multiple voices
    The portability of the microphone is a powerful way to convene a creative community. The Artcasts’ Vox Pop feature opens the door to myriad public voices that offer unrehearsed, casual observations. The Guest Takes feature allows us to invite guest artists – such as performer and composer Joan Jeanrenaud, sound artist Pamela Z, and writer JT LeRoy – to share their creative responses to specific artworks, exhibitions, or the museum experience. Finally, our Artcast Invitational gives the general public the opportunity to submit carefully composed, standalone contributions.
  • A rapid response, zine format that blends structure and flexibility
    Like a magazine editor, we assemble cultural features that point at the Museum as an ever-changing resource and destination. Some features are of-the-moment, while others can be drawn from relevant resources in our content archive.
  • A movement from the Museum out into the community, and from the community back into the Museum
    The portable nature of iPods and other MP3 players makes them equally suited to inject art into the everyday lives of listeners and to bring listeners back into the Museum, where they can listen to audio commentaries in the presence of the artworks that inspired them.

SFMOMA agreed to provide audio of artists discussing works on display and a ‘bonus track’ exhibition tour for each podcast. Antenna, meanwhile, agreed to record the host narration and Vox Pop and to do the final editing and sound design of the zine portion of each Artcast. The result, loosely modeled as a National Public Radio-style audio zine, brings listeners the voices of “people who have something interesting and insightful to say about the art that’s on view here at the Museum” (SFMOMA Artcast, 2005).

Where the Medium Meets the Institution

Moving forward with podcasting as an interpretive medium has raised additional issues for SFMOMA of a more institutional nature:

  • Voice
    While curatorial walkthroughs are invaluable as didactic tools, they nevertheless feature one-way flow of information from the inside of the institution out. How can future podcasts engage the community beyond the Museum’s walls? Can we invite the participation of outside voices and still maintain a level of professionalism that respects the scholarship and care curators bring to researching and developing our exhibitions?
  • Production values – acoustic tapestry vs. voicemail messaging
    Do we want to embrace the guerrilla production values of many early podcasts, or is it important to maintain a level of polish that both our on-site and virtual visitors have come to expect of our multimedia presentations? How much editing will be done in-house and how much will be outsourced to a more experienced but costly production company? Can we learn from such a company?
  • Sustainability
    Given the IET team’s limited staff and budget, plus an already full plate of project deliverables, how sustainable is our ambitious monthly podcast goal? And with no built-in financial benefit to the Museum, how will the team justify its podcast program to the institution?
  • Innovation
    SFMOMA delivered videos to gallery-based Personal Digital Assistants five years ago, and it has developed rich media broadband presentations using Flash and video; Antenna produced successful implementations of handhelds for Tate Modern and the Van Gogh Museum. What stands to be gained from embracing podcasting, a new version of an audio-only medium? What unique opportunities does it offer?
  • Impact on paid audio tours
    Will podcasts undermine the market for paid audio tours, costing money to produce and cutting into an established revenue stream? Or can the two audio models coexist in different niches, one free and the other purchased?

Six months later, we have provisional answers to these questions. But first, let us take a step back to review the podcasting phenomenon, which is but one expression of technology-induced changes in the broader cultural environment.

Joining the Podcast Revolution

Podcasting owes much of its success to the wild popularity of digital audio players. The numbers on iPod and MP3 player ownership are striking. A survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (PIP) revealed that as of February 2005 11 percent of American adults – more than 22 million people aged 18 or older – owned iPods or other MP3 players. Published in early 2005, the study actually predates the blistering surge in iPod acquisitions reported by Apple CEO Steve Jobs in his keynote address at the 2006 MacWorld. According to Jobs, Apple’s iPod has the dominant share in the MP3 market, at 83 percent. “Apple has sold more than 42 million iPods,” Jobs said. “Last year alone, 32 million more flew off store shelves. And in the three most recent months [October to December 2005], customers snatched up 14 million iPods.” (Lee, 2006)

The growing legions of iPod consumers – playfully referred to as “pod people” – are becoming increasingly aware of the ever-expanding world of content at their fingertips. As early as April 2005, before the podcasting craze took hold, a data memo from the PIP reported that of the estimated 22 million American adults who owned MP3 players, “Twenty-nine percent of them have downloaded podcasts from the Web so that they could listen to audio files at the time of their choosing. This amounts to more than 6 million adults who have tried this new feature.” (Rainie and Madden, 2005)

Predictions for growth in the nascent podcast industry are equally astounding. As projected by Bridge Ratings LLC, a market data and audience measurement service for radio, “by 2010 podcast audience growth is expected to reach a conservative 45 million users. … Aggressive estimates place this number closer to 75 million by this date.” (Bridge Ratings, 2005) Clearly, podcasting is no longer a fad, but a major player in the mainstream media mix.

The PIP study also noted that younger adults are more likely to have tried podcasting than their elders. According to the study, “[N]early half of those who own iPods/MP3 players between the ages of 18-28 have downloaded podcasts, compared to about 20 percent of the owners of iPods/MP3 players over age 29.” (Rainie and Madden, 2005)

These statistics map to growing patterns of teen content creation, and to the potential of podcasting as a two-way educational tool by which museums may reach one of their most finicky audiences. In the PIP study “Teen Content Creators and Consumers,” Lenhart and Madden (November, 2005) found that 57 percent of teens who are on-line have created content for the Internet. This amounts to 50 percent of all teens ages 12 to 17, or about 12 million youth. These teen content creators report having participated in one or more of the following: created a blog or a personal Web page; created a work on a Web page for school, a friend, or an organization; shared original content such as artwork, photos, stories, or videos on-line; remixed content found on-line into a new creation. As summarized by Lenhart and Madden (2005):

Today’s online teens live in a world filled with self-authored, customized, and on-demand content. …The Internet and digital publishing technologies have given them tools to create, remix, and share content on a scale that had previously only been accessible to the professional gatekeepers of broadcast, print, and recorded media outlets.

Given the ubiquity of content creation hardware and teens’ familiarity with content manipulation, it seems natural that museums should look to podcasting as an unprecedented opportunity for more effectively reaching out to a wider and younger audience.

Life Before Podcasting

The history of automated audio tours goes back five decades to the primitive reel-to-reel players of the 1950s. Since then, the audio tour has become a fixture and default learning tool in museums and cultural heritage sites around the world. As audio technologies have evolved, so have the nature and tone of the audio tour. The cumbersome players of the earliest incarnations have given way to generations of ever more portable alternatives – from audiocassette players to handheld devices to wands and MP3 players that can be used with one hand. Random-access technologies have given visitors more control over their routes and the pacing of their gallery visits. Visual interfaces and hard buttons now allow visitors manual navigation through rich content (Schwarzer, 2001), while advances in wireless technologies, infrared tags, and GPS include location-sensitive triggers for content (Proctor, 2005) so visitors scarcely need to navigate at all.

As advances in technology have changed the way users interact with audio tours, the content of the tours themselves has undergone a transformation. Inventive scripting has replaced the dusty, uninspired monologues of the earliest tours. Historically New York-based Acoustiguide and Sausalito, California-based Antenna Audio have dominated the American museum market; both now have outposts around the world, reflecting their omnipresence in the museum interpretive marketplace. The advent of podcasts and cell phone-based audio tours has created an opportunity for museums to produce tours and audio content on their own, while raising the question of what that content will sound like. Will visitors like these new home-grown tours more, or less?

Many patrons enjoy personal audio tours for the privacy they afford – the freedom to move through the galleries at a self-determined pace without the intervention of a human guide. While these tours are popular with visitors, managing them is a major undertaking for the institutions that choose to use them. Once in place, the proprietary audio devices require constant maintenance, updates, recharging, and replacement – services typically supplied by a single vendor to which the museum is beholden. The vendors, with their enormous stake in hardware and infrastructure, are at risk, as well, in an environment of constantly evolving technology.

In an ideal scenario, digital audio tours improve the quality of interpretation while generating some financial benefit for the museum through rental revenues or sponsorship. Yet a recent survey of U.S. art museums reveals that the financial benefit frequently proves elusive. In a 2001 survey of seventy-four U.S. art museums, 60 percent of which were using “digital technology to enhance the visitor experience” (Schwarzer 2001), researcher Marjorie Schwarzer asked museums to list the advantages of using digital devices. The least cited benefit was “revenue -generation”; concurrently, the most oft-cited disadvantages were “cost of installation” and “equipment malfunctions.” Summarizing her findings, Schwarzer writes,

There are many stakeholders in these kinds of projects who hold a wide variety of opinions. Most do agree on one thing: the devices are not money-makers. In fact, digital technologies are very expensive to maintain and produce. (Schwarzer, 2001; 40)

In recent years, numerous museums have made forays into location-based PDA technology. In these cases, the visitors’ learning curve for unfamiliar devices becomes an issue. Due to the experimental and unpredictable performance of location-based systems, the risk of latency, bugs, and malfunctions is high. The visitors’ expectations pose another concern for developers: Accustomed to powerful personal computers with high-speed Internet access, visitors often have high standards for technology and little patience for systems that don’t work perfectly.

By shifting the focus from a proprietary hardware base to the visitor’s own personal devices, museums that embrace podcasts and cell phones have a significant opportunity to circumvent problems of cost, maintenance, and obsolescence that currently plague audio tour stakeholders. Because of podcasting’s unique ability to mesh directly with an everyday personal device, the medium brings the content – not the tool – to the forefront. The technology shift is particularly effective with the under 35 demographic. It is worth noting, however, that older visitors still comprise the majority of art museum members (SFMOMA, 2006), and podcasts are far less intuitive to them. In the words of Antenna’s creative director Amy Heibel:

… [U]nfortunately iPods have not yet been quite right for a broad audience of users—at least in our testing. The interface just isn't as easy as the keypad model, which is pretty user-proof. (Heibel, 2006)

The Q-Word: Quality

If museums are seriously thinking of podcasts (or cell phone tours) as inexpensive replacements for an aging or costly audio tour infrastructure, they would do well to consider not just usability, but also quality. What is a quality podcast, and are museums capable of producing them independently? Each institution will have its own litmus test, a sliding scale that determines where it stands on the continuum between:

Amateur-produced ↔ Urbane, polished perfection

Podcasts historically skew to the left of this chart, but as public interest in the medium grows and more energy, dollars, and major media efforts are poured into producing podcast content, the tone is beginning to shift toward the right.

At SFMOMA, we have extensive experience producing video with two trusted outside contractors, but we have very little experience producing stand-alone audio. Recognizing that the hardware is just one aspect of the experience, we approached Antenna Audio, with whom we have a longstanding relationship, with several goals in mind:

  • To establish a working partnership to explore the potential of this new platform
  • To ensure a rich audio texture in our podcasts
  • To share the production workload
  • To develop better audio skills in-house

The collaboration has proven fruitful. Working with a creative outside vendor who “thinks audio” has helped SFMOMA define a podcast identity that we’re comfortable delivering on a regular basis.

Each SFMOMA Artcast comprises two parts delivered in two files: an on-line audio zine for listening at home or on the go about town and an exhibition tour for use in the Museum. We aim for a total length of fifteen minutes for the zine: individual segments within it typically run two to four minutes. (There have been exceptions: JT LeRoy’s guest contribution clocked in at nearly nine minutes.) The second component – the ‘bonus’ track – is typically a loosely structured exhibition tour in the featured artist’s own voice. This feature can run longer than the zine segments – as long as fifteen minutes; we prefer to err on the side of excess, based on the assumption that visitors will want to linger longer with the art in the gallery if the artist is there with them.

As for workload, the structure we have established provides a division of responsibilities for each episode. SFMOMA supplies the artist interview content and produces the bonus exhibition tour; Antenna’s senior producer Catherine Girardeau sews together transcript fragments so that our interview segments sound seamless and flow elegantly into each other. She also records the connecting narration, adds background sound design, and produces the Vox Pop segment. We are learning audio production skills, but we also value the years of production expertise a seasoned producer-engineer like Girardeau brings to our product.

Other museums have purposely availed themselves of podcasts as an alternative to audio tours and as a way to circumvent the high cost of hiring an outside company to develop audio content. Both the San Jose Museum of Art and the Orange County Museum of Art found the opportunity to create their first podcasts in-house liberating: the self-produced podcasts gave existing staff opportunities to research and stretch beyond the normal parameters of their jobs. In each case, the institution was fortunate to have among its extended community experienced voice talent – in one case, an actor and a radio personality – and access to production tools – Apple’s GarageBand for one, access to an experienced sound editor and the recording studio at a nearby college radio station for the other. Each museum had a representative in the galleries to help visitors with the iPod controls; visitor survey results were overwhelmingly positive. Both institutions report they are intent on developing further podcasts, even as they realize that such activity has to be built into the daily workload – which requires additional personnel to be sustainable. (Maynard 2006, Moss 2006)

Podcast Panacea? Five Myths about Podcasting

  1. Visitors will be able to bring in their iPods and synchronize them to a docking station in the Museum lobby, and then use their own hardware for an audio tour.

    Several museums have tried docking stations, but none has come away smiling. Apple itself discourages the use of docking stations. The main problem is that iPods come embedded with preferences that relate to visitors’ personal computers, and they are often set up to automatically download content upon docking. So, when a visitor docks an iPod with a different computer, the computer initiates a series of dialogue boxes that could, if answered incorrectly, erase the visitor’s entire stored music library. In the words of Brent Gustafson, writing on the Walker Art Center’s blog:

    … [W]hen you connect an iPod to a rogue machine, [the machine] gives you an alert saying as much and asks if you want to delete the contents of the iPod and marry the iPod to the new machine. That’s not exactly a great idea, especially for a user who’s on a trip from out-of-town and brought their iPod for things other than museum audio tours. (Gustafson, 2005)

    The common solution – for museums that elect to go the extra mile – is to lend out iPods preloaded with tour content (in exchange for a credit card, driver’s license, or some form of collateral) to people who have not downloaded the content in advance. (Moss, 2006; Maynard, 2006)

  2. Podcasts behave the same way as audio tours and can supplant them at a fraction of the cost.

    Podcasts are a new format and require a new way of thinking about audio tours – it’s best not to use podcasts as object-specific guides. Unlike keypad-based tours, iPods require familiarity with the clickwheel at their center. For visitors who have never used an iPod – and there are millions of such elders in the museum-going population – the clickwheel can be utterly mystifying. What do you click? How do you adjust the volume? What happens if you inadvertently press the back arrow or, worse yet, hit the Menu button and leap out of the playlist altogether? Such uncertainties can leave a visitor feeling hopelessly lost. (Moss, 2006)

  3. Many museums have launched their podcast programs by repurposing content they already own.

    New York’s Museum of Modern Art uses its podcast feed to distribute its pre-existing audio tour stops over the Web at no charge – certainly a noble gesture, but subscribers receive unaltered Acoustiguide materials which include stop numbers and instructions for using the Acoustiguide hardware (e.g., “If you need instructions on using this Acoustiguide, press 101, then press play.”) Without the visual interface of the Acoustiguide hardware, these instructions can be confusing, particularly to older listeners.

    Ironically, in some ways podcast tours take us back to the early days of cassette-based audio guides. iPods are linear delivery systems. Some readers might remember when the museum tour guide would ask each visitor to stop or pause the Walkman and then resume next to a specific artwork in the next gallery. Random access digital tours did away with all that: Audio was delivered in succinct, object-specific chunks. Most MP3 players, including iPods, are not equipped with a graphical interface, creating a challenge for audio tours that are traditionally navigated through a graphical menu or by punching in number codes. With iPods, which deliver audio that naturally flows from one track to the next, visitors must be vigilant about glancing down at the navigational screen so they can stop at the narration’s break point and restart when they are physically repositioned and ready to listen to the next message. The clickwheel technologies of MP3 players necessitate a rethinking of how podcast audio tours should be presented.

  4. Since iPods play MP3 files, they are compatible with each other and all MP3 players, regardless of the generation.

    One drawback of relying on the users’ own hardware is the potential for incongruity between players. Even within a single hardware type, such as the iPod, there exist multiple generations. Some older models may or may not be compatible with M4As, the standard for enhanced podcasts that include images and chapters. And Apple’s GarageBand 3.0, its purpose-built authoring tool for enhanced podcasts, outputs .ACC files that non-iPod MP3 players and Windows computers might not recognize. Vodcasts, or video podcasts use a variant of QuickTime with a compression scheme and aspect ratio that is unlike anything found elsewhere on either Mac or PC. At SFMOMA, we have published both MP3 (audio only) and M4A (enhanced) podcasts, but we have stopped short of offering video versions until the installed user base is larger.

  5. We no longer need to hire an audio tour production company because podcasts lower the bar so much that we can produce our own.

    This is not entirely a myth: a museum can theoretically produce an iPod-based tour with in-house expertise and offer it over the Web or in the museum lobby. But the caveats mentioned in Nos. 2 and 3 above apply: the Museum must supply the hardware or risk catering only to those who have pre-loaded the current podcast and brought their own players, and, more important, the iPod clickwheel interface is both too sophisticated and not sophisticated enough to serve as an ideal object-by-object audio tour delivery system. (See also “Loss of the Graphical Interface” below.) At SFMOMA, we have come to the conclusion that podcasts are better treated as portable zines and facilitators of inter-arts dialogue than as audio tour replacements. When we do append exhibition tours to our Artcasts, they are typically general overviews for exhibitions that otherwise would have no audio enrichment. We increasingly avoid an object-by-object approach because of the problematic navigation, and we are quite conscious of the discrepancy in production values between our home-grown content and that produced by a professional firm.

Loss of the Graphical Interface

With all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why we consider podcasting in some ways a step backward from the media-rich interactive Flash and video features that populate our kiosks and Web site. Perhaps the biggest compromise is the lack of a graphical user interface, or GUI – something PDAs have, for all their flaws. Users are constrained to refer to a thumbnail image of an artwork (originally conceived of as ‘album art’ for downloaded tunes); if they click twice on the hub of the iPod clickwheel, the image enlarges briefly to a still inadequate size, then reverts to the thumbnail. The Touch and Listen interface Antenna has successfully piloted on the Tate Modern and Van Gogh Museum multimedia tours invites gallery visitors to point to a zone on an artwork and hear messages about it, and offers a more direct and intuitive experience (see Fig. 2). The iPod has no comparable feature.

Fig. 2 The Tate Modern’s Multimedia Tour. The visitor touches a square on the PDA screen to trigger an audio message about that aspect of the artwork on view.

Fig. 2 The Tate Modern’s Multimedia Tour. The visitor touches a square on the PDA screen to trigger an audio message about that aspect of the artwork on view.

Getting the Word Out through the Blogsphere

Of course, podcasts don’t just exist on iPods. Many people listen to them on home computers using iTunes or other MP3 playback programs. Before they listen to a museum podcast, however, they have to know it’s there. Producing the audio is not enough; publicizing the podcast is the necessary next step – on the home page of the institution’s Web site, in e-mails to members, in printed material, and through other channels of communication. (see Fig. 3)

Fig. 3: SFMOMA Web site: podcast overview page

Fig. 3: SFMOMA Web site: podcast overview page

Furthermore, publicity in the mainstream media is fine, but it is also important to tap alternative, ‘viral,’ channels: blogs, e-mails, and Web sites. Podcasts have introduced SFMOMA to a totally new paradigm for spreading information. The ‘Blogsphere’ is far more effective in promoting this medium than are traditional press releases or expensive print advertisements. In this digitally driven community, influential blogs such as SmartMobs, Anna Conti, and BlendedEDU spread word of our podcast project (fig. 4). These Web sites were then extensively reblogged so that within a matter of days our podcasts were listed in no fewer than thirty locations on the Web. Downloads and subscriptions went up commensurately.

Fig. 4: A SmartMobs posting about an SFMOMA Artcast, December 22, 2005

Fig. 4: A SmartMobs posting about an SFMOMA Artcast, December 22, 2005

Concluding Thoughts

Where will content live in a hardware-agnostic world? What will it sound like? With the popularity of podcasting and the proliferation of freeware tools like GarageBand and Audacity, how will companies like Antenna Audio and Acoustiguide adjust their profit models? What happens to these companies when the hardware infrastructure belongs to the audience and they no longer have the hardware rental profits as a source of income? How do their profit models change?

One new start-up that specializes in cell phone-based audio tours envisions selling phone cards with scratch-off number codes that enable museum visitors to license access to voice mailboxes about museum exhibitions on a per-visit basis; this development raises a question about what content will sound like in 2008. Will the self-authored cell phone- and iPod-based audio tours that seem poised to threaten the tour companies sound like a throwback to the 1960s? Will the Antennas and Acoustiguides of the world shift their focus to supplying production quality to many different museums rather than providing production and proprietary hardware rentals to the lucky few who provided the bulk of the audio-tour audience in the pre-podcast world? In fact, the days of dependence on specific hardware seem to be coming to an end. In the words of Scott Sayre: “You don’t design for a platform. You design for interchange between platforms.” (Sayre, 2006)

At SFMOMA, we use podcasts to open up a space for multiple voices: artists, curators, special guests, and audience members. Traditional audio tours theoretically offer this, too, but they tend to exclude the visitors’ nonarchival, noncuratorial voices. Podcasts foster a two-way communication between museum and community: iPods are a vector for injecting art ideas into the daily lives of people at home or on-the-go. The opposite is also true: iPods are a way of bringing voices from the community into the Museum.

Appendix: Best Practices

Are the typologies we’ve articulated followed by other museums, or have the experiences of other museums diverged from us? Let’s look at some other approaches.

Best Practices: University Applications

Museums wondering how they might integrate podcasting in their arts curricula may find some inspiration in what is happening on college campuses. A psychology professor at the University of Connecticut is recording small group study sessions and making them available to students to use in reviewing course content. The professor has recorded more than a dozen weekly study sessions. Students can download the podcasts to their own MP3 players or listen to the study sessions on computers. Students like the portability of the podcasts and the fact that they can stop the devices in order to take notes or to review a difficult idea.

Duke University distributed free iPods to all 1,600 of its first-year students in 2004, but for the current academic year the university has modified the program to provide free iPods only to undergraduates who enrolled in a course that required the device. As professors have become comfortable with the technology, its use has expanded beyond foreign languages and computer science to engineering, dance, medical physics, biomedical engineering, and mathematics. Duke professors are using iPods to distribute course content, to record classroom and fieldwork audio data, and as a study support tool.

In fall 2005 Purdue University launched BoilerCast, podcasts of classroom lectures from some seventy-five courses.

Stanford University offers a wide variety of podcasts that can be downloaded from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Stanford’s podcasting effort includes lectures, speeches, interviews, music, and sports, as well as curriculum materials created by professors for specific classes.

Best Practices: Exemplary Museum Podcasts

The V & A: Every Object Tells A Story (

The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London has teamed with Tyne & Wear Museums, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and Brighton & Hove Museums to create a project called Every Object Tells A Story. According to the project’s Web site (, the EOTAS stories/podcasts are “bite-sized accounts ... of people’s stories about objects they treasure. The podcasts, unlike the archived stories, are all personal stories by experts (so far).” An image of the artwork being discussed is displayed on the iPod or MP3 player while the story plays. Users may download a PDF ‘trail’ map highlighting the location of EOTAS objects in the galleries. The Victoria & Albert Museum has gone a step farther by developing a curriculum around its EOTAS project.

Bronx Museum of the Arts: museRadio (

A podcast produced by the Bronx Museum Teen Council, museRadio presents artists interviewed by the teens on the council: “Our goal is to inform the people that we have a voice and we plan to use it. Now listen up as we pave the way for the future.”

The museum’s description continues:

Broadcasting from the basement of the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Inspired and created by RadioActivist Youth. Disrupting your brain waves with alternative media and the current art scene… In this first episode you are introduced to the world of museRadio. Listeners are treated to an interview with artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Can't make it to the Bronx Museum? Our staff takes you on a virtual artistic audio tour of our current exhibition Irreducible. Wrapping up the first episode is a roundtable discussion in which the staff of museRadio discuss school safety and teen stereotypes. This is the beginning ...

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn splits its podcasts into Artist Lecture Series, Artist Interview Series, and Curatorial Walk-through Series. The podcasts feature long conversations with artists including Janet Cardiff, Ann Hamilton, and Jim Hodges.

San Jose Museum of Art

The San Jose Museum of Art’s Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement exhibition podcast matches commentary on social activist artworks with archival audio from historical and contemporary events.


The authors wish to thank their colleagues who have actively participated in development of the podcast program: Tana Johnson, Tim Svenonius, Dana Mitroff, and Andrew Delaney at SFMOMA; Amy Heibel and Catherine Girardeau at Antenna Audio; and all the artists and guest artists who have been such willing and fruitful collaborators.


Bridge Ratings (2005). Bridge Ratings Industry Update. The Podcasting Outlook: Podcasting to Hit Critical Mass in 2010. Last updated November 12, 2005, consulted January 13, 2006.

Cardiff, Janet (2005). A Conversation with Janet Cardiff. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Podcasts. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. First broadcast December 19, 2005, consulted January 13, 2006.

Gilbert, David (2005). Interview with Jill Marino. Art Mobs blog. Last updated May 11, 2005, consulted January 12, 2006.

Gustafson, Brent (2005). iPod Docking Station Prototype. Walker New Media Initiatives Blog. Last updated December 22, 2005, consulted January 11, 2006.

Heibel, Amy (2006). E-mail correspondence to Peter Samis. January 25, 2006.

Jobbings, Dave (2005). Exploiting the educational potential of podcasting. Russell Educational Consultancy and Productions research paper. Last updated July 2005, consulted January 13, 2006.

Kennedy, Randy (2005). “With Irreverence and an iPod, Recreating the Museum Tour.” The New York Times. May 28, 2005.

Lee, Ellen (2006). “iPod shuffles new recruits into Apple's army of fans.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 12, 2005, consulted January 13, 2006.

Lenhart, Amanda and Mary Madden (2005). Teen Content Creators and Consumers. Pew Internet & American Life research paper. Last updated November 2, 2005, consulted January 11, 2006.

Maynard, Margy (2006). Personal communication re: test implementation of podcast tours in the Art of Engagement, San Jose Museum of Art. February 2, 2006.

Moss, Karen (2006). Personal communication re: test implementation of podcast tours, Orange County Museum of Art. February 1, 2006.

Mp3 (2006). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. last updated 6 February 2006. Consulted February 6, 2006.

Nickerson, Matthew (2006). All The World's a Museum: Access to Cultural Heritage Audio Anywhere, Anytime. In Xavier Perrot (Ed.) Digital Culture and Heritage: Proceedings of ICHIM 2006 (CD-ROM). Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Prensky, Marc (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, NCB University Press, Vol. 9, No. 5, October 2001.

Prensky, Marc (2005). Engage Me or Enrage Me. EDUCAUSE Review. September/October 2005: 60-64.

Proctor, Nancy (2005). Off-Base or On Target? Pros and Cons of wireless and location-aware applications in the museum. In ICHIM 2005: Wireless and Location-based Technologies in Museums. Presented at ICHIM 2005 Conference. September 8, 2005.

Rainie, Lee and Mary Madden (2005). “Podcasting Catches On.” Pew Internet & American Life Project Data Memo. Last updated April 2005, consulted January 10, 2006.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2005). Introductory lines of SFMOMA Artcasts, December 2005. Text also reproduced on SFMOMA Artcasts Web site. Consulted February 1, 2006.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2005). Visitor Survey Reports. Internal document. Updated December 2005, consulted January 10, 2006.

Sayre, Scott (2006). Personal communication re: mobile learning devices, February 4, 2006.

Wilson, William (1996). ‘Taking Pictures’ Offers Few Bright Spots in a Mixed Bag. Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1996.

Cite as:

Samis P. and Pau S., ‘Artcasting’ at SFMOMA: First-Year Lessons, Future Challenges for Museum Podcasters broad audience of use, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at