Why Podcasts Need More (And Better) Transcriptions

Podcasts, even for hearing audiences, can be difficult to listen to for long stretches of time. In my own experience, any distracting competitive sound from heavy traffic to a host’s own bad microphone will cause me to miss out on whole sections of the program. For a listener with hearing loss, these issues can be even more profound. This is where transcripts are at their most helpful.

With millions of existing podcasts across dozens of platforms, it’s impossible to keep an accurate count of how many podcasts have available transcriptions. But it’s easy to guess that the answer is not nearly enough, and not of high enough quality. This short list of popular podcasts is intended to showcase a wide range of transcription quality and speculate on ways to have the best podcasting experience.

#1. Stuff You Should Know: Poor Quality and Paywalled Transcripts

It’s important to know what not to do when creating transcriptions for your podcasts, and top of the list is not having an official transcript at all. Stuff You Should Know is a podcast featuring two hosts who discuss a variety of niche topics for the purpose of educating and entertaining their audience. The podcast is extremely popular, with its official Twitter account having over 100,000 followers and the podcast itself being downloaded millions of times per month. It’s been running since April of 2008, and over 1,600 episodes have been produced as of September 2021.

That said, is this podcast accessible to d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing consumers? The answer is, not really. Transcripts for Stuff You Should Know are all unofficial and of poor quality. Happy Scribe provides transcripts of an inconsistent number of episodes that are riddled with uncertainties and even cut off mid-podcast. Podgist may have better quality transcriptions, but they’re locked behind a paywall, even though the podcast itself is free.

When up-and-coming podcasters don’t have transcriptions, you can understand their reasoning; good transcriptions take time and care to produce, and new podcast producers have a lot on their plate. The problem is when popular podcasts run by huge media companies like NPR, despite having the money and resources to produce transcriptions, still don’t place enough value on accessibility. Only when more podcasting services make transcription a priority can they broaden their audience to include d/Deaf and hard of hearing people.

By the way – if you’re interested in similar transcripted alternatives to SYSK, where the hosts discuss unrelated and little-known topics, Radiolab and Invisibilia are two good options!

#2. Serial: Transcripts They Don’t Want You to Read

Serial is another highly popular podcast about the slowly unraveling tale of a murder from the 1990s. Unlike SYSK, Serial’s transcriptions are available on the website, but they come with an interesting disclaimer at the top:

“Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.”

Ostensibly this disclaimer is to prevent hearing viewers from stumbling across the podcast in web-novel form and missing out on its intended format, but it comes off a little dismissive of the target audience who non-negotiably need the transcript in order to enjoy the story (d/Deaf folks) or who are unable to fully process the transcript without a visual aid (hard of hearing folks).

Interestingly, Serial comes with an alternate version of transcripts. These transcripts were “crowd-sourced” from the Serial listening community; a labor of love and a gesture of appreciation toward the show, as well as a way of opening doors for more people to experience the podcast. This version of the podcast is a singular pdf over 200 pages long, with the entire 12-episode run of the first season organized like a long narrative. Over the years, many transcripts have been created this way: not by official sources, but by fans donating their time and effort.

#3. Welcome to Night Vale: The Power of Fan Campaigns

Finally, Welcome to Night Vale is another example of what a dedicated fanbase can do. And unlike the crowd-sourced effort to put together Serial in written form, this podcast was largely compiled by a single person. WTNV is a podcast about a radio program based in a  fictional supernatural town, with a tone that manages to strike chilling, funny, and soothing all at once. A blog called CecilSpeaks spearheaded this transcription project, managing to transcribe and upload 176 episodes until the official WTNV team finally began putting out their own. This singular blog’s impact on the entire community is admirable, and to me it shines as an example of what humans can accomplish not because of outside obligation but because of a love for the work they are doing. 

Where do transcripts have to go in the future? Personally, I would love to see transcripts that attempt to mimic the tone and music set by the podcast. First and foremost is always readability and accuracy, but subtle font, color, or page design changes could lend an atmosphere to transcripts that they often lack.

 Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences deserve more than bare-minimum efforts at transcribing this funny, valuable form of media; they deserve to have the experience catalogued in a way that is an art form in itself.

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