Can You Hear Me Now?

7 Apr 2003

Paul R. Potts

I’ve been trying out, a business whose model is digital delivery of audio content. It all began with an attempt to gain access to content from the NPR show Fresh Air. Fresh Air’s web site explicitly states:

We do not object to the educational and non-profit use of Fresh Air program audio. We do not provide research or other special services for listeners. Individuals or not-for-profit institutions which intend to make limited, non-profit, educational use of Fresh Air programs may record the programs off the air or purchase tapes from Burrelle’s. Please credit, ” Fresh Air with Terry Gross, produced in Philadelphia by WHYY” in your use.

Therefore, I have never felt reluctance to record the program on casette tape and share it with family members of friends. But the show comes on at noon: this isn’t convenient for me. Being unable to start the tape at the right time or flip it, I usually wind up with an incomplete recording. I could order a tape: they cost $23.70. That’s quite a bit. Instead I decided to try Audible, where the individual programs cost $1.95 or less, depending on special promotions or subscription purchases. My first Fresh Air download cost only $1.56. Clearly a bargain. But even something that is free may not be worth it, if it costs me time, additional money, or aggravation. By that standard, is Audible worth it?

Although Fresh Air is legally distributable as described above, Audible’s file format is not; it is a presumably DMCA-compliant format, and your use of the content is enforced by code. You may allegedly download the file in one of several different bit rates, download it to an iPod (I don’t have one; the lowest-end iPod still costs $300), or burn a CD. After you’ve purchased it and downloaded it, the first time you play the file, you’ll have to provide your Audible username and password. After that, it seems to be possible to play the program an indefinite number of times, but I can’t vouch for that with any certainty. How long will I be allowed to use the content? Will I need to re-authorize this file at some point in the future, if I move it to a new hard drive, a new computer, or put it on a (digital) CD-ROM? Programs you’ve purchased stay in your on-line library; I was able to download the file both at home and at work. I guess this is my backup, but what limitations exist on when and how I can download it again? What if Audible goes tits-up? The file is not a standard MP3 file. Do I “own” it? Am I “renting” this file? Taken this way, making a casette off the air does indeed seem far less troublesome!

There is a “back door” – iTunes can burn a copy of the content to a plain old audio CD-R. Just what I want: now I can listen to it in the car, or on my (plain old) CD player. But when I tried this on my G4 PowerBook with an external Yamaha FireWire CD-RW drive, it did not work: iTunes consistently reports that “none of the items in the playlist can be burned to CD.” I’ve now tried it with a different program: it still doesn’t work.

It apparently isn’t the case that I’m doing something wrong: the mirrored-drive-door (or “wind tunnel”) G4 dual-processor 867-MHz desktop machine at my office will download and burn the same file to CD-R, using the exact same versions of MacOS X and iTunes, and the same procedure. So I’ve got a workaround. This flaw is probably a result of excessive paranoia in Audible’s protection code, but why does this code care that the CD-RW drive is not built-in? The drive has always performed flawlessly with other file formats, and in this case, the content provider itself has given me permission to make any “limited non-profit, educational use of Fresh Air programs.” Since this is the case, why doesn’t Audible provide the content in a standard MP3 file?

I’ve attempted to contact Audible tech support about this issue; I’ve received, so far, only automated replies that referred me to the same FAQs available on the web site; they don’t address this problem. It isn’t encouraging. Also not encouraging is Audible’s web site; it arbitrarly lost the stored expiration date of my stored credit card information, giving the impression that my card had stopped working. Sometimes links don’t work; sometimes buttons don’t work; reloading the page makes them work again. I don’t think it is worthwile to write these issues up for reporting to tech support; I’m not interested in more automated replies.

So, so far I’ve found workarounds to all the problems I’ve encountered using Audible. But the phrase “not ready for prime time” springs to mind; and Audible has been in business long enough that these issues should have been worked out by now. For a handful of the low-cost, high-value (to me) programs, it has probably been worthwhile, despite all the twiddling and workarounds. For real, full-price content or daily use? Call my skeptical; traditional tape or CD media seems to be far more flexible, and I don’t have to argue with someone’s code or an unresponsive tech-support staff over what rights I have to use the content.

Creative Commons Licence
This work by Paul R. Potts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The CSS framework is stylize.css, Copyright © 2014 by Jack Crawford.

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