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Is Podcasting For Real?

Shel Holtz | Contributing Writer | 2005-04-04
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In less than an hour, Neville and I will record the next installment of For Immediate Release. One of the issues we'll discuss is a post from Darren Barefoot's blog titled, "Why I'm Not Smoking the Podcasting Dope."

Editor's Note: How many of you find podcasting to be a useful medium? Have you ever downloaded a podcast? If so, what did you think of it? If not, would you consider doing so? Discuss at WebProWorld.

Read Darren's blog post.

Barefoot is a "writer, technologist and marketer who lives in Vancouver, Canada," according to his site. He raises enough issues-compounded by comments to the post-that I wanted to think through my responses. It seemed a good idea to use my own blog for that process. So here goes…

Barefoot begins by leaving no doubt about his skepticism: "I'm skeptical about who's doing it, who's going to do it, and who's going to listen to it. In short, I don't think podcasting is going to get very far into the mainstream." He lays out several arguments. Let's examine them one by one:

Mainstream radio will take over podcasting, offering time-shifted versions of their own content.

The time-shifted nature of podcasting is great, but it's not the only-or even the main-reason that podcasts appeal to people. Most of the radio we're subjected to these days is programmed by corporations. My daughter, for instance, has pretty much given up on radio, since she hears the same songs (pushed by the labels) over and over again. What she likes about P2P and, now, podcasting, is the opportunity to hear alternative music. Radio is also sanitized. (Just ask Howard Stern.) Podcasting is about genuine voices. It's also about narrowcasting. Neville and I will never have hundreds of thousands of people listening to FIR, but if we have the key influencers in the public relations world in our small audience, we'll be very happy.

I'm sure Emile Bourquin, host of Endurance Radio, feels the same. Endurance Radio targets enthusiasts of endurance sports. That's not nearly a large enough audience to justify a traditional radio show, but it's a targeted audience that appeals to advertisers like Fleet Sports and Gatorade. The show has attracted a large and faithful following that never would have had the opportunity to hear this kind of show without podcasting.

Time-shifting will provide some benefits to listeners of traditional radio, to be sure. I'd love to schedule a daily download of Terri Gross (of NPR's "Fresh Air"). There may be other talk or information-focused radio shows people would like to listen to at some time other than their regularly-scheduled slots. But that won't preclude others from producing content that also appeals to listeners.

There were similar concerns a decade ago over the World Wide Web. The business world would appropriate the Web and commercialize it, leaving it bereft of the creativity and energy that characterized early sites. Yes, the world of business has established itself on the Web. But that has not restricted the Web's parallel growth in non-commercial directions. Just look at blogging, for example.

There are only so many hours people can spend listening to podcasts.

And..? There are only so many hours we can spend watching TV, reading books, visiting Web sites, sleeping…

Attention is an issue in general. People will prioritize. Nobody ever suggested podcasting would require people to listen to everything. I don't have time to read every magazine I want to read, so I make decisions about the ones that are worth my attention and discard those that don't make the cut. Why is podcasting any different?

"While about 65% of North America has Internet access, only about 40% has broadband access. A fraction of those people have portable digital music players which are the de facto device for listening to podcasts. That really shrinks (and, demographically speaking, narrows) the potential audience."

Why does everybody insist on judging the potential for a new technology based on the current state and not the future state? Broadband's momentum is clearly past the tipping point and that number will increase over the next few years. When the Web was introduced, penetration of the Internet into American homes and businesses was nowhere near its current 65%, and there were naysayers then, too, claiming the Web would never be significant because of its limited availbility. iPod sales alone (not to mention other devices) continue to gain speed. (There was a day when very few people owned something like a Sony Walkman, too, remember.) And, of course, you can listen to podcasts at your computer. Podcasting is less than a year old. In three or four years, the technology that enables it will support its inevitable move into the mainstream.

"Personally, I have no commute, and I find that I can't listen to talking while I'm writing. So, that really limits the available hours for listening to podcasts."

I have no commute, either, yet I listen to about 15 podcasts. Some are weekly, which makes it easier. But I listen on the treadmill (I used to listen to music), on flights, when I'm walking the dog, and when I'm driving to clients (instead of radio). If the content is compelling, you'll find time to listen.

"Unlike a blog, anybody can't do it."

First of all, I'd argue the notion that anybody can do a blog. My mom couldn't do one on a bet. She'd be calling every 15 minutes asking how to access it, what a trackback is, why her links aren't working, and so on.

Second, it's not as tough as Barefoot makes it out to be. All you need is a microphone connected to your audio-in. No, it won't be as professional sounding as one produced via a mixer and other high-end equipment, but again, it's the content that matters, not the production values.

But even if everybody can't do it, so what? There are producers and there are consumers. I don't understand why podcasting needs to be equated with blogs. They're not the same by any stretch of the imagination.

Where is the audience given the decline in radio listeners?

Radio is in decline because of disappointment with its content. Podcasting is an alternative (along with satellite radio and personal digital devices like the iPod). The audience for podcasts will continue to grow over time. The catalysts for that growth will be…

  • The increasing ease of subscribing to podcasts as the technology improves

  • The growth in broadband

  • The growth in the use of personal digital devices

  • Improved content choices

  • Improved means of identifying the podcasts in which you'd be interested (there is already a service , www.49media.com, that lets you search for podcast content)

  • Heightened awareness of podcasting in general

  • Even today, the numbers are impressive. Consider this note released yesterday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

    More than 22 million American adults own iPods or MP3 players and 29% of them have downloaded podcasts from the Web so that they could listen to audio files at a time of their choosing. That amounts to more than 6 million adults who have tried this new feature that allows internet "broadcasts" to be downloaded onto their portable listening device.

    There's your audience, Darren.

    There were also some arguments against podcasting posed in the comments added to Barefoot's post:

    Podcasters are basically laying down a linear stream of words that you cannot skim, you must take it in exactly the linear order that it is presented, or not at all.

    Dare I say it again? So what? When I'm in my car, on the treadmill, or walking my dog, I don't want non-linear media. Yes, audio is linear. That's what I expect when I listen to something.

    "Podcasting goes against everything the Web stands for. It demands that the user take things exactly as the podcaster presents it, which is often a rambling, unedited stream-of-consciousness rant. There are many talented writers, but there are few people who are capable of putting the care into podcasting that even a good amateur writer will put into their webpage. A good podcaster will have to be a good writer first, even before the technical requirements for a compelling audio presentation."

    So let me get this straight. You're saying "bad podcasts are bad." There's a useful way to deal with this: Don't listen to bad podcasts. While you're at it, don't listen to bad CDs, don't go to bad movies, don't read bad books, and don't visit bad Web sites. Sheesh.

    Why did posting a short mp3 file to your website and letting people download suddenly get a new fancy name?

    The point has been missed. The idea behind podcasting is to use podcatching software (something that will become easier and easier) to subscribe to a podcast so it just shows up on your media player. A key point the critics of podcasting seem to miss is that podcasting isn't Internet content. The Internet is merely used as a utility to handle distribution of the content. That represents a new use for the Net, but to classify podcasts as the same kind of content designed for consumption on the Web is a mistake.

    I'm usually pretty cautious about predicting the sustainability of a new online medium. I never jumped on the "push" bandwagon, for instance. But podcasting, I believe, is here to stay. It will find its niche, it will find its audience. Those who don't like it don't have to listen. But I'll go out on a limb and predict that some form of podcasting, evolved from its current nascent state, will be an integral part of the media mix in five years' time.

    Listen to the For Immediate Release podcasts.

    View All Articles by Shel Holtz

    About the Author:
    Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

    As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.

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