Why podcasting hasn’t hit primetime…yet

Last week, I said something in a Slashdot posting that rubbed people the wrong way.

I compared Twitter to podcasting, asking whether Twitter’s competition and revenue-related challenges would relegate the service to the Internet sidelines, much like podcasting had failed to live up to early hype.

I referenced the Twitter profile that was published in The Industry Standard as part of our special feature, “10 ‘Net services that will succeed, and 10 that will probably fail.”

I expected some negativity from die-hard Twitter users, and indeed, there were a fair number of anguished tweets and Web comments that questioned The Standard’s review.

But what really surprised me were the reactions from the podcasting crowd. Slashdot member MoNickels had this to say:

“Podcasting has hardly been sidelined. In the radio business, podcasting is utterly huge–a transformative, disruptive technology that is propelling new business models and new integration of old and new medias. I host a public radio show myself: our podcasting audience is the equivalent of having a dozen more stations syndicate our show. I’m a convert, too: in 2004 I said podcasting was DOA. Boy, was I wrong. I’m now at the point where podcasts are the main way I get radio an it’s true for more and more people. We know because our radio audience tells us so and we see it in the numbers.”

I wondered about this comment. It went totally against my own experience with creating audio podcasts, which lasted from late 2005 until the beginning of this year.

I produced three serial podcasts for Computerworld, and had a great deal of fun doing them with my colleagues — they included the Weekly I/O, an NPR-style program about information technology, and Storage This Week, which discussed storage-related technologies.

Still, no matter how hard we worked on the content, promotions, and user experience, it was difficult to attract significant numbers of listeners.

Part of the reason related to the topics that we covered — an interview with Ray Kurzweil or a discussion of laptop memory hardly has the same pull as talk about national politics or human-interest topics.

But I also doubt the idea that podcasting has become a “disruptive technology” on the same scale as other ‘Net-enabled technologies such as Web video or blogging.

Like Twitter, audio podcasts have a dedicated and growing core of users, but podcasting is hardly a mainstream media phenomenon or money-making machine.

About 18 months ago, the Pew Internet & American Life Project issued a report on podcasting and found that just 12% of Internet users had ever downloaded a podcast, but just 1% said they downloaded podcasts on a typical day.

This compares to Pew survey data released last summer that found 57% of Internet users have ever watched online video and 19% download or watch video from the Internet on a typical day.

This disparity between podcasting and online video says a lot about the appeal of podcast programming and the user experience.

Tens of millions of people in this country have iPods or other gadgets which can play digital audio files, yet the primary application is playing music — files that have been ripped from a CD collection or downloaded from the Internet.

Music appeals to nearly everyone, and the processes required to transfer music from the ‘Net or a CD collection to a digital music player are relatively simple.

Podcast programming is a different story.

Most people are unfamiliar with podcasts (with the exception of repurposed radio programs) and downloading, updating, and subscribing to programming involve additional steps.

Compared to radio programming, most podcasts sound amateurish and slow-paced, and the ability to find interesting programs is severely limited by the directories, rating systems, and search functions found on iTunes and other podcatchers and podcast-oriented sites.

No wonder relatively few people have tried downloading podcasts, and fewer still listen to them on a regular basis.

And then there are the business models.

Radio stations getting into the podcasting game have it relatively easy. They already have established brands, audiences, professional hosts and producers, and dedicated sales teams for their on-air programs.

Peeling off mp3 files for the Web or podcasts, and tacking on “podcasts” to a sales campaign or sell sheet is not difficult.

For the dozens of podcasting startups, text-based publishers, and home enthusiasts, it’s a different story. They’re starting from scratch in terms of building audiences, programming, and sales.

It’s especially difficult for small operators who don’t have dedicated sales staff — despite some hopeful buzz about an “AdSense for podcasting,” there is no large-scale, automated marketplace for buying, selling, and inserting advertisements into audio podcasts.

This forces podcasters to do sales on their own — a difficult task and one that potentially threatens the integrity of the programming.

Vendors wanting to get their advertisements played a certain number of times for a big campaign may also be frustrated by the prospect of dealing with multiple podcasters of varying frequency and reach.

Metrics are a mess — there are different tools for measuring the number of podcast RSS subscribers, but there is no way to precisely determine how many people actually heard an advertisement on a podcast, either online or offline.

Contrast that with the granular measurements available to Web-based text, banner, lead-gen, and rich media campaigns. If you were a vendor with a new campaign, where you would concentrate your ad spend?

To be sure, there are some podcasting success stories. Repurposed radio programs and a number of innovative niche audio and video podcasts such as TWiT have loyal followings. But these are exceptions.

Tellingly, 22 of the 25 “Top Podcasts” on the front page of iTunes podcast directory are established brands from the mainstream media world, including HBO, NPR, the BBC, ESPN, The Onion, and Oprah Winfrey.

In this environment, most new and smaller podcasts have to struggle to be heard.

Until the technologies surrounding podcasting are able to improve the user experience and better serve advertisers, podcasting will remain on the fringes.

Comment: [email protected]

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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