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ATPM 11.07
July 2005



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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by David Blumenstein,

Podcasts: Number One on the Hype Parade

The term podcast is a misnomer. The iPod is not a required part of the podcast equation. It is not needed to broadcast programs over the Internet, or even to listen to them, for that matter.

For the past two months, I have been downloading and listening to podcasts daily. I installed iPodderX and used its directory feature to sample the widest breadth of content possible. It should come as no surprise that technology-based content outnumbers all others. All podcasts were heard through the internal speakers of my trusty PowerBook.

I will say that I learned a lot on a host of different topics, but this is after so much concerted listening. The quality level of what I was subjected to for the most part was amateurish. High school radio sounds a lot better and has higher production values. In our digital world time is compressed, and there is little room and even less tolerance for mediocrity. In essence, you are only as good as your last podcast. The signal-to-noise ratio is far too low, and it make me wonder how come so many people simply put up with it. I reckon it doesn’t cost them anything in dollars…yet.

Of course there are exceptions. There are a number of well-produced podcasts, where the on-air talent has taken pains to assemble the proper audio technology and most importantly screen what they are about to unleash. I would like to think that they take pride in what they are doing. These podcasts maintain a strong following due in part to their name recognition and the amount of preparation and research that goes into each program.

Recently, Apple introduced iTunes 4.9 with its integrated podcast aggregator. I was alerted to this by my close friends via instant messenger and dutifully downloaded and installed the update on the spot. I took one look at iTunes 4.9’s podcast software and was prompted to write to my friends and share my thoughts. Below are excerpts with additional comments afterwards.

This will mark the end of the incorrectly named concept of podcasting as it is known today—much like the World Wide Web was supposed to be the great equalizer, yet as we see from history that has not been the case.

When I first saw the opening splash screen, I was struck by the presence of Adam Curry. Mind you, I was not surprised, and had I thought about beforehand, it would have been what I would have expected as he helped coin the genre.

Podcasts will serve as the minor leagues and farm system for established radio broadcasting conglomerates and satellite radio companies: XM and Sirius.

This point was hit home as upon scrolling down the page I noticed that podcasts were being segregated into two distinct categories. The former being those that are unashamedly commercial and the latter being relegated to indie status. Much like the music industry, this nascent industry is rife with stereotypes. Make no mistake, right here and now this stops being grass roots. This is not freeform, and it’s nothing like college radio. It can only aspire to be that good.

The cream of the crop will get invited to the big show, while the chaff will, like most Web sites, get to enjoy their infrequent moments of fame. Podcasting can be likened to a visit to the Wizard of Oz. The level anticipation is great, but once you get there it’s all “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

I have begun conversations with radio executives about this phenomenon and find that they see the podcasts as a stream for future talent. The proliferation of talk radio demands that there be more unique radio personalities and esoteric subjects being discussed. Don’t be shocked when XM and Sirius launch channels comprised solely of podcasts.

Podcasts as a genre is yesterday’s news. It is not the equalizer that its proponents and pundits have claimed it to be. The Web should have taught us all something about the haves and the have-nots. The business of content is all about presentation and marketing. Quality comes far behind availability and access. Consumers will settle for mediocrity if they can get to it easily and reliably.

So what’s the next big hype? Any ideas about the next equalizer? For my money it is the blog, but not so much the content as the actual templates supplied by the leading blogging sites and software companies. I formed my own online focus group targeting the newest bloggers I could find with less than two weeks under their belts and asked them a number of questions: Why start now? Did you maintain a Web site previously? And are you getting out of it what you expected?

The responses in a nutshell: They found the provided templates an excellent tool to help express themselves and communicate their ideas in visibly organized manner. As a result, their Web sites, in their words, look more “respectable,” have “structure,” and are “easier to maintain” because the content and design go hand in hand. The majority chose to blog now because they all feel they have something to say, and they were empowered by being able to refer me to their blogs, rather than telling me directly what they were thinking and what made them tick.

I learned something special from them in reference to my last question. It is not about what the blogger gets out of it, but more importantly what the readers takes with them. Hopefully they are richer for the experience.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (7)

Michael Tsai (ATPM Staff) · June 30, 2005 - 14:47 EST #1
I think you're mostly on-target. My criticism would be that I do think the Web and blogs have been equalizers. That's not to say that there's no hierarchy--there is, and there would be in any human endeavor as large as the Web. But when you subtract the hyperbole, I think they basically worked out the way knowledgeable people expected. However, due to the modalities of audio vs. text, I think podcasts will probably be less "equalized" than Web sites and blogs.
swissfondue · July 1, 2005 - 06:37 EST #2
It is already happening.

Sirius radio already has a podcast channel called "podshow" and produced by BoKu Communications (Adam Curry's company).

And BoKu has already recruited and is paying "the cream of the crop" such as P.W.Fenton from Digital Flotsam podcast to produce high quality content.

It is the other way around: commercial podcasting business is mainly about content quality. No one is going to listen to a Coca-Cola podcast, however high the production values may be, if the content isn't attractive. (For example I only listened once to the Virgin Radio podcast, because they had taken all the music out and served the leftovers a.k.a. "DJ Banter" as a podcast). Of course money buys you lots of marketing power and bandwidth, but word-of-mouth (or rankings sites such as podcast alley) will make the larger and long-term impact.

I see iTunes and iTunes podcasting as the Amazon of music. The "Long Tail" theory applies fully here as well.

Wendy York · July 1, 2005 - 12:58 EST #3
thanks david that was intersting - i agree with most of what you are offering, but I also think that commercial interest not withstanding, the internet (and by its mechanism podcasting does and will serve as the universal bazzar of ideas and access - the relevance and/or veracity of any given instance will always be suspect, but the volume and access afforded will be continuosly transformative of society and ideas. To the fittest will go the laurels, but to any can go the rewards
Riot Nrrrd · July 1, 2005 - 14:22 EST #4
Right on, David. Good commentary. I've never gotten the hype behind Podcasting, either. Gee, you download an MP3 and it's got spoken-word content in it. Just like you said, you can play it through anything, what's it got to do with an iPod necessarily? Nothing.

That said, I think it's funny that you - correctly, in my estimation - dismember the term "Podcasting", yet you mention "blogs" - I feel the same way about "blogs" as you do about "Podcasting". I've had a personal Web page up since 1993 - if only I had put in a little personal diary (and kept it up! - that's the hard part) I could have claimed to have kickstarted the blog revolution well before its time, blah blah (and named myself Adam Curry).

To me, "blog" == "Personal Web page with diary". Cool/hip name for not that new and exciting a concept.
Laird Popkin · July 2, 2005 - 12:44 EST #5
While I agree that the name is imprecise -- apparently "RSS with enclosures" didn't catch on for some reason -- I think that everyone figured out that PodCasting wasn't tied to iPods about six months ago. And while it's meaningless from a technical perspective, calling them PodCasts was brilliant from a marketing perspective, because it associates the idea with the iPod (a fantastic brand), and it perfectly communicates the simple idea that's at the core of PodCasting -- content is "broadcast" straight from the content producer to your personal iPod. So it's a personal form of communication, under your personal control, not just a means of tuning into a corporate broadcast. Brilliant.

And while you're right that one function of PodCasts will be to serve as "farm teams" for the big radio broadcasters, I think that it's much more than that. Aside from the "anybody can do it" aspect, PodCasting offers many more advantages - the listener controls what they listen to and when, in a way that's physically impossible for radio. And in the long run, that means that PodCasting is a better medium than radio, for both the producers and consumers of the "content", which means that in the long run PodCasting will displace radio. There are already surveys saying that over 1m people in the US have listened to a PodCast (before iTunes added PodCasting support, mind you). So it's _already_ a mass market, and growing rapidly, so (IMO) it's a matter of time before PodCasting bypasses radio in the same way that CD-R's bypassed cassette. Sure, radio will never die out completely (for broadcasting real-time news it's great), but it'll become less and less powerful as a communications medium, because for most purposes PodCasting is dramatically better than broadcast radio.

I think you underestimate how terrible broadcast radio has become. With rare exceptions, due to corporate mergers and the acendence of accountants and lawyers, radio has no personality and no range. They don't play music because it's good, or because people like it, but because it maximizes station profits (i.e. they won't play anything unless they're paid to play it). So, similar to the way bloggers compliment the corporate news channels, PodCasting compliments the corporate radio channels. This means that news and music that wouldn't otherwise make it to an audience can do so. Sure, 90% of PodCasting is bad, but 90% of everything is bad. And in return for the "cost" of having to filter through bad PodCasts to find the good ones, there's the very real value of getting access to news and entertainment that is better than you can otherwise get.

For example, I have personal interests that aren't covered by the mainstream media. For example, I'm a software developer and a Science Fiction fan, and like to keep track of international news, topics that just don't get deep coverage on radio. But with PodCasting I can get what I'm interested in, and I can listen to it exactly when I want to. And it's not all nich stuff - some mainstream content companies have figured out how to play in the PodCast world -- the BBC and CNN both have great PodCasts, and there are more every day.

The only people that lose as PodCasting wins are the companies that control distribution of audio content, especially ClearChannel. And that's a good thing.
john · July 3, 2005 - 12:24 EST #6
I hate the narrowminded naming convention: Podcasts. Now this name is sticking and it is a total misnomer. How myopic to name it Podcasting, it implies fishing with an ipod. It's too late now and it has stuck. Sigh.

If you can't beat em, join them. But actually right now I have moved past podcasting and I am now videocasting!

Rock on.
MEL · July 5, 2005 - 10:08 EST #7
Does anyone else remember the media landscape depicted in Max Headroom? Blogging reminds me of that; "pod"casting even more so.

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