Nearly a year ago, I was at Gnomedex, the annual alpha geek fest. During one of the sessions, Steve Gillmor remarked that everyone at the conference “was smoking the RSS dope”. When I go to Gnomedex this year, I suspect that every third person will have a portable recording device, and be podcasting the hell out of the conference.
I’m skeptical about podcasting. 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. Here are my thoughts, in a kind of rhetorical discussion.
It’s still early days.
It’s not. Mainstream radio is already all over this trend. The CBC and radio conglomerate Clear Channel are both getting their toes wet. Not only that, but mainstream radio content is already being monetized (thanks, Steve Rubel) for podcasting. In six months to a year, it’s easy to imagine that most radio stations in North America will offer time-shifted content. That’s a real threat to the revolutionary fervor around podcasting.
But it’s just like blogging, man–we’re adding a zillion voices to the long tail.
Podcasting actually has a comparatively short tail. Why?
- Unlike blogs, which we can aggregate, syndicate and consume in all sorts of interesting ways, audio doesn’t compress. There are only so many hours for listening in the day, so we can only listen to so many podcasts. I can consume 250 blogs in a day without much trouble, but can I listen to more than 10 podcasts?
- 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.
- 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.
Anybody can do it.
Unlike a blog, anybody can’t do it. First, you need the equipment and the acumen. That’s going to appeal first, foremost and perhaps only to the geeks.
Second, and more importantly, you need the talent. Everyone learns writing in school, so the barrier to entry is pretty small. However, nobody (or very few) learns how to be a radio broadcaster. Like it or not, that takes ability, practice and, ideally, a great voice. I try not to read poorly-written blogs, and I don’t have the patience for dead air and mumbling. Finally, if you’re keen to produce professional results, you need to understand how to edit audio files, layer in music, etc.
This issue is only going to be multiplied when video blogs, or vlogging becomes popular. Amanda Congdon is charming, smart, cute and has a great formula, but she’s not a professional newscaster. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you or me, but it matters to average humans who are accustomed to watching professionals.
Say we manage to get simple-to-use technology in the hands of average consumers. Say Apple offers a podcast-listening-ready iTunes. What’s the average consumer going to choose? Some dude like me talking in my pajamas or the CBC?
There’s a large willing audience.
Radio listenership, particularly among teens, is in decline. Are these people not listening because mainstream radio sucks? Maybe, but I suspect the main reason is the same old diversification story–many choices reduce the attention given to each.
Furthermore, the diversity problem in the blogosphere is multiplied in podcasting land. The vast majority of podcasters are white, male geeks.
Podcasting is revolutionary.
That’s what people said about FM radio in the sixties and seventies. What have we got these days? I suspect that podcasting will, like college radio, be consigned to sit on the bench and play when it can–heard and appreciated by few.
I don’t mean to be a downer. I just don’t think that podcasting is going to have the legs that blogs have had. I’d be glad to be proven wrong–check back in a year or so. Of course, if all that podcasting really achieves is providing eager listeners with time shifted content, then that’s a great victory. Of course, you might want to credit TiVo for that innovation–clearly it popularized the concept.
I was talking to Will Pate today about this issue, and complaining about the lack of diversity. I suggested that we need more voices, and more subject matter, in podcasting. I pitched the idea of doing a bad-acting, one-man Hamlet. He (kindly and with a straight face) said he’d subscribe. Why would he do a thing like that?