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Podcasting: Fad or trend?

Posted on: 09/03/2008

Three of my favorite bloggers offering totally different opinions about the future of podcasting today. Let’s explore and try to reconcile.

First, Tom Webster of Edison Media Research writes writes about a panel he’s going to be on in two weeks at the NAB Radio Show, in Austin, anchored by NPR’s Bryan Moffet and the chair of the Association for Downloadable Media, Chris MacDonald. According to Tom, “There are folks making money right now and achieving great success with podcasting — so why not your station?”

Next, Jerry Del Colliano, in his “Inside Music Media” blog, gets even more enthusiastic. Jerry’s belief, based on what he sees teaching “the next generation” at USC, is that broadcast radio has totally lost the kids he teaches and that “podcasting is the next radio.” (Read today’s entire piece here.)

Then, Mark Ramsey, researcher-consultant, riffs on a piece in eMarketer.com. That piece quotes a Pew research study finding that 19% of the U.S. population has ever tried downloading a podcast and that 17% of those people download one on a typical day; Mark does the math and calculates that that means that only 3% of Americans download a podcast on a typical day.

Mark concludes, “The fact that podcasting has not swept the audience the way other trends have should give us pause. Some trends become phenomena. Others remain niches.”

My point of view hasn’t changed

Ever since podcasting became the hot trend of the year (in 2006), my point of view on the subject has been more skeptical than any of those three guys.

My feeling at the time was that podcasting was never a hot consumer trend at all, but simply the type of story that journalists love to write about: Underdogs (podcasters) battling the system! Something to write about that involves iPods! A catchy-sounding name!

Furthermore, it seemed (and still seems) to me that the idea that if there’s something you want to listen to tomorrow, you have to download it onto your device tonight is merely a transitional phase. Once you’ve got Internet access on your mobile device or MP3 player (e.g., iPod Touch), you can listen to an on-demand file on demand. No need to plan ahead the night before.

Let’s do more math

The other issue that has always stuck in my craw is the audience size: When you actually do the math, it doesn’t seem to live up to expectations.

For example, according to this press release, the NPR Podcast Directory now has 617 titles that get, in aggregate, about 12 million downloads per month. I might be wrong, but I believe NPR has spent many millions of dollars on this initiative. Sounds like a good result, though, right? Journalists who picked up that press release thought so.

But let’s do the math: Let’s assume the average podcast is 30 minutes in length, and the average person listens to about 1/3 of the podcasts that they download. (Think that’s reasonable? If not, bump up or down the following numbers.) 12 million times .5 times .33 gives us 2 million hours of listening per month. (By comparison, our own AccuRadio project garners about 4 million hours of listening per month, and we haven’t had a multimillion-dollar budget behind us.)

Divided by 18 hours per day (6a-12m) and 30.4 days per average month, that gives NPR podcasts, in aggregate, an AQH of 3,655 people. That’s about the size of a public radio station’s audience in a small college town like Madison. Nationally, I would guess it’s about a .2% increase in NPR’s audience size.


Conclusion: Podcasting? I still don’t buy it. Radio audience sizes become meaningful when there are long-duration listening events, like millions of people streaming music radio stations at work 8 hours a day.

Except for rare cases like “Car Talk” or “Prairie Home Companion” or vividly-popular daily features like Larry Lujack’s old “Clunk Letter of the Day” on WCFL, I continue to believe that interest in podcasts, and the number of column-inches of journalism devoted to them, is wildly out of proportion to their actual meaningfulness.

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  1. I appreciate your analysis, and think your skepticism is definitely worthwhile — podcasting’s value has been hugely inflated.

    However, I think that your assessment also reflects an overly simplified view of what actually constitutes a podcast, and what costs go into one.

    The primary example: you imply that podcasting is transitional. While you are 100% correct that the iTunes+iPod model is probably transitional, you are incorrect to think that people will stop downloading podcasts once they have mobile internet access. Why won’t they? Because they have to download stuff from somewhere… and that place will be the podcast, whether accessed via HTML or RSS. So mobile broadband should actually dramatically increase the reach of podcasts, not decrease it.

    Remember, a “podcast” is nothing more than a combination of existing technologies: a group of web posts/pages with attached audio, an RSS feed, and the ability to put “media enclosures” into that RSS feed. The iTunes/iPod model that most people equate with podcasting is but one of many possible delivery mechanisms. For instance, many people will probably listen to podcasts in the future by using Google Reader on their iPhones… and they may not even know they’re listening to a podcast.

    Finally, it helps to think about the costs of podcasting. The primary costs involved are (1) digitizing and uploading content, (2) bandwidth, and (3) building a site that supports RSS. Note that all three of these items will still be necessary even once mobile broadband is the standard.

    Brad · Sep 17, 06:33 AM · #

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