|Heard on the street
Apr 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Podcasting will change radio, not kill it
BLOG and wiki were already dictionary words in 2004 when Adam Curry, a former show host on MTV, used his own celebrity and the underlying technologies of blogging to popularise yet another next big thing: “podcasting” (which provided him with a new nickname, “podfather”).
The word itself is hip but not helpful. The “pod” comes from Apple's iPod, a fashionable portable music player—a stroke of marketing luck for Apple, which initially had nothing to do with podcasting. The “casting” comes from broadcasting, which means sending a radio signal to an entire population in a particular geographic area at a particular time. Confusingly, in some respects that is the opposite of podcasting. But none of this matters any more. As with blogs and wikis, people are discovering podcasting as something genuinely new.
It works as follows. A podcaster records something—anything from music to philosophical ramblings, professional news or snorting noises—into a computer with the aid of a microphone, then posts this audio file onto the internet. There, people can listen to it and, more importantly, subscribe to a “feed” from the same podcaster, so that all new audio files from that source are automatically pulled down as soon as they are published. Whenever listeners dock their iPods or other music players for charging, the feeds that have newly arrived on the computers are transferred to the portable devices. People can then listen in their car, while jogging, or wherever and whenever they please.
It is not quite true, therefore, that podcasting is to audio as blogging is to text. Podcasting is about “time-shifting” (listening offline to something at a time of one's own choosing, as opposed to a broadcaster's), whereas reading blogs requires a live internet connection and a screen. More subtly, podcasts are different from blogs and wikis in that they cannot link directly to other podcasts. This makes podcasting a less social, and probably less revolutionary, medium.
Nonetheless, its rise has been nothing short of astonishing. Mr Curry's own podcast, The Daily Source Code, has several million listeners. Apple's iTunes, the software application and online music store that makes iPods work, currently lists 20,000 free podcasts and is adding them at a fast clip, all before podcasting's second birthday. Podcasting is even expanding from audio to video, although this trend is as yet so new that several words (“vodcasting”, “vidcasting” , “vlogging”) are still vying for the honour.
For listeners, the appeal is threefold. First, they become their own programmers, mixing the music and talk feeds that they enjoy. This liberates commuters, say, from commercial radio stations that, in America especially, seem only ever to get dumber and duller. Second, podcasts liberate listeners from advertising, and thus put an end to the tedious and dangerous toggling between the car radio's pre-set buttons at 100km an hour. (However, some podcasters are experimenting with putting advertisements into their podcasts.) Above all, the time-shifting that podcasts make possible liberates people from having to sit in their parked cars to hear the end of a good programme.
For creative types, professional or amateur, the appeal of podcasting is much the same as that of other participatory media: it dramatically lowers the costs of producing content. All they need is a microphone, a computer and an internet connection, and most people already have those.
Does podcasting therefore spell the end of radio? “I don't really buy into that per se; what we're really seeing is a big mash-up of stuff,” says Mr Curry, the podfather. Podcasting, terrestrial radio and another newcomer, paid-for (ie, mostly advertising-free) satellite radio, are all carving out their niches in people's crowded media lives. The limiting factor of podcasting, says Mr Curry, is that it is “inherently asynchronous” (ie, not live). “If they find Osama bin Laden, don't go running to your iPod,” he adds. Breaking news, call-in shows (an old-fashioned form of participatory media) and other live programming will still work on terrestrial radio.
This might lull radio bosses into a false sense of security, however. “I'm not sure that the average consumer is going to want to hear, you know, Joe podcasting out of his garage,” says Mark Mays, the chief executive of Clear Channel Communications, America's largest radio broadcaster with 1,200 commercial stations. Mr Mays claims that when people buy an iPod they will reduce their radio listening for a few months, but then increase it again to educate themselves about new music. “And where else to go for music than their local radio station?” asks Mr Mays.
If they are young, they will go anywhere but to their local radio station, says David Goldberg, the music boss at Yahoo! “The odds that you and I like the same five songs in a row are very low,” he says. “If you hate Metallica, you're not going to sit through three minutes hoping that the fourth minute gets better.” To young people today, song sequences are simply “playlists”, which happen to be among the easiest things to share with friends online, so this is what Yahoo! concentrates on doing. It lets people listen to music (for a small monthly subscription or pay-by-download) and then rate the song. Yahoo! then uses its knowledge of the online communities formed by its users to recommend the right kinds of songs “by connecting you with other people who like the same music”, says Mr Goldberg.
The effects on radio, while not lethal, will therefore be large. Radio broadcasters understand that they need to make commercial radio less disagreeable to listen to, which above all means shorter advertising interruptions. This is why Clear Channel has introduced a campaign called “less is more”, in which it sells fewer minutes to advertisers in the hope that this will drive up ratings and prices.
Historically, radio has been good at adapting. When Franklin Roosevelt gave his “fireside chats”, radios were in the living room and families gathered round them during prime time. Then television came along, and radios migrated to the car for use during rush hours. Podcasting may herald yet another migration, to a place and context yet to be determined.
Next article in the survey: Wonders of the metaverse: Where people make their own films...