Indie podcasts face challenge from mainstream

When iTunes 4.9 launched, it did for podcasting what Ed Sullivan did for The Beatles, plucking a popular, but still-emerging technology from the wings and thrusting it into the spotlight. Yet as it grows in popularity, and gains mainstream acceptance, independent content producers risk being drowned out by a sea of new professional voices.

Podcasting was pioneered largely by independent content producers, who often create eclectic and outright weird shows that wouldn’t find a place on broadcast radio. Prior, even, to the launch of iTunes 4.9, Playlist editor Christopher Breen wondered if it would not lead to an end of the era of “wild and wooly” podcasts , as slickly produced shows with high end production values become the norm. And indeed, mainstream broadcasters have rushed into podcasting.

March of the Pro Podcasters

When iTunes 4.9 launched, most of the podcasts it listed in the top ten were produced by professional broadcasters. Four were from KCRW, three were from ABC/Disney/ESPN, leaving three independent podcasts, from Engadget, Catholic Insider, and “Inside Mac Radio,” two of which have other media connections. Not much has changed. Today the top ten podcasts still consist of three independents (Batpig Studio’s Skepticality, Violet Blue’s “Open Source Sex” and Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht’s “Diggnation”), the other seven are all produced by mainstream broadcasters or Apple.

Yet as you dig deeper into the top-rated podcasts, the independents begin to drop off. Only Scott Sheppard’s “Inside Mac Radio” and Alpha Pup Record’s “Alternative Hip-Hop Lounge” make it into the second half of the top-twenty. Thirteen more round out the top-fifty, as of press-time. While those stats don’t sound half-bad for the indies as of now, with more and more professionals get into the field, independent content producers will find it harder to get noticed.

The iTMS does have an “Indie podcast” page, where it highlights shows produced by independents. It also calls some independent podcasts with free banner-ad style promotions on its podcasting page. Ads for Brian ibbott’s Coverville, and the San Francisco history-oriented Sparkletack share space alongside ads for podcasts by Slate, KCRW, and ESPN.

Independents seem to have a much greater presence on Odeo, another podcasting management tool created by Evan Williams, where fourteen of the top twenty most popular podcasts are indies. Williams attributes this largely to the nature of independent podcasts.

“We are definitely about letting one million flowers bloom and giving people the best mechanisms to find the things that appeal to them, personally. And as people get more exposure to podcasts in general, as long as they have the tools to easily explore a wide variety of them, which is what Odeo’s trying to provide, I think you’re going to see more so-called indie productions even among the top 100, because, frankly, that’s where the interesting and innovative stuff is going on,” Williams tells Playlist .

Likewise, “ Cinecast ” producer Adam Kempenaar, host of one of the more popular shows on the iTunes Music Store, thinks that despite professionals taking up most of the spotlight, the iTMS will still encourage more amateurs to get into the act.

“I don’t think there will be a chilling effect,” Kempenaar tells Playlist . “The ease and ubiquity of iTunes should only encourage more podcasters. It just might be harder for them to break through the clutter now and develop an audience. The iTunes Top 20 right now is almost exclusively professional shows or shows with corporate ties. My guess is that pretty soon it will be exclusively professional shows. But it’s not keeping me up at night at this point. What keeps me up at night is trying to fit in 2-3 movies each weekend and then hoping I don’t sound like an idiot for an hour every week.”

Content: The Secret to Success

Indeed, among podcasters, content is still king. If you want to get noticed, you first have to have quality programming. Yet it isn’t the only factor. For another top-fifty podcast, “ Dailysonic,” success equaled both hard work and promotion.

“I think there’s two things involved in getting listed,” Dailysonic’s Adam Varga tells Playlist . “The first is having really good content. We spend most of our time thinking up ideas and writing pieces for Dailysonic. We’re filling a void in the current media landscape, and giving people sometime really unique. Our show has been called an NPR for hipsters. Nothing like it exists anywhere else. The second thing you’ve got to have is luck. I don’t know how we were chosen to be on the front page. We appeared the day after being featured on Adam Curry’s podfinder show. We must have caught someone’s ear. There’s such a mass of podcasts out there, that its really hard to get noticed.”

Getting a shout-out from Curry is the podcasting equivalent of being linked from Slashdot. Some of Cinecast’s success, according to Kempenaar, is also due to its promotion by Adam Curry and a subsequent listing on Apple’s Indie Podcast page.

“I think a big reason for our relative success so far is that Adam Curry and the people at PodShow were fans of our show and have featured us in both editions of their Podfinder podcast,” says Kempenaar.

Yet as Williams points out, raw subscriber number may not be the best metric, as total podcast listenership can still skew to the indies, illustrating the Long Tail principle, even as professional shows take up the top spots.

“Yes, corporate sites and podcasts may often be among the most popular, because there is a lot of well-produced commercial content and people are attracted to recognized brands. But just looking at what’s most popular reflects an old-media mentality in which only “hits” are successful. With podcasts — and the web in general — the aggregate time spent with thousands of independent productions, which appeal to unique niches and personalities, will far outstrip the top 100.”

Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.

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