Mainstream media embraces podcasting

The mainstream media was—and continues to be—oft criticized for failing to “get” the Web. So, too was it perceived to be slow to embrace both blogs and RSS, afraid to get its feet wet. This time around, however, Big Media is jumping in the pool headfirst, and ahead of nearly everyone else.

Recently, ABC began podcasting some of its more popular news programs. Following quickly on its heels, NBC announced that it would do the same. The BBC is podcasting, as is the Canadian CBC Radio, and some NPR shows such as On The Media are practically long in the tooth when it comes to podcasting. No doubt about it, the mainstream media has gone ga-ga for podcasting. But why?

Podcasting is the ultimate in news-on-demand. CNN’s early premise was that news consumers didn’t want to be bothered with schedules; they wanted to see the news at their leisure, rather than at 6 or 11 PM. Similarly, podcast listeners aren’t constrained to a station’s news schedule to catch their favorite shows. Indeed, podcasting means they need not be home at all. Or even own a radio, for that matter.

“The real benefit behind podcasting is time shifting. You can shift programs and say I’m going to listen later at my own time and convenience,” Forrester media analyst Charlene Li tells Playlist . “People have called it the TiVo for the Web. Instead of you having to be at the mercy of scheduling, or to go to web sites to see the content you want, that content is pushed to you.”

Hide the Ethernet, Here Comes The Media

The mainstream media was—and continues to be—oft criticized for failing to “get” the Web. So, too was it perceived to be slow to embrace both blogs and RSS, afraid to get its feet wet. This time around, however, Big Media is jumping in the pool headfirst, and ahead of nearly everyone else.

This is somewhat puzzling, in that podcasting is still a new, and largely unproven technology. Although, based on public previews, iTunes 4.9 should take most of the legwork out of podcasting, it typically requires a separate stand-alone application to manage your subscriptions and import them to your MP3 player. It isn’t exactly for everyone, just yet.

In contrast to previous Internet-based publishing technologies, which were pioneered largely by passionate individuals and only later adopted by traditional outlets after someone came along and made it easy, the mainstream media has embraced podcasting before most of its potential audience has even heard of it. Though podcasting has its grassroots pioneers like Dave Winer and Adam Curry, and programmers like Dawn Miceli and Drew Domkus, the previous few months have seen the commercial media whole-heartedly embrace the fledgling technology.

ABC News is perhaps the most prominent example, after launching a robust podcasting strategy late last month. The network offers several feeds, including Nightline , Good Morning America , and This Week . It also offers podcast-only programming, such as The AfterNote , a political affairs program that takes its name from ABC’s daily web feature The Note.

NBC News also announced plans to start podcasting hourly news updates sometime beginning in June (the peacock network, however, has yet to begin transmission). Podcasts are to include some of NBC’s more popular offerings, including segments from NBC Nightly News and Today , and MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews and Countdown with Keith Olbermann . And its not stopping at repackaging content, the network says it’s planning to podcast some content exclusively.

Syndicated services are getting into the act too. Conservative radio superstars Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity both launched podcasts this month. Across the aisle, Air America’s Al Franken is podcasting as well, as are several other shows on the politically progressive network Air America Radio.

Meanwhile, podcasting is taking off in all sorts of new and unexpected directions, overlapping with other broadcast mediums. A radio station in San Francisco has gone to an all-podcast format. Podcast pioneer Adam Curry’s podcast now appears on Sirius satellite radio. Yet for all the interest, it’s still a relatively little-used technology.

The Numbers Game

“There’s a lot of experimenting, and it gives you a lot of notoriety for being one of the first [podcasters] out there,” says Forrester’s Li. “Because the number of people actually [subscribing to podcasts] is fairly low. I think for a certain group of users—who tend to be very technology focused and very male—it’s an interesting way to use media and have media pushed to them in particular.”

According to a recent report by Feedburner, the company is tracking roughly 6,000 podcasts, with an average of 33 to 65 subscribers (depending on how you want to interpret the numbers). According to the company, it tracks a total of about 200,000 podcast subscribers. It’s an audience that’s less than half the size of the one that trundled out to Paul Simon’s 1991 concert in Central Park. But not for long.

Although FeedBurner is practically the Blogger or Google of site feed publishing and tracking, it by no means tracks every podcast, much less every podcast subscriber. (Feedburner only tracks feeds it hosts, it doesn’t track anyone who publishes their own feed.) And those 200,000 are subscribers. They’re regulars, not occasional listeners. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 6 million people have already heard at least one podcast. And that number’s just going to grow, Jupiter Research predicts that within five years 12.3 million households will subscribe to podcasts.

“If anything, the rise in ‘professional’ podcasts has increased the public’s awareness of podcasting,” FeedBurner vice-president Rick Klau explained to Playlist . “This leads to the ‘network effect’—once you have someone consuming one podcast, they’re far more likely to start consuming others. As a result, the new listeners the pros bring with them are now more likely to find the good amateur podcasts—leading to accelerating growth across all feeds. We’re obviously still early in this medium, but all indications are that we’ve only just begun to see the real growth for podcasters, pro and amateur alike.”

Show Me the Money

Listeners are nice. But the $64,000 question isn’t will anyone tune in; it’s who will pay. While the answers to that aren’t easy, some podcasters are already figuring out ways to earn a buck. Or at least offset costs. There are two obvious solutions: charge consumers for downloading, or line up advertisers to sponsor programs.

Limbaugh went with the former strategy. You can only access his podcast if you subscribe to his online service for $50 per year. While online content subscription models aren’t usually successful, Limbaugh, who has 100,000 subscribers presumably generating $5 million per year, seems to be an exception.

More likely, says Forrester’s Li, is that podcasts will rely on advertising dollars.

“I think people are going to put advertising around it. Because the podcast has to be distributed in RSS, you could wrap the ads there. But that seems unlikely.” “More likely ads will be incorporated into the podcasts themselves. You could just as easily imagine that there will be 15 or 30 second ads in the podcast. It could be the regular broadcast with all the ads on it. Granted you can just skip over them, like you can with TiVo, but they’re still there.”

Oddly enough, one pioneer in podcast advertising is a Los Angeles NPR affiliate, KCRW. With 22 podcasts and an existing online following—the station has streamed its content for years—KCRW tapped into an eager market and has already enjoyed considerable success. During his WWDC keynote address, Steve Jobs used KCRW as an example to demonstrate how iTunes 4.9 will handle podcasts. During the first week of June, the station’s podcasts were downloaded 75,000 times. By the second week, the number had risen to 85,000. That much bandwidth doesn’t come cheap; somebody’s got to pay.

But KCRW planned on that from the get-go. When the station embarked on its podcast strategy, it did so with the idea that it needed to pay for itself.

“When we launched our podcasts in March, we knew at that time that we wanted to find somebody to support them,” KCRW’s Director of Development Jacki Weber tells Playlist . “We also knew that we did not want to go in the direction of a CPM model [Cost Per Impression], because we shouldn’t be nickel-and-dimeing our way through the revenue and creating a whole lot of work. If we had 22 different underwriters; the amount of labor that goes into creating 22 podcasts for a short period of time is too much. The revenue would not offset the cost.”

The station’s solution? It turned looked for a single underwriter to sponsor its podcasts.

“A podcasting sponsorship was an opportunity for somebody to support the station, to be acknowledged in a new and different way and also catch a press wave because podcasting is super-hot right now,” says Weber.

Indeed, Southern California is rife with people looking to catch a wave, in this case Southern California Lexus Dealers. The spots will be featured in the station’s podcasts beginning in October. Along with the program “bumpers” that identify station, listeners will hear that “support for KCRW podcasts comes from Southern California Lexus Dealers.” As far as advertising goes, it’s rather unobtrusive. Yet the spots will cover several months worth of podcasting costs, according to Weber.

The ability for podcasts to pay for themselves will undoubtedly determine the depth of mainstream media’s devotion to this technology. Regardless of how it works out, the thousands of amateur podcasters who have nurtured the technology up to this point aren’t likely to go anywhere.

Mathew Honan recently wrote about the all-podcast radio station KYOU for Playlist .

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