Is the clock ticking on podcasting?

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The other day, a colleague of mine shouted over the cubicle wall, “I think podcasting is at its 14th minute.” Of course, he was referring to the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. And of course, I broke into laughter. But his comment got me thinking: where is podcasting going?

The main aspect of any new entertainment technology is content. It follows that if the content resonates with the audience, the technology will likely take off—witness MTV (Video killed the radio star…) as an example from the last two decades. Podcasting is in its infancy, in this regard. As far as podcasting content goes, let’s face it: among those gems like KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic and Inside Mac Radio broadcasts, a lot of podcasts are just a bunch of guff.

It’s not the content format that’s new, it’s the ramifications of the podcasting technology. Right now, podcasting is really just radio—it’s recorded like radio, regardless of the medium a podcast is intended for. And a lot of the individuals and entities who are publishing podcasts are amateur broadcasters. This democratization of content can be valuable—we can hear from people whom we wouldn’t hear from usually. But it can also provide us with a lot of garbage by people who don’t know what the heck they’re doing. It’s like blogging—there are some fantastic news blogs and some truly awful ones by “citizen journalists” who could easily “forget” to check their facts.

The problem is that we all need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff to avoid wasting both our time and gigabytes of storage. Now that the iTunes Music Store includes free podcast downloads and subscriptions, you’d think that the brains behind the store are picking and choosing what gets in the Podcast Directory carefully. But they seem not to be—for example, I’ve found some idiotic podcasts, like the one for Fox Television’s Family Guy , which just features some guy reading a description of this week’s episode. There aren’t even any sound clips from the show. Who cares? The danger is that we’ll just be inundated with a bunch of stuff no one wants to listen to. (But they said that about the Internet, too, right?)

The convenience of downloading and listening to podcasts is a major draw. If you subscribe to a podcast, you can download it directly to your iPod, allowing you to listen to it anywhere you like. Podcasting’s other great advantage is that it liberates timely content from the constraints of time. I love public radio, but I’m usually unavailable to listen to my favorite shows. I like podcasting for the same reason I like my TiVo —I can enjoy many of my favorite shows (“Fresh Air,” I miss you!) whenever I like, instead of having to be available when they air.

But what does the future hold for podcasting? The answer is in the content—it has to be valuable and of high quality—and possibly even in a different format we can’t foresee now. I also think that someone or something, the iTunes Music Store or otherwise, will need to help listeners pick their podcasts. Otherwise, we’re probably getting close to Minute 15.

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