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More predictions of podcasting’s demise

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First it was Frank Barnako from CBS Marketwatch. Then it was Anjali Athavaley from the Washington Post.

Now Greg Lindsay from Business 2.0 is predicting that mainstream media will edge out the “indie” podcasters (which include Neville and me).

Isn’t it interesting that the predictions that mainstream media will dominate podcasting come from mainstream media? Here’s a sample of what Lindsay had to say in his July 22 column:

…podcasting’s wildcatting era is over before it ever really began. An unknown number of those Apple-made microstars will convince themselves that they hold a first-mover advantage in an untapped medium and that there is at least a modest living to be made from a popular weekly podcast that maybe, just maybe, could become a bona fide media brand. Eventually they’ll fail, and they’ll fail faster than ever before. Because the sense of novelty attached to streaming audio and video-the sense that one could build a brand and a studio before big media showed up to play-has already passed when it comes to podcasting. For the first time in the history of the Net, big media showed up early to play.

Two presumptions drive this argument:

Listeners will prefer mainstream media content

Comcast, the US media giant, has made it clear (according to the Washington Post) that they consider podcasting nothing more than another channel for plain old radio. Problem is, a lot of people are fed up with the content they get from mainstream radio. Distributing content already aired over the radio airwaves as podcasts ultimately will have little appeal. The content will still be bound by the same restrictions that limited its content when it was pumped into radios, restrictions indie podcasters don’t face. And it will still be the same corporate-controlled, cookie-cutter, bland, mass-market garbage that has led so many people to forsake radio altogether in favor of digital media players.

Where can people hear exciting new music, for example? Certainly not on FM radio. I remember listening to FM radio in the 1970s when it was relatively new. DJs were pirates, playing whatever appealed to them. Today, FM programming is tightly managed through a relationship between station management and the big labels. My 16-year-old daughter downloaded music through Kazaa not to deny profits to artists, but for the opportunity to hear new music she simply couldn’t get over the FM airwaves. The music she didn’t like, she deleted, while she bought the CDs containing the music she liked. File sharing wasn’t a way to steal music; it was a channel for hearing new bands. Today, podcasting assumes that role, as evidenced by the growing popularity of the brand-spanking-new Podsafe Music Network. You won’t catch any of the mainstream radio stations playing music from the Network, because what they push as podcasts will be the same programs they played over the air, containing the same repetitious drivel from JLo and Brittney and the rest of the usual FM suspects.

There is no question that Apple, with its integration of podcasting into the latest release of iTunes, has promoted mainstream media podcasts. Most of the new subscriptions to podcasts through iTunes, I suspect, are from iTunes users who were unfamiliar with podcasting. They see it’s available, they see a name they recognize, they subscribe. At some point, though, many of these individuals will realize they’re using their digital media devices to listen to programming they found half-baked in the first place. Meanwhile, as awareness of podcasting increases, so will awareness of alternative programming. A rising tide (sorry for the cliche) lifts all boats.

It won’t be the first time we’ve seen this phenomenon at play. South Park, for instance, was originally an online feature that gained popularity with no help at all from mainstream media. It spread virally. Viral marketing will play a huge role in the spread of indie podcasting. Listeners to Endurance Radio, the podcast for endurance athletes, will tell other endurance athletes about the show. They’re a community of thousands of endurance athletes. They don’t need iTunes (or Clear Channel billboards, for that matter) to spread the word. And this is a show that commands thousands of dollars a month for advertising that comes from the likes of Gatorade and Fleet Sports.

Which doesn’t mean there’s no room for both brands of podcasts. XM Satellite Radio isn’t podcasting Bob Edwards’ show yet, but if it ever does, I’ll subscribe. I really like his show but I’m never at a radio when he’s on. But I’ll keep subscribing to Todd Cochrane, Adam Curry, Lee Hopkins, and other indie podcasters, too. The Internet offers unlimited bandwidth.

Interest in indie podcasting is driven by a sense of novelty

The novelty, Lindsay suggests, will wear off.

Didn’t we hear the same thing about the web in general? That it was the CB radio of the 1990s? In fact, the difference between the web and CB radio was clear: content. Indie podcasting will survive and thrive because of the value of the information it contains. Clearly, Neville and I will never attract an audience as large as ,movie reviewers Ebert & Roeper (one of the podcasts available from iTunes). However, public relations practitioners and others interested in organizational communication will never obtain content comparable to what “For Immediate Release” offers from a mainstream media source. There isn’t a radio station on earth that would produce a show dealing with the subject matter that Neville and I address because the audience isn’t big enough to attract the requisite advertising dollars to support it.

But Neville and I don’t need any advertising dollars. We’re not in it for the money. We are passionate about it and, as a consequence, our audience continues to grow. I’m not the least bit worried that our humble podcast is (in Lindsay’s words) “sooo over” because we represent the only option for those interested in our subject matter. And so it is with most other podcasts, including those focused on beer, wine, knitting, endurance sports, theme parks, and other niche interests. Public relations professionals have understood for years the value of narrowcasting.

To be sure, many podcasts will fail. Many would have failed had mainstream media never entered the picture. A medium with the practically non-existent barrier to entry that characterizes podcasting will attract people with no talent and nothing to say. But how many television series premiere each September that don’t make it to November? This isn’t unique to podcasting. Good content usually survives, bad content usually does not (the continued popularity of reality television notwithstanding).

No doubt, mainstream media will continue to predict the demise of indie podcasting. What else can they do when they don’t understand the models that drive it and face disrputive technologies that threaten their stranglehold on what we listen to? But take it with that proverbial grain of salt. Indie podcasting will do just fine.

Reader Comments

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.

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