Podcasting: What’s In a Name?

    March 26, 2006

A mini brouhaha has erupted over a report from Bridge Data that “reveals” most people who retrieve podcasts don’t transfer them to their portable digital media devices.

According to the study, more than 80% of podcasts are played directly from the PC. Blogging about this, Colin Dixon and Michael Greeson of TDG Research suggest:

We find ourselves in a bit of pickle: either (a) our definition of podcasting is insufficient or inaccurate, or (b) 80% of those who we call “podcasters” are nothing of the sort.

Steve Rubel also weighed in, saying, “It seems like some people are calling programs podcasts that really aren’t.”

I think I need to start a new category on this blog called “Take a deep breath.” It would certainly apply to this post. Why is a deep breath needed? Two points. First, I believe the 80% number is being misinterpreted. Second, who gives a damn?

The first point: It’s not that 80% of podcasts aren’t available for subscription. It’s that 80% of the downloads of podcasts aren’t available for transfer to an iPod. It’s that 80% of the people who download any given podcast, for whatever reason, aren’t opting to transfer it to a portable device. (Podcasters are the people producing the podcast, not the people listening.)

But it’s not even the portability of the audio file that makes it a podcast. After all, you could do that with an audio file well before podcasting was introduced. it’s the ability to subscribe via RSS that makes it a podcast. While the TDG post refers to the Oxford dictionary’s definition, I prefer Wikipedia’s: “Podcasting is the distribution of audio or video files, such as radio programs or music videos, over the Internet using either RSS or Atom syndication for listening on mobile devices and personal computers.” Note that the RSS distribution is referenced before the portability.

Even with that, many people opt to download podcast files directly from a site rather than subscribing. Looking at the LibSyn stats for my own podcast, I can see that just under half of the retrievals of the files come from direct downloads instead of subscriptions. I have no idea how many are listening to the stream we make available. But even if more than half don’t subscribe, and most of them listen at their computer, does that mean it’s not a podcast?

Of course not. And that’s the second point. The fact that the podcast can be retrieved via RSS subscription and can be transferred to an MP3 player makes it a podcast. How people choose to get and listen to one is entirely up to them. I’m working on a podcasting project with a client. One of the requirements I set for the effort is to ensure the podcast can be subscribed to, downloaded directly, and streamed, giving the control to the listener so they can exercise their personal preferences.

And let’s not forget that podcasting isn’t even two years old. Any number of reasons could account for the slow uptake of the RSS and portability characteristics of podcasts: Confusion about subscribing, failure to understand the portability issue, the convenience of listening at the computer immediately after downloading, already-formed PC-listening habits, the list goes on.

So rather than get hung up on semantics, let’s stay focused on the potential for the medium. Okay? Now, everybody, exhale

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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.