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Why Isn’t Audio Podcasting Mainstream?

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I’ve had this post in mind for a couple months now. I’ve put it off due in part to my travel schedule and in part because I wanted to chew on it a bit more. It’s certainly not a new topic; in fact, it’s well-worn territory:

Why hasn’t audio podcasting become mainstream?

I utterly reject the argument posited by some very smart people (like Chris Brogan) that the explosion of online video is to blame. With respect to those who have made this case, I have to shake my head in disbelief. If the popularity of video could stifle the growth of audio, why didn’t the introduction of television kill radio? There certainly were enough pundits in the 1940s who believed TV spelled doom for radio, but in fact radio thrived and grew to become more profitable than ever. It did so by adapting based on its remaining strengths.

The appeal of watching Don Imus (before his fall from grace) on MSNBC. What was visually appealing about watching a guy sit behind a desk with studio monitors over his ears talking into a microphone? Radio is much better at talk and music than TV is. And when people couldn’t focus 100% of their attention on a video screen, radio entertained them while they kept their eyes elsewhere (like the road, for instance; people who read while they drive scare the shit out of me).

Chris also suggests that the incursion of traditional radio into the audio podcasting space is detrimental. But look at the most viewed videos on YouTube. How much there is original content? The list I’m looking at includes Saturday Night Live clips, scenes from soccer games, Japanese soap operas and other appropriated content.

Another point in favor of audio podcasting comes from Rob Walch, host of Podcast 411, in an email exchange we had on the subject:

It is much easier to compete against a Radio station – there is not much difference in Audio quality when you listen on your iPod between a “Professional” recording and one done by us indie podcasters.

Personally, I find most of the video podcasts to be worthless as video; I’d much rather listen to them. What’s the appeal of watching some guy talk into his webcam? Why should I have to watch that? If you’re going to produce something as video, for God’s sake please make it visually compelling. That’s what I love about shows like Geek Brief TV and Rocketboom: There’s something to actually look at.

And let’s not forget that video requires your complete attention. Audio is the only medium to which we can pay attention while we’re doing something else.

So if Internet video’s phenomenonal rise isn’t to blaim for the stagnation in podcasting’s growth, what is? The answer, I believe, is infrastructure. There is not a simple infrastructure common across the podcasting world that makes it drop-dead easy to download podcasts and transfer them to a portable device.

Offloading video isn’t that big an issue. Most people watch online videos (whether they’re podcasts or not) on their computers. The appeal of podcasting is the ability to listen while you’re walking the dog, mowing the lawn, or (as I am right now) sitting on another tedious goddam cross-country flight.

How you subscribe is not standardized. How podcatchers and MP3 devices work is not standardized. While most people who read this blog have probably figured out how to deal with podcasts and RSS feeds and the like, my mom would be completely lost. I guarantee you she would listen to FIR if she could; she reads my books, after all, even though she has no clue what they’re talking about. But books all work alike. Bookstores work alike.

I’m not expecting a resolution to this situation any time soon because there is no profit-motivated industry that would benefit through the cooperative development of a consistent, standardized infrastructure. In the book ”The Death of Competition,” which I read several years ago, author James F. Moore talks about “coopetition,” competing companies working together to create an ecosystem that supports the growth of all players. Moore points to the videogame industry as an example. Companies like Ninentendo, SEGA, and Atari joined forces to create the gaming infrastructure. No, an Atari game wouldn’t play in a Nintendo device, but the distribution channels and other aspects of the infrastructure needed to exist before the various platforms could prosper.

There is no similar profit-motivated ecosystem in podcasting, and I don’t believe one is on the horizon. So podcasting’s growth will continue to be incremental—volunteers take more time to promote an infrastructure than businesses—but continue to grow it will.

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