iPod, You Pod, We All Pod
Eager to lure news consumers, media outlets are experimenting with news-on-demand podcasts. They’re fun, fresh—and often unpolished.
By Deborah Potter
The "ABC News Shuffle" sounds like something the network's executives might have been doing in their recent search for a new anchor team. But the shuffle that's been under way at ABC for more than six months now is something entirely different — a weekly 15-minute podcast hosted by reporters Jake Tapper and Hari Sreenivasan that offers a glimpse into the future of broadcast news.
Deborah Potter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
Podcasts are basically digital files you can download from the Internet and listen to whenever and wherever you want. Free software makes it easy for computer users to subscribe to regular podcast feeds, download them automatically and transfer them to a portable device like an iPod for later playback. According to the audience measurement service Bridge Ratings, podcast usage has exploded from 820,000 users in late 2004 to almost five million one year later. Bridge predicts that five years from now, that number will be at least 45 million.
At this point, most podcasts are more like personal audio blogs than newscasts, "like two stoners yakking at each other in a basement," says Gil Asakawa, executive producer of denverpost.com. Getting an accurate count of podcasts that actually offer news seems almost impossible. The directory PodcastAlley.com lists more than 400 in the news category, but the list includes the "MuggleCast," produced by and for Harry Potter fans, and the "Viking Youth Power Hour," described as "Crossfire fueled by good whiskey, and bad ideas."
Anyone with decent computer skills can produce a podcast. Just ask Ryan Ozawa, a self-described "Web geek in paradise" who works for a Honolulu bank and in his spare time produces two podcasts. One focuses on the hit television series "Lost," but the other, "HawaiiUP," sounds a lot like a local radio newscast. Are his podcasts and others like them competition for the mainstream media? "Over the long term, absolutely," Ozawa says.
No wonder the networks are getting into the act. National Public Radio and its member stations offer almost 200 different podcasts, from short newscasts to long-form programs. CBS offers mostly features and commentaries. ABC podcasts highlights from "Nightline" and "Good Morning America," as well as "Shuffle" — a looser, more personal newscast than anything the network puts on the air. NBC makes the "Nightly News" and "Meet the Press" available as podcasts, commercial free. "Anybody who is not actively seeking ways to extend their brands by placing new and repurposed news and information content on this platform is nuts because you have to be there," says NBC News Internet consultant Jeff Gralnick.
Local stations that were slow to recognize the potential of the Web seem determined not to miss the podcasting boat. Stations such as WCPO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, and KXAN-TV, NBC's affiliate in Austin, make one daily newscast available for download. CBS affiliate WRAL-TV in Raleigh podcasts 30 minutes of news four times a day, plus special weekly programs on prep football and state politics. All-news radio stations like WTOP in Washington, D.C., and WBBM in Chicago are creating special "news-to-go" podcasts for commuters to listen to in transit or at work. The headline on the WBBM podcast Web page says it all: "We report. You download."
Broadcasters aren't the only ones offering podcasts. At least a dozen newspapers are doing it, too — from the Philadelphia Daily News to the Daily Journal in Kankakee County, Illinois. The content and quality vary widely. The Denver Post podcast is produced and voiced by college journalism majors, who record a summary of the paper's top Web stories in the middle of the night using their home computers. It sounds like it.
But that doesn't bother Asakawa. "We'll always be improving," he says. "But for now, I think the people who listen to podcasts aren't interested purely in their professionalism but in their earnestness and the freshness of the voices."
A new online service called Taldia promises users "personalized audio podcasts" of information from the Washington Post, the Associated Press and other sources. You select the topics and the order you want them in. The test version isn't ready for prime time, though. One day the top news section included this letter to Glasgow, Scotland's Daily Record from a Mrs. Helen Murray: "I would like to thank the kind and honest person who handed in my bag to the bus driver..on the 46 bus."
Who's actually listening to all this content? Producers aren't really sure, but they've seen steady growth in daily downloads. "It's a way to reach listeners you weren't going to get anyway," like people in their offices or on the subway, says wtopnews.com Managing Editor Steve Dolge. "We need to go where the people are instead of trying to force them where we are."
What a concept — making information the audience wants available when and where listeners want it. Sure, podcasting can't replicate the live, up-to-the-minute quality of broadcast news, at least not yet. But when portable players go wireless and can download on the fly, "news on demand" — both audio and video — will be a reality. And the broadcast news organizations that buy into the idea now may ensure their own survival.