Hype or the Real Deal?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   February/March 2006

Hype or the Real Deal?   

Everyone’s jumping on the podcasting bandwagon, but is anybody listening?

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

Related reading:
   » iPod, You Pod, We All Pod

Is podcasting rocking the nation? Or have we been sucked into a media-manufactured bubble? The answer is probably both.

Podcasting fever was so high in 2005 that it all but eclipsed the media's obsession with blogging; the New Oxford American Dictionary announced in December that "podcasting" beat such trendy contenders as "bird flu" and "trans fat" for its word of the year. And some podcasts have even secured honest-to-God revenue streams, which really gets the PR machine going. Verizon sponsors podcasts by ABC News and ESPN Radio; Earthlink sponsors WashingtonPost.com's video podcasts; Acura underwrites National Public Radio's growing menu of podcasts.

The allure of podcasts – digital files that can be downloaded from the Internet on demand – is no mystery. It's part of the 21st-century information distribution binge, the repackaging of content for every device imaginable and every platform available. It fits right in with TiVo, mobile-phone delivery and selling network TV shows on demand. But there's something shaky about this picture: We can barely measure the market.

First, the number of people actually listening to podcasts is surprisingly small in proportion to the fanfare. According to radio research company Bridge Ratings, the number of American adults who have ever sampled a podcast was around five million, or 1.6 percent of the population, at the end of 2005. Far fewer – around one million, or .32 percent – listened to podcasts weekly. Earlier surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Diffusion Group put the number of people who've ever listened to a podcast at 6 million and 4.5 million respectively.

Second, almost nobody can count the number of times a podcast is heard or watched. Because a person "subscribes" to a podcast, which is automatically retrieved by his or her computer whenever a new episode is available, there's no way to know which podcasts are actually played – and which just pile up on the virtual doorstep. At least one company, Audible.com, has announced a service to track podcast consumption more accurately, and others will follow. When accurate measurement tools are available, the ratio of podcasts downloaded to those actually played could be a deflating revelation. For the moment, though, audience metrics seem secondary. There's so much hype around podcasting that the media coverage alone makes it worthwhile for a content company to launch a podcast and for an advertiser to sponsor one. (The two columns in this magazine devoted to podcasting are a testament to that.)

But when the hype plays out, podcasting – or whatever it evolves into – will probably survive as a permanent fixture in the landscape. It wouldn't be the first new media bubble to burst gracefully. Audiences may be modest compared with the reach of mass media, but as the Web site iMedia Connection explains, podcast advertising is more about niche than reach. Someone who goes to the trouble of subscribing to a podcast about health news, fly fishing or local dining is probably a better target for advertising than the accidental Web surfer. It's also likely that the technology will become less intimidating and more accessible than it is today; TiVo's recent addition of podcasts to its menu of services is a step in that direction.

If there is a convincing argument for the longevity of podcasting, it's NPR. The marriage between public radio and podcasting couldn't have been scripted more perfectly: Much of NPR's content is essentially ready-made for podcasting, and listeners were literally begging for podcast versions of shows months before they were available. Now NPR's podcast strategy includes a mix of radio programs and original podcast-only content, with podcast underwriting providing a new revenue source for both NPR and local public radio stations. (Visit Online Journalism Review at OJR.org for Mark Glaser's profile of NPR's podcasting efforts.)

For other news organizations to find lasting success with podcasting, they'll need to work hard at understanding how people use it – not just how the technology works. Otherwise their attempts at podcasting could be as clumsy and inauthentic as the so-called newsroom blogs that are really nothing more than editorials or news updates in blog format.

Then comes the challenge of sustaining a working business model. It's wonderful that so many newsrooms are testing this new platform, but it can't be called successful until it's supportable. It remains to be seen whether existing podcast sponsors will hang on, whether the dollars will be enough to fund quality programming and whether local newsrooms will be as fortunate in finding sponsors as the big national brands have been. (A subscription model might work for unique content and popular personalities – but probably not for general news and weather information that's freely available elsewhere.) For now, it may be enough to say that podcasting and other new platforms "strengthen the core brand" and therefore don't need to make money – but as audiences continue to migrate to new media, that argument grows less convincing.

Is our excitement over podcasting a little overblown given its actual impact today? Sure, probably. Are we investing too much in the future of unbundled, time-shifted news delivery? Not at all.

###