Audio podcasting: Commenting on the comments2007-10-20
Warning: Long post follows!
I arrived at a client meeting early and had time to kill, so I popped my wireless broadband card into my laptop and hammered out a post on podcating I’d been mulling over for some time. I figured I’d get a few comments—three, maybe four. But more than 30? Funny, isn’t it, how the posts you think will spark an outpouring of comments get a few and those you think will inspire only a few produce a torrent.
There were too many to address in the comment thread, so I figured—as long as I have 4-1/2 hours to kill on a flight home from Chicago—that I’d tackle them here.
To start, I have to express my awe and admiration at the thought, the passion, and the expertise conveyed in all of your comments. There are a lot of dedicated and smart people out there engaged in this space! It’s humbling that so many of them took the time to share their thoughts on my post.
Now, on to my reactions.
The money is flowing to video
Chris Brogan points out that the post I addressed didn’t dismiss audio as a medium, but suggested that those looking to make a living focus their efforts on video because that’s where sponsorships and advertising are going. I must admit, I did a lousy job of articulating this.
I agree, to a point. First off, advertisers from big consumer brands understand video: “It’s like TV, but on your computer.” Those videos that get tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of views, which makes it easy for traditional advertisers who think in terms of CPM (cost per thousand).
The CPM model works like this: “Out of every thousand people who view a video (or TV show), a few might actually be in the market for our product. We’ll pay to reach them because, when you consider the total audience for that video (or show), there will be a critical mass of the those people.” That is, a video that gets 10 million viewers could include 100,000 buyers. When you look at a viral video like the skateboarding clip that has been viewed in excess of 19 million times, the CPM model makes sense.
Audio podcasting is another story. Niche-focused shows delivered by RSS can only confuse traditional advertisers. FIR (the podcast I co-host with Neville Hobson (that weird UK guy) has an audience of about 1,500, give or take. Under the CPM model, that’s one-and-a-half. What’s an advertiser to make of that?
On the other hand, FIR targets a niche audience. Our research indicates about 80% of our audience work in PR or organizational communications, are somewhat to very senior, and have budgets up into the millions of dollars. That’s a very attractive market to niche advertisers, which led CustomScoop (a media monitoring service) and Lawrence Ragan Communciations (a communications trade organization) to seek us out for advertising and sponsorship. We won’t get rich off of these relationships, but we never saw podcasting as a money-making venture to begin with, so it’s all cream.
The point of my original post is that the lack of a uniform infrastructure is holding audio podcasting back. Short videos with broad appeal don’t need a new infrastucture; the Web works just fine. Once podcasting gets its uniform infrastructure, and people like my mom are able to subscribe and listen without calling their kids for help, it’ll make more sense to advertisers and more of the money—including mainstream media buys—will start flowing the other direction. (After all, advertisers spend plenty on radio.) But most audio podcasting will always appeal to the niche, not the greatest common denominator as online video does.
So Chris is probably right—produce a silly video that gets millions of views and you’re more likely to make serious money than if you produce a thought-provoking, stimulating audio podcast targeting, say, structural engineers, even though marketers who want to reach structural engineers will be better served buying a sponsorship for the audio podcast than advertising on the skateboarding clip.
By the way, Chris is exactly right when he says that, ultimately, good content will win whether it’s audio or video. Crap is crap, regardless of the medium, just as gold is gold.
The plethora of bad podcasts
Sorry, Rob Usdin, but I largely disagree with you on this one. Rob Walch’s point isn’t that the ease of producing high-quality audio has produced nothing but great audio podcasts. His point is that the potential is there to produce a podcast that’s as good (if not better) than radio. (Geez, just listen to any edition of P.W. Fenton’s “Digital Flotsam,” whichb beats the hell out of anything I’ve ever heard on NPR.) The fact that there’s a ton of garbage on TV hasn’t led anybody to believe that a Ken Burns documentary or a “Firefly” isn’t possible. Audiences still flock to the movies even though producers crank out tasteless and brainless movies by the score. People listen to good podcasts—or, at least, podcasts they like—and ignore the rest.
Further, I don’t think most people figure out how to subscribe to a podcast first. They listen via the Flash player or download it first, sampling until they find something they like. Then they subscribe.
I don’t have to work hard as an indie podcaster to build an audience. My audience can’t find anything like FIR from mainstream broadcasters, and that’s true of everything from “Grammar Girl” to the several knitting podcasts. People who listen to FIR (and “Manager Tools” for that matter) do so as a new form of professional development, not entertainment. In that regard, it’s a unique medium (and one that, as noted above, is attracting advertisers and sponsors).
Chip, you also address the volume of bad podcasts produced by amateurs who ramble, rant, and whine (as compared to interactive radio). But as you know, there are also podcasts that are more interactive than radio can hope to be (based on the fact that you can interact without having to listen at the precise time the show is being broadcast). Cream rises to the top. With some 60,000 or more podcasts in production, it should be obvious that there are probably 50,000 or more that have audiences made up of a small circle of friends (or, perhaps, nobody at all). But that leaves a huge number of shows that can attract substantial audiences based on quality content, quality production, or in some happy cases, both.
By the way, Chip, the only way I can easily tune into the last few minutes of a radio broadcast is if I happen to switch to the station at during its last few minutes (as Rob Walch calls it, the “stumble upon” method). I can tune into the last few minutes of any podcast, any time, by fast-forwarding my media player or portable device, which takes only a few seconds.
It’s in our DNA to view video communally
While some people do watch TV in groups, some watch it alone and most people don’t gather around the computer monitor to watch videos, for the most part. It’s an individual experience. Yet people sit in the car together and listen to radio. On XM Radio, every Saturday night at 8 p.m. Pacific, “Deep Tracks” plays the long version of Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gadda Da Vida.” People get together and have parties based on that broadcast. My wife and I get in the car and cruise. It most certainly is about the content!
Ease of listening
Chip, Johan, and Whitney, you’re making my point! In order to move to the next level, a simple, one-click infrastructure is required so you won’t have to wrestle with iTunes!
You also talked about being tethered to a computer or device, which is true. But have you been on a bus or train lately? Have you seen the number of people with buds jammed into their ears? (Rob Walch notes there are 100 million iPods out there, and other brands are selling briskly, too.) How about the number of laptops open on a flight? People are happily and voluntarily tethering themselves, which means someone will benefit by satisfying a growing need for different types of content.
Indexing of content is also an infrastructure issue.
Vaspers, you mention that you don’t like listening to podcasts while working on a computer because it’s too distracting. By the same token, though, I suspect you don’t watch videos while you’re working—it’s even more distracting! And if you listen to music instead of podcasts, can I recommend the music podcasts “Accident Hash,” “Roadhouse,” and “Coverville” for starters? Listening to music is great, but I can’t tolerate the music on radio—the same 40 songs played over and over, pushed by RIAA labels to promote the likes of Britney Spears. I’d much rather listen to new talent uploading their music to the Podsafe Music Network. Rock on, Brother Love!
Podcasting is already mainstream
Several comments assert that podcasts are mainstream because CNN and other outlets offer them. Businesses are podcasting, too (a tiny sampling: Disney, Whirlpool, Speedo, Oracle), as are politicians and other institutions (including non-profits like the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which sponsors the Cystic Fibrosis podcast—talk about content you can’t get anywhere else!). It’s even a vehicle for employee communications. But that doesn’t make it mainstream. Say “TV” and “radio” and you get universal recognition in return. Say “podcasting” and you’re as likely as not to get eyebrows furrowed in confusion. When my Great Aunt Rose (who was an honest-to-God riveter in World War II), my sister-in-law Marcia, and my next-door neighbor Carter tell me they’re listening to podcasts, I’ll concede that it’s gone mainstream.
Mainstream also does not mean mass audiences. As noted above, I do believe most podcasts will always appeal to niches. But 100,000 podcasts with audiences of 100 each still reach 10 million people, right? And a million podcasts with 100 listeners each still reach 100 million people. And, of course, indie shows like “Manager Tools” reach a hell of a lot more than 100 people. Even Neville and my humble little podcast reach 15 times more than that!
The power of video
Good thoughts, Ron, but I think your video podcast appealed to more people because barbeque is a visual activity: I’d rather watch you grill than hear you talk about it; I’ll learn more that way. On the other hand, there’s nothing visual about what Neville and I talk about; there would be no point in watching us talk and play audio clips from correspondents and listeners. I’d be willing to bet our audience would dwindle if we went video. Ultimately, whether audio or video is a better medium for one thing or another is a huge case of “it depends.”
To those I didn’t mention by name, I truly do appreciate your thoughts and, with luck, I offered my two cents in the course of this long-winded post. A special thanks to Matt Searles. What can I say? It’s comments like yours that make all of this so incredibly worthwhile!
My only point is that audio is a viable medium, one that isn’t going anywhere, even as online video’s star rises. There’s plenty of attention to go around, there are ample advertising dollars available, there are plenty of MP3 devices in the field. But podcasting’s growth will remain incremental until an infrastructure emerges that makes it as drop-dead easy to use as picking up a telephone, turning on a TV, and, yes, clicking the play button on a YouTube video. Other factors will also help mainstream audio podcasting, too (do read Rob Walch’s column in the upcoming issue of “Blogger and POdcaster” magazine, which he shared with me over drinks on Wednesday night in Kansas City).
Because there is no profit motive for companies with big money to come together to create that infrastructure (which, again, already exists for video), we’re not likely to see a surge in the growth of audio podcasting. It will continue to be a slow, steady climb, just as it has been for some time now.