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What Ails Podcasting?

What Ails Podcasting?

This week Shel Holtz kicked off quite a discussion with his post “Why Hasn’t Podcasting Gone Mainstream?”  I have been participating in the dialogue in the comments on his post, but I think it merits a complete post of its own here.

Shel argues that it is a problem of infrastructure.  He says that watching video online is easy, while audio is comparatively hard. 

One survey found that more than half of all podcast listeners don’t use a portable device. Is it because that is too difficult or is it because that’s where they want to listen?

I certainly understand the argument that listening to podcasts isn’t exactly simple if you want to sync to a portable device, but I don’t think that’s the answer to the challenge by a long shot.  It is part of it, sure, and I include it among my 10 reasons for slow podcast adoption (below), but ultimately if people want to hear truly compelling content they will work hard to get it.  Just look at the lengths people will go to get Police concert tickets or to buy a Wii.

Here then are the top 10 reasons I can think of why podcasting isn’t yet mainstream.

  1. It’s the Content, Stupid.  There’s some good podcast content out there, but far less than most of us who are directly involved believe.  It is hard to judge one’s own work and that of colleagues.  And lest we forget what works in radio today, let’s review: music, talk shows, and news.  Yet how many podcasts fall in to those categories?  Yes, we can (and should) cater to niches, but we have to find a new way to do it.  Personally, I believe the answer lies in uniting text, audio, and video under one roof to reach niches (rather than the silo approach most are using today), but that’s something for a different post.
  2. Podcasts are too host-centric. Think about how different the content of podcasts is versus successful radio.  Many podcasts tend to be rambling, somewhat self-serving commentaries (my own included from time to time).  Most good radio is interactive between host and caller or host and guest.  Very few survive on the backs of the host(s) alone.
  3. Radio facilitates snacking, podcasting encourages dining.  Radio is taken in digestible chunks for durations determined by the listener.  Podcasts are created in durations determined by the creator.  You can’t tune in for the last few minutes of a podcast easily. Podcasts don’t require, but they do encourage, more commitment. There is no serendipity as you must select your show explicitly (usually). And if you are only going to listen to a portion, it will generally be at the start of the podcast which—let’s face it—is not always where most podcasts have their best content.  As with talk radio, the best content often is somewhere in the middle since the beginning is often introductory, housekeeping kind of stuff.  If you don’t get hooked right out of the gate, then you likely will stay away.  Whereas you could tune in to talk radio and get hooked by something 2/3 of the way through that day’s show.  Yes, with radio it is a crapshoot, but there are advantages (and, yes, disadvantages) to that format.
  4. People don’t listen to radio when tethered to their computers or similar devices.  They listen when in their cars or on the porch or at the beach.  Only geeks like us have our devices with us 24/7.
  5. Average people don’t want to listen to work-related content during off hours.  Employers don’t want employees listening during work hours.  Hence, business podcasts don’t take off beyond a small niche.
  6. I can’t have real-time interaction with a podcast, either directly or vicariously.  AM talk radio thrives in part because of timely caller interaction. Podcast comments draw out a discussion that would be better if it were had all at one time, rather than in snippets over the course of several weeks.
  7. The mainstream is turned off by the use of geeky terms like podcasting and RSS. People think podcasts need to be listened to on an iPod, even though I recall reading some data at one point that suggests most people listen to them on their computers directly.  Anytime you have to explain the content format to someone, you lose.
  8. Podcasts aren’t as easy to listen to as we would all have people believe.  I have to mud wrestle with iTunes on a regular basis to get it to update my subscriptions in a timely fashion and then properly sync them to my iPod.  And I know what I am doing, imagine how it is for casual users. 
  9. Flexibility doesn’t equal simplicity. The same things that make podcasts more flexible also make it more challenging for the casual listener. Give people too many options, and you will actually see engagement decrease.
  10. Royalty problems block music shows. “FM” podcasts (music ones) are obviously hamstrung by licensing issues.

Rather than dismissing old media, in this case radio, as many new media mavens are fond of doing, we ought to study it and learn from it.  Fundamentally, I don’t believe in new media per se.  As Christopher Penn commented not long ago (I forget where), “media is media.”

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