When I saw the article "Internet Radio Poised for a Tune Around" in this morning's LA Times, I initially assumed would feature podcasting. I was quite surprised, then, to find not only was this not the focus of the article (which centered instead on whether corporate media may be wading back into the internet radio domain) but there was no mention of podcasting at all.
(Doing a search at latimes.com to see if they'd previously written about podcasting revealed no articles, but 3 podcasting related ads/sponsored links.)
Podcasting has spread like wildfire around the blogosphere in its short history. The term itself is less than a year old, and the original ipodder software made its debut only six months ago. I've seen estimates that there are close to a thousand regular podcasts now, and some of the most prominent podcasts receive thousands of downloads a day. Now, in the grand scheme of things "thousands" may not seem like a huge number-- and, yes, this is still quite an isolated phenomenon at this point-- but think about the scale of blogs initially-- and today some estimate that there are more than 6 million blogs out there now.
While some news outlets like Wired covered the phenomenon fairly early on, it's been receiving increased attention in the general media quite recently (e.g., I heard stories about podcasting on two different NPR shows in a single day, last week. Incidentally, I listened to these stories on my computer, but I digress . . . .)
Wikipedia defines podcasting in this way:
This definition seems fairly helpful in explaining the technology, however one thing is fundamentally missing here-- the way podcasting (like text blogging before it) has been about expanding access not just to consuming but also creating media.
The term "podcasting" is a portmanteau of the words iPod and broadcasting. Although an iPod is currently the playback device of choice for many early adopters of podcasting, a portable music player is not required to take advantage of this method of content distribution. Podcasting is functionally similar to the use of timeshift-capable digital video recorders (DVRs), such as TiVo, which let users record and store TV programs for later viewing.
A podcast is much like an audio magazine subscription: a subscriber receives regular audio programs delivered via the internet, and she or he can listen to them at their leisure.
Podcasts differ from traditional internet audio in two important ways. In the past, listeners have had to either tune in to web radio on a schedule, or they have had to actively download individual files from webpages. Podcasts are more flexible and much easier to get. They can be listened to at any time because a copy is on the listener's computer or portable music player, and they are automatically delivered to subscribers, so no active downloading is required.
However, I've got to love Wikipedia, in that in going over there to write this blogpost, I find a link to this AP article, published today, which does seem fairly clued in. Indeed, it's very title--" 'Podcasting' Lets Masses Do Radio Shows "-- emphasizes what I see as the more significant aspect of podcasting-- not just how it potentially transforms the distribution of content, but how it has further opened up avenues for the creation of content, from new, previously unheard, everyday people-- not just a different way for us to listen to "radio," but new opportunities to make our own radio. Less interesting to me in the stats I mentioned above are the thousands of people downloading Daily Source Code each morning compared to the growing numbers of people making their own-- more and more new podcasts are coming out each day.
And it is this issue that makes the omission of podcasting from the discussion of internet radio found in the LA Times, today, more significant. Instead we get:
Major media companies, including broadcast giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Viacom Inc.'s MTV, jumped into the game. The only problems: no workable business model and no way to reach listeners away from their computers. That made Internet radio, for the most part, a commercial flop.Now, maybe I shouldn't expect more from an article in the Business Section-- but the visions presented here seem so limited, solely imagining people still as passive audiences-- albeit audiences with new, high tech ways to listen to radio content. The content, and perhaps more significantly the one-to-many broadcasting model, remains remarkably unchanged. (Or, changed to more targeted niche markets, maybe, but still niches who solely consume rather than produce their own media.)
But now there are signs of a turnaround. Ratings services are beginning to take Internet radio seriously as an advertising medium, entertainment companies are investing in it again, and new technologies are promising to let it reach people whether they are in the car or on the jogging trail.
Now, podcasting certainly doesn't belie Sturgeon's Law. Indeed, to estimate that 90% of podcasts are crap may be slightly generous, at this point. And I do think that some of the hype may be more than a little overblown. And (while this may simply reveal my own reading vs. listening bias), I do think there are factors about the listening experience, multitasking, browsing, and attention that may keep podcasts from having quite the same scale/expansiveness that blogs have already achieved. (Okay, and while I'm at it, I guess I'll thrown in my frustrations with the term "podcasting"-- it being so tethered as a phrase to the iPod is a problem, I think-- and I'm certainly not alone, in this frustration.)
Yet, at the same time, I think there is something significant going on out there, that we shouldn't ignore.
[But I also have a confession to make: most of what I listen to on my iPod walks to work, jogs, etc. are not the amateur productions I find so intriguing in concept, but rather are shows like Democracy Now or On the Media, i.e., those public radio shows that have posted their shows not just in streaming but in MP3 or AAC formats, or the talks hosted at IT Conversations, (which fall somewhere in between those two poles, I guess)]
Speaking of IT Conversations-- where's our "Sociology Conversations"? I'd love it if there was a similar bank of signficant talks from our conferences online for me to download and listen to.)-- But now that I've completely digressed into free associate here, I think it's time for me to end this post. The above seemingly contradictory comments from me obviously indicate that I have some ambivalence here and my thoughts are rather inchoate at this point-- but I hope to come back to this issue (and update this post) soon-- when I'm feeling slightly less braindead!