Monday, February 07, 2005

Internet Radio- but where's the podcasting?

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 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:

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.

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.

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.

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, 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.)

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!


Blogger Lisa said...

I completely agree about the conference sessions idea -- podcasting is a great way to make the impact of conference sessions persistent.

Someone commenting over at my site called podcasting "folk radio," and I think that's an interesting way to think about it. While there are some shows, like IT Conversations and Adam Curry's Daily Source Code, that aspire to radio-like production quality, not all podcasts do. Personally I like both types; the highly produced shows are like a very nice car -- say, a Jaguar. But I don't think of lightly produced shows as "bad," just "rugged," and ones that have good content have all the utilitarian charm of a Jeep Willys. I think the epitome of this kind of rugged but totally useful podcast is probably Dave Winer's Morning Coffee Notes.

Interestingly, Adam and Dave are credited with inventing the idea of podcasting, and their podcasts also represent two poles of ideas about podcasting. Adam records as close to a schedule as he can and has radio-like production values; Dave waits until he has something important to say and records it with a headset mike while driving in his car.

(I don't want to set up a straw man here, I realize you're not arguing that some kinds of podcast are "bad" based on production values).

12:14 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Oh, and since you're at there anything good going on that you could record for us to listen to?

I've been recording the weekly meetings of the blog group at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. The Four Minutes movie was screened there for the first time last week, and we had a ton of people and a great discussion.

You can find audio at

12:20 PM  
Blogger Molly Moloney said...

That "Four Minutes about Podcasting" (a short film whose title is self-explanatory) is great. (For people who haven't seen it, it's available here: 4 minutes.) As well as being a helpful intro to podcasting, it nicely captures the flavor of what's going on right now. I think that "folk radio" is indeed a great term for the phenomenon and why it's so exciting.

I do see your point about the charm of the "rugged" (to use your term) production values of much of what's being produced. It does have a certain allure, although I don't want to romanticize it for its own sake.

And you're absolutely right: I should put my money where my mouth is and starting contributing content of my own. While I don't think that a molo-radio-show stytle podcast would likely be my style, I should certainly look into what of the interesting things going on here at UCSB (or in SB more generally) could be recorded/shared. This would be a whole new type of endeavor for me, but with so many of my friends involved in community radio here, I should be able to figure it out.

By the way, what's your website? The URL you give above doesn't seem to be working.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Molly Moloney said...

Oh, duh, I guess you're probably the Lisa who made "Four Minutes..." (In which case, I say: "Great Job!") Heh.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Phil Wolff said...

I'd love a Sociology Conversations!

ummm, what's stopping you?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Molly Moloney said...

Hmm, Good question! When I mentioned the idea of a "Sociology Conversations," a la Doug Kaye's IT Conversations, what I specifically had in mind was some sort of clearing house for recordings of soc. talks/conferences. Of course, that would require that actual recording of such proceedings takes place. I'm not sure that I'd be the best one to take on that sort of a task (either from a technical recording pov or from a needing to actually be at such conferences pov). But, I'll admit that that shouldn't preclude me from trying to get the ball running in other ways. Maybe I'll put some feelers out there to see what's possible, what's feasible, what's already getting done that I'm unaware of. Any thoughts or ideas you (or anyone) has on this would be greatly appreciated.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Molly Moloney said...

In fact . . . you've inspired me to register There's nothing there now-- but hopefully I'll post at least some tentative thoughts there (and here) soon.

10:31 AM  
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4:42 AM  

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