Podcasters make easy listening

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As in cities commuters around the world, the characteristic white headphones of the iPod are a common feature sight among among those in Chicago commuters. What has changed for Chicago’s travellers in the last month,
however, is what they can listen to. For those feeling like they miss out on a
bit of local knowledge by not being able to watch the city’s popular ABC-owned WLS television station during the day, there is now help at hand. They can listen to the latest television features –on their iPodsiPods, Apple’s hugely popular audio devices.

“These people are still overwhelmingly listening to music. But this can get boring and increasingly they are uploading all kinds of other content on to their iPods,” says Emily Barr, president and general manager of WLS TV. The Chicago station broadcasts 5-1/2five and a half hours of news per a day, including features on organic city farming and urban beekeepers from reporters such as the “Hungry Hound”. Some of this is repackaged into podcasts, the easily downloadable audio files that can be listened to on iPods, Apple’s hugely popular audio device or other MP3 rival players. This is a relatively simple and cheap exercise given that all the station’s content is already in digital form.

“Chicago’s commuters know the names of our reporters . . . – like the Hungry HoundPodcasts provide another way to experience us when you are not watching TV,” Ms Barr says.

A growing number of television programmers – the list includes NBC, CBS and the BBC – are making their content available for listening rather than viewing. This is part of the rapidly changing landscape of podcasting, which has existed for just over a year. “Podcasting has come out of nowhere in a very, very short time,” says John Papanek, senior vice-president and editorial director at ESPN New Media, part of the Walt Disney-owned sports business, which offers podcasts via Apple’s iTunes service. “It is no longer just for leading-edge technology seekers.”

Podcasting, like most emerging formats, had an underground and cutting edge beginning. There are still thousands of podcasts created every day by amateurs, ranging from discussions about their everyday lives to music and film reviews and programmes about aviation, gardening and technology. Pornography, in the form of sexcasts, and religion, or Godcasts, are also making their mark. Services which that allow users to find them and to rank them, such as podcastalley.com and podcastingnews.com, are regularly being launched.

But the availability of podcasts on iTunes, Apple’s digital music website, since June 28, has pushed podcasts into broader view. Launched on June 28, There were already 5m podcast subscriptions within three weeks of the launch. The site offers searches for podcasts, and ranks the top 100 and has promotions for well-known brands. For example, Radio Disney, Walt Disney’s radio group, aimed at families and children, signed a podcast deal with iTunes just a few weeks ago. “There is a financial relationship [between Radio Disney and iTunes] but it is more about us having the power to promote iTunes to a new audience and increasing awareness of the Radio Disney brand too,” says Jean-Paul Colaco, president and general manager of Radio Disney.

The increased presence of big media in the podcasting space is not about to push smaller players away, according to Adam Curry, radio veteran and co-founder of PodShow, a podcasting network that has just attracted $8.85m of venture capital investment. “The big media companies forgot what they could do with audio and they lost much of their creativity,” Mr Curry says. “Podcasting has opened up a new distribution medium which has allowed great audio content to be heard again. Listeners want good stuff, and in that regard there is no advantage that the big companies have over individual podcast producers at all.”

With podcasting being barely more than a year old, the medium is likely to change considerably this year and next. Media groups are trying to work out their strategies. There are two keyimportant issues: to what extent will podcast content be unique, and will anyone be able to make money from it?

In terms of advertising, the medium is already starting to attract interest. Many podcasts have small-scale advertisers or sponsors. Verizon, the biggest telecoms group in the US, will soon start to broadcast 15-second adverts on ESPN’s podcasts. It may not all be audio-based. Chicago’s ABC7 has developed a slide-show which can be watched on advanced iPods whilst while listening to the station’s podcasts. It is these visuals that the group expects will attract advertisers.

Joel Hollander, chairman and chief executive officer of Infinity Broadcasting, one of the biggest radio groups in the US, thinks the medium will attract a different advertising model to radio. “We would love it to have the same type of revenue model – radio is a $20bn per year business – but it is more likely that there will be new solutions,” said Mr Hollander. In particular, he expects there to be fewer ads on podcasts, perhaps of shorter duration.

The other potential source of revenue is from subscription charges. The BBC, for example, is currently mapping out a strategy for new media such as podcasting. Simon Nelson, controller of BBC radio and music interactive music, says he has been astonished by the level of interest in the BBC’s downloadable audio content. At the moment, 20Twenty programmes provide podcast subscriptions. Mr Nelson says the BBC might in the future charge for content that is more than seven days old or develop other such premium services.

On the content front, there are already a number of indicators for the future. the medium lends itself most to content that is not live.
Podcasts are updated automatically every time an iPod or MP3 player is plugged into a computer, but are not while they are being listened to. “The new part of news is pretty important and not really suited to a non-
connected MP3 player,” said Andrew Locke, director of product strategy at online news site MSNBC.com. “But audio versions of programmes such as Meet the Press (a weekly television review of current events) do quite well and this appears to be better content for this medium.”

Although iTunes was built around music, music is, in fact, only a small part of podcast content. The reason is copyright – either rights are not assigned or they make podcasting too expensive to provide forfree. The recent launch of PodSafe Music Network by Mr Curry’s company, which features royalty-free music, is one avenue for more music content. But podcasts are likely to retain their non-music bias. “It is still problematic to seek permission to use much music content,” said Mr Nelson. “This means the focus is on content that is made in-house, or where contributors can easily be asked if they are comfortable using it in podcasts (such as interviews).”

Most of the offerings by media companies so far are repackaged content that is available elsewhere. However, as more people use podcasts, this might not work as well.

“The challenge for media companies is to develop new content for podcasts,” says Mr Colaco. at Radio Disney“We will have to make sure our audience sticks around.”

Due to these many questions, There is little agreement about how ubiquitous podcasting will become. Forecasts range from just over 10m users in five years’ time, to closer to 60m. Much will depend on how the technology evolves, such as whether it becomes “live” through integration with wireless devices. Regardless of its future developmentMedia companies should not underestimate it, says Jeff Gralnick, who advises NBC’s news operations on new media. “It is clearly a nascent technology, but we would be fools to ignore it.”

PODCASTING: THE RISE OF THE DIGITAL SPOKEN WORD

■ Podcasting was defined by Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English as “the web-based broadcast of music which works with software that automatically detects new files and is accessed by subscription”.

■ Due to copyright issues, a large proportion of podcast content is not music-based.

■ As well as tens of thousands of amateur podcasters, big media companies are increasingly offering free podcast subscriptions for radio and television content.

■ Podcasts are subscribed to via aggregation sites; individual websites; or, increasingly, via Apple’s iTunes podcasting section.

■ The most downloaded podcasts for August, according to podcastalley.com, included a show for Macintosh geeks; “Free Talk Live”, a syndicated talk radio show; “This Week in Tech”, a roundtable discussion; “The Dawn and Drew Show,” the musings of two “ex gutter punks” and Catholic Insider, with news about the faith.

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