Andrew Kantor, USA TODAY
I wrote about podcasting last May, and some recent news tells me it's
time to get back to the subject.
First, a brief refresher. It's necessary; "podcasting" is an
incredibly misused word.
Podcasting means putting audio files on a website regularly, using a
technology called RSS -- Really Simple Syndication. People using the
right software can automatically download each new program posted to
The automatic part is important. Podcasting is not simply putting
audio files on your site and letting people download them. That's
known as "putting audio files on your site and letting people download
them." To be a podcast, it has to be automated.
No RSS, no syndication, no podcast.
The original idea was that people would download (or buy) podcasting
software, then set it to retrieve their favorite shows overnight.
They'd automatically be put on their MP3 players. Those shows -- those
podcasts -- would be created by hundreds or thousands of people all
over the Internet, and on every subject imaginable.
The end result would be that listeners could create a custom "radio"
network of sorts with only their favorite content, and that anyone
could become a syndicated radio host.
And now the news.
The next big thing?
The good folks at Forrester took a survey, and found that only "one
percent of online households in North America regularly download and
listen to podcasts."
What makes the Forrester report interesting is that it seems to go
against the expectations of so many people -- including me. We've
gotten used to Internet-based technologies taking off and, to some
extent, shaping the media agenda.
The rise of MP3s changed the music industry. Blogs changed how we look
at and read the news. Viral-video sites such as YouTube mean never
missing another funny moment. Sites like Flickr have taken over from
the coffee-table album as the way we share our photos.
After all that, we thought podcasting was going to change radio.
Let's face it: Most radio today sucks. With limited space on the dial
and so many stations owned by soulless suits, it feel like you get the
same payola-funded, corporate-sponsored drek on all but a few indepen-
dent stations. That's because of that limited bandwidth. Getting a
space on the dial is expensive, so the majority of what you hear comes
through companies big enough to afford it.
But what if there was unlimited space, and the cost to run a "radio" station
was virtually nil?
One the one hand, you'd see a wider selection and encounter more
things out of the mainstream -- a chance to expand horizons you don't
get on the AM or FM dials.
But there's another hand, and it illustrates what I think is one of
the three big problems preventing podcasting from taking off.
There's already an example of what happens when something gets so
inexpensive that what was once limited to corporations and
professionals becomes possible for anyone: spam.
When direct marketing cost money -- for paper, mailing, phone calls,
etc. -- you didn't see all that much. But e-mail is all but free, so
the quality of the advertising content dropped, as a friend of mine
would say, like a rock tied to a rock.
I'm not saying that podcasts are like spam. What I am saying is that
there's a downside to "everyone's a publisher": The quality of the
medium goes down.
Because economics don't act as a quality-control agent, there are a
lot of great podcasts, but there are a lot more bad ones. The tradeoff
for more choice is more junk to sort through to get the good stuff.
That's roadblock number one. Number two is the technology.
Radios are simple to use: Turn the dial. Podcast software, while
usually well designed, is vastly more complex because the process
itself is vastly more complex. You have to search the Net for shows,
subscribe to the ones you like, and decide how to handle the audio
files -- do you want them downloaded automatically or put on your MP3
player, or would you prefer just to be alerted?
None of this is difficult with good software, but compared to turning
on a radio and spinning the dial, it's rocket science.
The last major roadblock to podcasts taking off is an unfortunate
thing, but one that's real nonetheless: the tyranny of choice.
"Given the indisputable fact that choice is good for human well-being,
it seems only logical that if some choice is good, more choice is
better," wrote Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore
College. "Logically true, yes. Psychologically true, no. My
colleagues and I, along with other researchers, have begun amassing
evidence -- both in the laboratory and in the field -- that increased
choice can lead to decreased well-being."
Let's say you get some podcast software and set it up to sync to your
iPod. Now what? You have to find shows you're interested in either by
searching a directory like Podcast.net, by hearing of it via word of
mouth, or by stumbling upon it. You can't just turn the dial.
You're presented with a huge array of choices -- as I write this,
Podcast.net has 26651 feeds listed. Choice like that is great if
you're looking for something big like a car or a house, where it's not
a throwaway, need-it-now decision. But when you just want to listen to
something or choose a candidate for a political office, it's
That isn't to say that podcasting isn't a great idea. Lots of people
are taking the time to find and download them, and to set the software
up to do it automatically. And they're the better for it, getting to
listen to a wider variety of programming than those of us stuck with
But until the process makes it to the next generation and some of the
chaff disappears on its own -- or some shows achieve widespread
prominence thanks to the right person (or site) promoting them --
podcasting is, unfortunately, going to remain a niche.
Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all who
covers technology for the Roanoke Times. He's also a former editor for
PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at
kantor.com. His column appears Fridays on USATODAY.com.
Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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