…a meandering look at the “death” of RSS and MP3, the podcasting industry, and ways both technology and human behavior affect industry growth rates.
Start with the term “podcasting”, a form of audio-on-demand. It means different things to various folks… yet, for SUCH a useful medium, means nothing at all to too many people. I am working on a web project to change that, and it is driven most by MY personal views on web media — not focus groups. Here’s my (sometimes different) slant:
People Who Know
About one-fourth of the U.S. population listened to a podcast last month*.
Of those who do know about podcasts, some hold their definition quite dear, having earned it with an investment of years into the craft. The PURIST might say a podcast is a downloadable .mp3 file distributed by way of a standard RSS feed link, found in the Apple iTunes podcast directory, and played on an Apple device. The LITERALIST will say the “pod” in podcast comes from the original Apple mobile device (iPod) that allowed people to download files, so there is a required “Apple connection” plus the ability to listen offline. The ELITIST supports only Apple devices, prefers AAC audio but accepts MP3 as the de facto standard in podcasting, and understands the current state of the smartphone market with its Android presence (dominance).
These are all obviously people who know podcasting well and have strong opinions.
Most people, even in this group, are nominally aware or don’t care about the dogma.
The PRACTICAL accept all types of audio and video files so long as they play. They really aren’t concerned about the type of file nor its mode of delivery. While there are situations where the ability to download files is necessary for offline access, network access is so much wider these days that streaming is acceptable in many situations. If it works, they’re good.
While most enjoy the power and convenience of today’s smart phones, everybody will soon expect their podcasts to be available on virtually any device they have access to:
- small- and large- screen smartphones
- tablets and phablets
- notebooks, laptops, and desktops
- wifi/cast TV
- … and smart speakers
Currently, a LOT of time is spent promoting new podcasts to existing podcast listeners. Obviously, there’s no learning curve related to the podcast medium so it boils down to the merits of the program being recommended… that makes sense. It is the “easier sell”.
In a way, it is also an echo chamber. More about that another time.
People Who Don’t Know
About 75% of the country is NOT participating in the podcast entertainment and education revolution!
A convergence of technologies is making it EASIER and more PRACTICAL for everyday people to catch up with the “early enjoyers” of podcasts (AKA: People Who Know).
Still, there are key questions regarding WHY more have not become regular podcast consumers.
BTW: my project examines ways to expand the audience base and pays considerable attention to that larger part of the pie, all while still delivering additional value to existing, regular consumers.
Adoption of podcasts has been relatively slow and steady, establishing a solid trajectory into a bright future. The foundation of the emerging podcast industry has evolved over the past decade.
Podcasters, the content creators in this endeavor, have helped each other learn their craft or found a way to fly solo. Vendors, the businesses selling equipment and services to facilitate the production and delivery of podcasts, have recognized a viable market and are now offering more interesting, specialized solutions. Listeners and viewers, the consumers of content, US!, are discovering a vast, fresh, renewable inventory of entertaining and educational programs PLUS a medium that creates an almost intimate relationship with the people who made them.
Last, advertisers, ogling the remarkable audience metrics of the medium, are working overtime to practically force the industry to innovate better ways to capture ad analytics AT SCALE. This will not be long in development and is one of the last keys to opening the advertising floodgates to a larger, faster flow of sponsorship dollars into the medium. I have no sense whether this big money will be “new” or come at the expense of some other medium, but the dollars will most assuredly come.
Podcasting IS an industry and it WILL grow.
All podcasters adopt their own production schedules. Some are monthly, others weekly, there are no rules. A few are prolific and produce shows daily, a workload only for those with endurance or a team. Or both.
Most successful podcasters seem to have a “completion thing” and, once they establish their routine, stick with it doggedly. This is great. Consistency is an underrated virtue, especially in podcasting. Any kind of publishing, really.
As a rabid consumer myself, I’ll just go ahead and speak for all of us:
“WE are the boss.”
As it should be. I want it when I want it, where I want it, how I want it. Everybody just keep that in mind. (Within the confines of reality, blah, blah, blah, let’s not parse everything, ok?)
Every medium has a “regular” mode of delivery and of consumption.
- Appointment — conforming to a radio or TV program’s scheduled air date and start time, often allocating that block of time for listening or viewing. With radio, that block might be coincidental to a commute or other daily routine. Whether attended in person (local) or via cast (remote), this is the only mode for LIVE EVENTS to be “experienced in the moment”. This is typically a high level of engagement unless one is simply “along for the ride”. Producers and consumers synchronize their watches and, when the time comes, the show is ON. Be there or tune in… right then.
- Drop-in mid-stream — radio and TV on the fly. Get into your car, turn on the radio, select a station/genre, listen to whatever is on; turn on the TV, flip a few channels, begin watching a show in the middle. Accept the flow of content as it is provided. This is likely the lowest engagement level because it is essentially UNSYNCHRONIZED production and consumption, almost as if it happens by accident and both sides just make the best of it.
- Start-at-the-Start — get out the old vinyl record player, DVD player, MP3 player (now just software on our smartphones), or sign on to Netflix, choose exactly the podcast, song, movie, or concert desired… and start from the beginning. Enjoy its completeness as if it happened in real time and as the creator intended. Anticipated and planned, it is clearly a very high level of engagement.
Life is about motion, though, and behavior patterns evolve. Perhaps our ancient ancestors led very busy lifestyles — just finding food for the day often took the whole day — but WE lead busy MODERN lifestyles! Brain work to do, conference calls to attend, mobile screens to scroll.
Where nature or a master once dictated society’s collective clock, this is the Age of the Individual, and each of us has our own clock. We have greater flexibility in setting our own schedules… so we WILL. The “old ways” won’t survive if they don’t concede to INDIVIDUAL consumer preferences. It’s all about freedom.
The Audience Chooses
It’s interesting that actual TV content delivery hasn’t changed much over history (despite the intrusion of cable) but consumption has. Oddly, whether over-the-air or via cable, the delivery looks the same.
More (most?) people are using tools, such as a DVR, to capture scheduled shows at the producers’ chosen time of delivery and enjoying replay at any convenient time later. We use a communications medium AND go through (often extraordinary) gyrations to make it MORE useful to us!
Television, as a medium, didn’t change… nor did consumers continue to accept it. Instead, they adapted it. Not “adapted to it”; modified IT. In this instance, viewers have changed TV and the medium will never be the same. Delivery by cable is little different; same song, next verse.
As usual, there are parallels between television and radio.
Many original “podcasts” were nothing more than poor audio recordings by LISTENERS OF RADIO SHOWS (often captured with open mics, background noises and all). Avid fans would trade recorded audio cassettes long-distance (boxes of them, UPS, at their own expense!), followed by CDs, then .mp3 files were traded via IRC, then P2P, then bittorrent, and later RSS feeds with regular updates as new shows aired in any given listener region. Yes, true podcasts but not to be found in iTunes. Sometimes the recordings had an intro and/or outro by the person who “capped” the episode… perhaps noting the time, place, date, station, etc… other times, sharing personal details into the recorded ether “just like a podcaster”.
The radio term for this phenomenon would be BOOTLEG. Many popular shows were bootlegged… or, as I have modernized it, bitlegged. It is not a new idea.
Notwithstanding legalities, please note this activity did not actually diminish the RADIO STATION in any way as the new consumption was from an audience unbeknownst to them and in a geography far removed.
Further, it solidified and expanded the audience base for the TALENT that, in later years, proved generally to be beneficiaries, if for nothing other than greater name recognition.
SOME radio stations, or likely an energetic intern or insightful technician, adopted podcasting early — to the extent they republished their daily shows on their websites and made an RSS feed available to obtain updates. This service has long been popular in LOCAL markets where a regional radio “star” will create demand from regular listeners who BEG for a way to hear their favorite radio show while:
- on vacation
- at work
From a technical standpoint, podcasting is a no-brainer for radio people. Which is not to say it’s easy nor that it cannot be done wrong. But, really… it does not take pro radio engineer skills to deliver a podcast.
The radio industry had the content and the capabilities the whole time… it watched as podcasting was born and grew from infancy. Not many took serious action.
SO, one might ask, why did things evolve such that radio failed to LEAD THE WAY in podcasting?
Actually, in a way, radio SUCCEEDED… AND FAILED.
Up to now, this commentary has been alluding to COMMERCIAL RADIO although some applies to PUBLIC RADIO, as well. These two segments of the same industry, however, are almost polar opposites in how they approached podcasting and the degree of success they have achieved. I’m speaking in generalities, of course.
Public (non-commercial) radio has succeeded in growing a large and engaged podcasting audience (supporting their fine portfolio of work) where commercial radio is, at best, an also-ran (despite having significantly more resources). Comparing them, one is clearly winning and the other seems confused… still not understanding what makes podcasting different.
Public radio, alumni, and spin-offs of public radio are a FORCE in podcasting and commercial radio is not.
Does the difference have to do with their audiences? their approach to audiences? their attitude toward sponsorship? the quantity and/or type of advertising? long-form vs. short-form content?
This success and ardent following has led to a FALSE PUBLIC IMPRESSION of the podcasting space:
The perception of the general public is skewed and the larger players, wordsmiths that they are, have easily kept it that way. Many would interpret this particular presentation to mean public radio has MORE PODCASTS than commercial radio or the army of independent podcasters. If this graph indicates anything that is close to reality, it’s probably nearer to the REVENUE share of podcasting rather than a count of shows.
If you simply want to know HOW MANY PODCASTS fall into the groups (not how much money they probably made, how many participants there are in the race), then this is a truer picture:
I’m NOT complaining about “The Public Radio Crowd” getting more credit than “Indie Podcasters”, I’m wondering…
… if SO MUCH has been produced from that tiny public radio slice of the pie, by a relatively small group of talented people, how much MORE quality content will be derived from that massive, independent, mostly-unknown independent podcaster segment?
There’s something to be said for building a high-level team and executing a well-thought-out plan. This professionalism led to some wildly popular shows and probably accounts for much of the current attention podcasts are getting in the media.
The fact is, though, the amateurs of today are rapidly becoming the professionals of today. They face fewer roadblocks and move fast. It will not be long before some REALLY good ones rise to the top — and with a couple of hundred thousand independent podcasts or more — the sheer numbers will become a competitive media force of their own.
As more detail is learned and shared about podcast listener habits, patterns emerge. It will be fascinating to see how the pictures of different listener profiles unfold over the coming months as never-available-before analytical user data begins to stream from, among others, Apple.
We’ve seen variations of THIS pattern and they all tell pretty much the same story…
Most agree it depicts, generally, how a podcast is consumed. Listeners start at the beginning, like a novel, and work toward the end… but not all make it. In fact, many drop off within a few minutes. Some make it all the way to the end.
IN MY NEXT ARTICLE, let’s examine THIS particular behavior in greater detail.
There is more to it than meets the eye. This current behavior is at the heart of my web development project… I intend to alter it. We’ll delve deep and I’ll explain some of the rationale.
Expect some out-of-the-box views.
I believe consumption of web media can be changed in a meaningful way without disrupting the podcasting ethos.
I’ll bring my pushpins and yarn to connect concepts for you.
When patents to the .mp3 format expired, some journalists showed their ignorance (or used clickbait) by declaring it “dead”. Newcomers propose JSON alternatives to RSS. There are many other technical directions podcasting COULD go…
Luckily, the practical choose MP3 and RSS. These technologies are fully functional and widely used. The MP3 format may arguably be in a stronger position since no patent means no license fees, like some codecs impose. MP3 tech is totally free to use. No money involved. Nor is there a money aspect to RSS since it is a specification, one that has been deemed “closed” and not subject to change. That is to say, it does all it was intended to do. (Which is quite a lot.)
So, neither are dead… they are unencumbered. Open. Free.
If we had such data, I’d bet on there being MORE .mp3 and RSS files in use today than there EVER has been. Far from dead. Due to the independent views of many who have come into contact with these two technologies, the nature of the internet, and the pervasive use of these software definitions… that will not change anytime in the foreseeable future.
Also, MP3 is just an audio format, a file type. Podcasting relates to the ENCLOSURE tag within an RSS feed. That enclosure entry is very often an MP3 filename… but it can be virtually any media type and contain audio, video, and more. (Did you know there are VIDEO PODCASTS?) In other words, podcasting is in no way dependent on the fate of MP3.
*Podcasting is a new and growing industry… but small now. Tiny, really.
The 24% penetration discussed is a monthly figure. Consider the multiple to put it in the radio/television realm… where the engagement is 90% or more AND audience figures are DAILY.
That bit of math might be hard to follow, so here’s another way to look at it.
As industries serving advertising, consider TV raked in $81 BILLION in 2016 (perhaps why some look down on radio?), radio took in $18 BILLION (perhaps why some look down on podcasting?), “internet” $93 BILLION (perhaps why some look down on non-digital?).
Podcasting? ~$200 million (perhaps why… wait)
Podcasting is so small right now it doesn’t even have its own wedge in the pie graph… but it does have a label!
How long ago was the “internet” category as little as podcasting is now?
I might be an optimist… I can only see podcasting taking a larger slice. Go ahead and laugh, you won’t be the first.