Podcasting Is the Next Radio

I have been reading with great interest the pieces written recently by two of my favorite thinkers – Mercury Media’s Mark Ramsey and Edison Media’s Tom Webster.

These two seers disagree a bit on the future of podcasting. Ramsey says “the fact that podcasting has not swept the audience the way other trends have should give us pause”. Webster talks about making podcast content “unmissable” in a rather upbeat assessment.

I like the debate. Both these gentlemen are contributing to a much needed discussion on the future of what I believe is the next radio – podcasting.

Yet I see podcasting in a different light.

It’s not ready to replace radio although I believe it will be the new radio within the next ten years or so.

Podcasting is not what a lot of radio broadcasters think it is – and I’m going to address my vision of it here this morning.

Making podcasts make money will not be as easy as selling “commercial spots” as we do in radio.

The podcasts "formats" will not resemble what we’re used to doing in radio, but rather, how we’d talk to people in a one-on-one fashion. (In radio, we’ve lost that lovin’ feeling for being a one-to-one medium).

Why Podcasting Isn’t Presently Setting the World on Fire

1. iTunes as a delivery system is not enough to distribute programming. It’s only one way – one small way. After all, iTunes’ main mission is to sell music so Apple iPod customers can legally fill up their MP3 players with music.

2. Much of podcasting is raw content – books, people and entertainers who do other things. It’s not all that compelling. We’re a long way from making podcasts “unmissable” – although that is precisely what it is going to take.

3. The best creators of content on this planet – radio programmers and talent – are being fired, stretched to save money and otherwise wasted on terrestrial radio that sounds very boring. Imagine if these radio people could be reassigned to the new world of podcasting. Of course, radio CEOs – if they were that smart – would still get it wrong. They’d be having podcasters pull an airshift while working on podcasting content. That would be a big mistake.

4. No one has figured out a good way to monetize podcasting yet – at least, not on the level of radio, TV or print. Not even in comparison to Internet advertising.

5. There are many unresolved music royalty issues – the kind holding back the growth of Internet streaming – that acts as a damper to new investment in musical podcasts.

Podcastings Strengths

1. Far and away the best reason is that the next generation is used to stopping, starting, deleting and time delaying its content. The iPod to Gen Y is what the Walkman radio was to Gen X or the transistor radio was to baby boomers. Gen Y doesn’t need – or like – the concept of having content broadcast to them. They want to receive it, and use it (or not use it) as they please -- on their terms. Podcasting cooperates with the inevitable.

2. Podcasting bests radio where radio used to excel – in personalized communications. Podcasting is like short, block programming from the 50’s and 60’s except better. A subscriber today chooses from a wide variety of subject matter not a handful of programs chosen by a program manager.

3. It’s easy to listen to on the fly. Increasingly this generation is docking and syncing like no generation before them. That is, with millions of iPhones being pressed into service, the daily sync is a routine that can be counted on to proliferate. Where consumers once synced when they wanted to (or needed to), they tend to sync more frequently now. Just to stay current with the popular apps that I’ve downloaded on my iPhone, I've made it a regular habit. This will be the rule – not the exception -- going forward.

4. The unappreciated (or at least little appreciated) advantage of podcasting is the “live-read” potential of the expert or star whispering in the ear of eager consumers.

Podcasting Five Years from Today

1. Podcasts will be defined as short programs offered on a regular basis for download to mobile devices. Five minutes to 50 minutes. (And if you think five years is not enough time for all this to happen, five years ago most people didn't own an iPod).

2. A national directory of podcasts will evolve (I’m working on this with clients now). This directory will actually be to podcasting what iTunes is to music downloading. While iTunes will still feature podcasting downloads, it will not be the main source of programming. There may be one, two or three main sources. Radio stations will not be that major directory although they may be the main source of podcasting content.

3. Some radio groups will commit the necessary investment to launch a podcasting division. The rules: no content will be podcast that is also aired on terrestrial radio. That’s is broadcasting. Podcasting is different and must be special. You can’t grow podcasting as a function of repurposing old terrestrial radio content.

4. Radio PDs and talent will develop these podcasts but they will not – and I repeat and underscore this – not be developed nationally. Podcasting will bubble up from local radio stations where the studios stand idly by while consolidators find ways to kill off local radio sooner. Local will be the key for the majority of podcasts.

5. Topics and subjects will rise up from local brainstorming. (Those of you who attended my two-hour session at The Conclave participated in a short sample brainstorming session for local content – you saw all the great ideas the group came up with). Your PD may not ever contribute one podcast topic but she or he might produce the podcast with broadcast production values. Actually, you’d be surprised and shocked where the content will come from.

6. These podcasts will have no produced commercials – again, that’s radio. This is podcasting. There are other ways to make money. You can do some live-reads but that alone won’t be a revenue buster.

7. Merchandising is the key to big profits. I wish I had enough time to brainstorm this with my Conclave “class” but the same approach would be taken to establish products and services happy podcast listeners could buy. Radio stations are a great resource for this – if they fire their present CEOs and get some enlightened ones in there within the next few years.

8. Stations would aggregate 40 or 50 different podcasts around one group – not a demographic as we tend to do in radio. See if you’re with me – can you name how stations will aggregate all these podcasts?

I’m not absolutely certain broadcasters can be the driving force behind podcasting, but they should be.

It’s radio – updated for short attention spans, mobile devices and more eclectic interests of the youth audience.

Of course, radio groups may just march themselves right down to the executioner as they are doing right now with budget cuts, cheap programming to their available listeners and little to know marketing or creative savvy.

I understand why many in radio are dubious of podcasting as the new radio. After the many years I’ve spent working up close with the next generation I can tell you with 100% certainty (and that’s scary in and of itself) that the concept of broadcasting to listeners so that they can “tune-in” to your content died eight years ago.

The LSD advocate Timothy Leary coined the term “Tune In, turn on, drop out” much to the chagrin of the parents of baby boomers.

All these years later – LSD not withstanding – “tuning in” is passe and “turning on” at least in the sense of accessing your own content for use as you wish to listen is more on target.

The “drop out” term is a stretch – unless we think of today’s radio CEOs who seem to be bailing out on just about all potential future vehicles to which terrestrial broadcasting could evolve.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I have been wrong, God’s knows. I’ve also been right a few times – about consolidation, the decline of radio, the ascent of the Internet, the future of mobile content and so on.

And if I had to say – I’d bet on podcasting as the perfect next life for terrestrial radio.

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