I got an interesting reaction from Cameron Reilly in response to my "Cynical View" posting:
I think the problem with your argument here, and it's a common one, is that you think podcasting is about "good content and good entertainment". I don't. I think podcasting is more like the TELEPHONE than RADIO. It's about having conversations. Do you think that good conversations are about "talent"? Or just about people talking about things that are important to them?
This "Podcasts are Conversations" angle doesn't make any sense to me, and I believe it is the result of a mistaken belief that podcasting is an extension of blogging. After all, it was RSS that started them both, and the blogging community has an almost religious zeal about the notion that blogging will reinvent the way journalism and media operate. Before podcasts went mainstream, the term "Audio Blogging" was almost used interchangably, since adding an RSS enclosure added audio to a blog.
While it may be true that some bloggers will embrace podcasting as an alternative means of information interchange, there are reasons why podcasting is different, and more oriented toward one-to-many entertainment and information distribution.
Podcasting is one-to-many
For starters, podcasting is a one-to-many medium. It is hard to imagine it as anything else, as even the suffix "-casting" borrows its name from so many other one-to-many mediums.
Early on, there was interesting discussion about ways to introduce feedback mechanisms into podcasts, so that people could add audio annotation, just like blog commentary. Read the interesting thread of discussion on Brendon Wilson's Blog to get good feel for how people envision this working.
One reply noted:
One of the problems that I see with the whole podcasting meme, which is very related to the points you raised, is that it is a passive, offline activity, with very few opportunities for feedback. Imagine this scenario: say you download one of Dave’s podcasts, and go for a walk. What happens if, while you’re walking, Dave mentions something that you’d like to respond to? Do you glance at your audio device & record the time offset? What about the idea? Do you you write it in a notebook?
So, to really solve this problem, you need to solve some incredible technical problems, plus hope that the player (or mobile phone) vendors cooperate with such standards in order to deliver them. The bigger question is, do people actually want this?
I believe the question is academic. In the year that passed since that posting, the idea of audio blogs has all but been forgotten. Everybody is concentrating on searching, aggregating, publishing. Instead of conversations, people want to be sure their podcasts are listed in iTunes, or being syndicated by the right people. The Podshow and Podsquad are trying to push themselves to the top of the audience pyramid. If somebody once cared about "podcasting is a conversation" I don't see anybody caring right now.
The Majority of People Will Consume, not Create
Podcasting will be dominated by talented individuals who want to communicate with an audience. Statistics suggest that those who create blogs are well-educated, high-income internet veterans [Pew, 2005]. In addition, the number of people who contribute audio content to online sources is at the bottom of the list of content publishing activities people undertake, with posting photos and written material at the top, and audio and video at the bottom [Pew, 2004].
I'm not the kind of person to put blind faith in market surveys or statistics, but in this case these conclusions support what my common-sense and industry experience tells me. Although anybody can record their voice with a microphone, few people are capable of spontaneous dialog or audio journalism of any acceptable or engaging quality. Those who are must be literate and accustomed to speaking, and also must have the type of personality that enjoys being heard. Most don't.
The best guess I can make from the various numbers is that 20% of those reading blogs also write their own blog. While writing a blog entry takes time, creating an audio blog, or podcast, takes even more time. Plus, you need to know a little bit about microphone technique, and how to keep your audio show concise and interesting. Video is even more difficult. True, anybody can record their voice. Anybody can hold a camera. But, with the number of listeners expanding there will be a Darwinian selection that occurs, and people who don't create very good shows will not end up being able to compete with the talented individuals and organisations who can.
There are no reliable statistics on podcasting yet, and those that exist have questionable quality. But, I have been tracking weekly the growth in listeners. I would be willing to wager that the audience size is growing dramatically faster than the content-creation side, and the selection process is already starting as many less talented podcasters are being edged out by the better ones.
Audio Producers Face Challenges
Anyone who wants to produce their own shows faces challenges, not only technically, but legally.
Technically, almost every podcast site features some information about "producing your podcast" and there are frequent discussions about devices, audio recording software, and production values. This is an aspect of podcasting that is almost totally absent from blogging. Aside from the technical issues, people percieve audio recordings very differently than they do written journalism.
Back in July, Steve Sloan did some audio interviews with students and put them online. In a dispute he describes with SJSU, he was chastised for interviewing students without permission of the school. With live and phone interviews, as well as music, podcasts require clearance and licensing considerations that bloggers can usually remain blissfully ignorant. The moment a show becomes popular, issues of rights to audio clips and other sources become important, launching the producer into the same content production issues as face broadcasters.
Anyone who really does want to do audio blogging to create truly engaging small audience conversations can still do it, surely. Just as radio not only entertains Americans in their cars, it also connects airplanes with air traffic controllers. Podcasts can enjoy similar diversity, creating social groups and connecting people. Will it really happen? Perhaps in some small niche. But, if the "podcasting as conversation" crowd does survive, it will be an increasingly uphill battle as the technologies themselves begin to mutate quickly to afford better and better "radio-like" features for the more profitable one-to-many services.
My primary interest is in how podcasting will transform media and consumption, not just for the few, but for the many, and especially for the average consumer. While I can see the "conversation" aspects, especially among those pioneers who launched the podcasting revolution, the future lies solidly with news and entertainment, and is a huge opportunity for new market entrants. That's where I'd put my money.
(By the way, I don't think Steve Sloan was being naive or "blissfully ignorant". I think has good points in his blog, and frankly I'm surprised SJSU objected.)