TCS Daily

Alternative Media Taking Off ... Again!

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 25, 2006 12:00 AM

If the past few years have been the Years of the Blogs, this year is shaping up to be the Year of the Podcast, as I sort of predicted last year.

Sure, podcasts have been around for a while. (I even experimented with a sort of proto-podcast some years ago, but gave it up as not ready for primetime yet.) But the development of RSS (which makes it easy to subscribe to podcasts in an automated fashion), and, most importantly, Apple's decision to support audio and video podcasts with its iTunes software, has led the field to explode, and I've started up again with more success -- you can see an archive of recent efforts here. And TCS Daily has started podcasting, too. (More proof of a takeoff point -- there's a Podcasting for Dummies out, as of last November.)

So what does this mean? I've heard various predictions, ranging from "Podcasting will kill radio, especially talk radio," to "Podcasting will kill blogs," to "Podcasting will never amount to anything because reading a blog or a newspaper or a magazine is so much faster." I have my doubts about all such predictions.

Will podcasting kill talk radio? I rather doubt it. It's true, of course, that the technology makes it much easier for people to go into the radio-production business themselves, even without the "radio" part. The barriers to entry have fallen quite drastically. I already have a recording studio in my home, which meant that the only thing I had to buy was a telephone interface box to let me do telephone interviews. (Here's some background on my setup, which is overkill for most applications.) Even for those who don't already have the equipment, though, getting into the game is pretty cheap and easy; some companies are even putting together podcasting kits at low prices.

But Rush Limbaugh and NPR aren't at any immediate risk. Over time, though, we'll see the same thing we've seen elsewhere. The market will fragment, and the pyramid of success -- currently narrow and tall -- will get flatter and wider. As Chris Anderson notes, something like that is already happening to the music industry, which is producing fewer blockbuster hits. The effect of new technologies with lower costs is to strengthen what Anderson calls "the long tail" of the market, made up of lots of small players. The old rulers don't die, but their share of the market shrinks as people trickle off to thousands, or millions, of niche alternatives. Of course, for podcasts to really take off -- and threaten talk radio -- people will have to figure out ways to count them accurately (not there yet) and to sell advertisements (not there yet, either).

The only troubling sign for talk-radio folks is that they seem hostage to an earlier business model. I spoke to a famous talk-radio host the other day and he said that he'd like to podcast his show, but that the affiliates were adamantly against it because they feared (probably wrongly) that doing so would cut into their audience. But if that's the attitude that industry people continue to take, it's possible that audiences who would be happy to keep buying their product will shift to others that are more convenient. That's been the history of the music industry, too, but I think the talk-radio folks will turn out to be smarter.

Podcasting won't kill blogs, either. Podcasting and blogging are complementary, but they're different goods. I've been predicting for a long time that blogs will move increasingly toward multimedia content, and that's clearly happening. Podcasting is just another step in that process. In fact, as the number of podcasting blogs increases, and the lines between audio, video, and traditional text blogging blur, it's likely to be more a case of evolution than replacement.

That answers the "it's only a fad because I prefer text," argument, too. Text is fast, and easily accessible. It's not going away. But audio and video bring things to the table that text doesn't. (Among other things, you can listen to a podcast -- as I'm doing right now -- while writing something. It's hard to read a blog and write simultaneously. You can also listen to a podcast in the car, something I do fairly often.) More formats just provide opportunities for different people with different talents to do what they do best.

The end result is likely to involve people getting more of what they want, which sounds like a good thing to me. That's how technology and markets are supposed to work.


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