Are Podcasts Dying?” asks a blogger for Stuff online.

The evidence (paraphrased):

  1. The New York Times is getting out of podcasting.
  2. People the author’s age (youth?) aren’t listening to podcasts (but his parents love them).
  3. Most people listen to podcasts of shows that they missed on radio.
  4. Podcasts are hard to make.
  5. Podcasts are hard to monetize, and have “smallish” audiences.
  6. Podcasts are hard to get/manage.
So, let’s look at this closer…

The New York Times is Not All of Podcasting

It’s common to cite a particular example in an argument as the exemplar in support of your argument, but singular examples are usually exceptions, not rules. In this case, I doubt the NYT was ever a major player in the podcasting scene. Like many of their recent experiments, it was a dabbling most likely in response to a buzzword only half-understood, and not core to their business. (What is their business? Like most newspapers, it is about withholding information in order to sell their audience to advertisers..)

I never subscribed to a NYT podcast, so I don’t know what quality they were. I also don’t read the NYT, don’t live in NY, don’t even live in the United States. I do have subscriptions to between 250-300 podcasts, and it hasn’t really been going down recently. I’m an anomaly, to be sure, but my point is that the few podcasts the NYT had hardly made a dent in the overall marketplace.

You want to show me evidence? Show me that there is a major downturn in all the major podcast producers, or that the entry of new podcasts into the market has started to drop below the rate of podcasts podfading. That would be evidence.
Incidentally, I have a sense that there is a slowdown in new podcasts, but I think that the podcasts that remain are trending toward better quality and more solid (if not larger) audiences.,

Podcasting is for a Certain (Older) Generation

To properly consume podcasts right now, one has to have the right equipment, have the right software, and have the right bandwidth.

Oh, and they have to know about the podcast!

It should be no surprise that the 30-40 year old set is the most popular adopters of podcasting. It plays off of a medium that many of us remember being good (radio), it involves technology that is very much in our reach (MP3 players, desktop computers, high-end phones, good Internet connections), and it is often found because of networks of people that usually engulf a few on-the-bleeding-edge technologists.

It ain’t a kid’s game.. Yet.

There are significant barriers to that right now, mostly because the initial innovators in this field have either stagnated (LibSyn, Mevio, iTunes, every podcast directory), left the market entirely (Lemon, Dave Winer, most podcast umbrella sites), are hyperfocussed on marketable video, or are not in the position to actively work on it. There are a few innovations (Stitcher), but the core protocol (RSS) and the primary podcast management tool (iTunes) are woefully under-attended.

So, without movement, it can appear that podcasting is dead. It’s not dead, it’s waiting

But there is another generation coming up, one that is demonstrating remarkable adapability, an eagerness to innovate, a willingness to experiment, and perhaps even a desire to build cool stuff first and then worry about the monetization later.

In other words: another generation just like the present, only still young.

Podcasting is no more dying in this respect than all other media. There appears to be a generalized attention deficit disorder, but that is really just a reaction (I suspect) to being given too many (exciting, competing) choices, without any real tools to manage them. It’s the 500-channel universe all over again, and once again we’ve been given a remote control with a “next channel” and “previous channel” button. Sure, some enthusiast technophiles have created home-built systems with computers to cross-index listings and change the channel automagically, but for most, it’s a plod that usually ends us at settling for whatever program on whatever channel we ended up on.

Radio Makes For Good Podcasting

How is this a surprise, or even a change? Radio has a hundred years of practice, training, technology, skill and professionalism in creating interesting, well-crafted, compelling, informative audio programming. So, when radio programs are released as podcasts, they carry over that quality, and are very attractive to podcast listeners.

Instead of bemoaning this fact, do what I do: learn from them. Radio programs as podcasts are like an open school, where you get to sit at the feet of the masters and see what you should do. Sure, not everything they do is worth copying, but it’s worth studying. Only when you understand the medium which is the predecessor of podcasting can you really hope to go beyond it. (Although having total ignorance also means you ignore what were once considered limitations or “you can’t do that!” situations..)

There are plenty of radio podcasts in my subscriptions. Podcasting is still very important, because it makes it much easier to listen to these shows from around the world, and throw my voice into them as well. In my day job, I even work in radio, and want to encourage members to podcast their shows, as well as do them on radio, to increase their reach.

Podcasting is Easy; Good Podcasting is Hard

Alright, so there are a few steps involved in podcasting:

  • Record something.
  • Post it.

Podcasting is not really any harder than blogging, tweeting, posting on Facebook, many online activities that billions are quite happily doing these days — nearly from birth! But going from “having a podcast” to “having a good podcast” or “having a popular podcast” takes work. You need to work on editing, on having quality content, on SEO and branding, on promotion and spreading the word. Some shows never achieve this, or are fantastic shows that no one ever hears of.

It is definitely true to say that there aren’t a lot of tools out there, and that’s a place where there is plenty of fair criticism to be placed. Most of the tools that most podcasts use (Audacity, WordPress, PowerPress, iTunes) are free, however, and there are plenty of books on the market to help you with every step of the process.

But crafting anything of quality is hard work. Sometimes, you get lucky, and your content is so compelling as to be on a level of its own, but most of the time, every podcaster is fighting for a small portion of the over-full attention span of their listeners, and things like quality tend to be factors in decisions to ditch or keep a particular podcast.

No One Makes Money In Niches.. Except Those Who Do

One of the strongest elements of podcasting, for most podcasters, is that their audience is listening because they want to. They aren’t listening because it was the only thing on, because it’s the only thing that is being promoted by the major networks, or because it is the only thing that marginally covers their topic of interest. Podcast audiences are small, they are niche, and that is a good thing.

Of course, most market models don’t seem to like that. Most market models seem to be based (and biased) on the advertisement model that radio and television uses. That is, roughly: “there is a large audience, most of which is not really paying attention or interested in our product, but if we broadcast to all of them, we’ll reach the small percentage that really matter to us”. In that model, it’s a numbers game, because you are only getting a small part of the number.

No so, with podcasting. Instead of a large, varied and mostly uninterested and unfocussed audience, you have a small, dedicated, focussed and engaged audience. If you advertise a product relevant to that niche, you win big.

Now, a podcast that reaches a thousand dedicated listeners probably can’t command the same price for its advertising time as the television show that reaches a million people — but it probably has a higher rate of return on the advertising investment.

We are seeing some penetration into this idea — there are podcasts which carry advertising which pays for them — but it is slow. Alternative models are being created, such as the patronage model which is currently being used quite successfully in crowdfunding initiatives like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo.

But podcasting isn’t done (yet) to get rich.

(Although frankly: anyone who does anything with the sole purpose of “getting rich”, is probably doing it for the wrong reasons, and putting out something inferior and of lesser heart. That’s just my opinion, however..)

iTunes Sucks; Mobile Data Plans Cost Too Much

One thing I will definite agree on (and hit upon often enough here on the blog) is that we really need some better consumer tools to manage podcasts. The problem is, those who have the money to invest (big media, advertisers) are usually not the ones most interested in doing it (producers and consumers).

Then again, if we’d waited for those in the best position to make podcasting in the first place, it would look awful, cost too much, be too limited and ultimately die from lack of compatibility. (Much like RealAudio did.)

Podcasting came from a combination of a few technologists and a bunch of enthusiasts saying “why shouldn’t this exist?” and then “can we make this exist?”. When Apple jumped on board, it pushed things forward, and they aggressively pushed to have mindshare and a monopoly in the market. They produced a pretty revolutionary package — the iPod — and captured the attention of the world. Before the iPod, there were MP3 players, but now its synonymous with that market.

Mobile phone competition seems to be the best avenue of change, and apps are starting to show up that manage podcasts. They aren’t as well integrated (yet), but its a promising start.

But don’t necessarily change RSS. It’s simple, it works. Don’t blame it for the problems in the production or consumer end — we need a simple standard, so that the ends can easily allow multiple competing tools.

Podcasting Is Not Dead, It’s Just Stunned

So podcasting isn’t, to my estimation, dying. It’s just a bit dazed, shaken a bit by its tremendous early success that saw a flood of low- to medium-quality shows in the market (because it was so easy to get in!). That flood seems to have receded as all of those who jumped in expecting instant fame and success and money have left, but what remains is better than ever. We need better tools, we need to keep developing and refining the medium, but it seems quite healthy and stable.

Here’s the very important ending quote from the article: “Is there a way to reinvigorate the podcast mechanism for 2012 to the future, are we fine where we are, or should we let podcasts die out?”

Well, for starters: stop saying podcasting is dead!

After that: let’s talk. Let’s build. Let’s make more.

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