Andrew Kantor, USA TODAY
I wrote about podcasting last May, and some recent news tells me it's time to get back to the subject.
First, a brief refresher. It's necessary; "podcasting" is an incredibly misused word.
Podcasting means putting audio files on a website regularly, using a technology called RSS -- Really Simple Syndication. People using the right software can automatically download each new program posted to the site.
The automatic part is important. Podcasting is not simply putting audio files on your site and letting people download them. That's known as "putting audio files on your site and letting people download them." To be a podcast, it has to be automated.
No RSS, no syndication, no podcast.
The original idea was that people would download (or buy) podcasting software, then set it to retrieve their favorite shows overnight. They'd automatically be put on their MP3 players. Those shows -- those podcasts -- would be created by hundreds or thousands of people all over the Internet, and on every subject imaginable.
The end result would be that listeners could create a custom "radio" network of sorts with only their favorite content, and that anyone could become a syndicated radio host.
And now the news.
The next big thing?
The good folks at Forrester took a survey, and found that only "one percent of online households in North America regularly download and listen to podcasts."
What makes the Forrester report interesting is that it seems to go against the expectations of so many people -- including me. We've gotten used to Internet-based technologies taking off and, to some extent, shaping the media agenda.
The rise of MP3s changed the music industry. Blogs changed how we look at and read the news. Viral-video sites such as YouTube mean never missing another funny moment. Sites like Flickr have taken over from the coffee-table album as the way we share our photos.
After all that, we thought podcasting was going to change radio.
Let's face it: Most radio today sucks. With limited space on the dial and so many stations owned by soulless suits, it feel like you get the same payola-funded, corporate-sponsored drek on all but a few indepen- dent stations. That's because of that limited bandwidth. Getting a space on the dial is expensive, so the majority of what you hear comes through companies big enough to afford it.
But what if there was unlimited space, and the cost to run a "radio" station was virtually nil?
One the one hand, you'd see a wider selection and encounter more things out of the mainstream -- a chance to expand horizons you don't get on the AM or FM dials.
But there's another hand, and it illustrates what I think is one of the three big problems preventing podcasting from taking off.
There's already an example of what happens when something gets so inexpensive that what was once limited to corporations and professionals becomes possible for anyone: spam.
When direct marketing cost money -- for paper, mailing, phone calls, etc. -- you didn't see all that much. But e-mail is all but free, so the quality of the advertising content dropped, as a friend of mine would say, like a rock tied to a rock.
I'm not saying that podcasts are like spam. What I am saying is that there's a downside to "everyone's a publisher": The quality of the medium goes down.
Because economics don't act as a quality-control agent, there are a lot of great podcasts, but there are a lot more bad ones. The tradeoff for more choice is more junk to sort through to get the good stuff.
That's roadblock number one. Number two is the technology.
Radios are simple to use: Turn the dial. Podcast software, while usually well designed, is vastly more complex because the process itself is vastly more complex. You have to search the Net for shows, subscribe to the ones you like, and decide how to handle the audio files -- do you want them downloaded automatically or put on your MP3 player, or would you prefer just to be alerted?
None of this is difficult with good software, but compared to turning on a radio and spinning the dial, it's rocket science.
The last major roadblock to podcasts taking off is an unfortunate thing, but one that's real nonetheless: the tyranny of choice.
"Given the indisputable fact that choice is good for human well-being, it seems only logical that if some choice is good, more choice is better," wrote Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. "Logically true, yes. Psychologically true, no. My colleagues and I, along with other researchers, have begun amassing evidence -- both in the laboratory and in the field -- that increased choice can lead to decreased well-being."
Let's say you get some podcast software and set it up to sync to your iPod. Now what? You have to find shows you're interested in either by searching a directory like Podcast.net, by hearing of it via word of mouth, or by stumbling upon it. You can't just turn the dial.
You're presented with a huge array of choices -- as I write this, Podcast.net has 26651 feeds listed. Choice like that is great if you're looking for something big like a car or a house, where it's not a throwaway, need-it-now decision. But when you just want to listen to something or choose a candidate for a political office, it's frustrating.
That isn't to say that podcasting isn't a great idea. Lots of people are taking the time to find and download them, and to set the software up to do it automatically. And they're the better for it, getting to listen to a wider variety of programming than those of us stuck with radio.
But until the process makes it to the next generation and some of the chaff disappears on its own -- or some shows achieve widespread prominence thanks to the right person (or site) promoting them -- podcasting is, unfortunately, going to remain a niche.
Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all who covers technology for the Roanoke Times. He's also a former editor for PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at kantor.com. His column appears Fridays on USATODAY.com.
Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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