Radio Evangelist

Thoughts of a Evangelist for Radio in all its forms

Are Podcasts Dead?

Posted by Steve on October 3, 2009

On Friday, Leo Laporte, founder of the This Week in Tech network of programs, spoke at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco. His comments and the questions from the audience afterwards can be seen here.

The speech is very interesting and it exposes Laporte as a true renaissance man. One of his more controversial comments is a statement that “Podcasting is dead.” This is quite jarring, since it comes from the guy who many of us think as “Mr. Podcast” (OK, Leo, “Mr. Netcast”). He has built a very nice business by delivering 20+ podcasts weekly to an audience now in the millions worldwide. Leo goes on to say that he began to feel that podcasting was “dead” about a year ago and began building a streaming platform so that his network was prepared for the transition. Today, the TWIT Network delivers all its programming both through audio podcasts and via live streams. When there are no live programs to stream, they replay recently recorded programming on the stream.

Of course, he didn’t mean that podcasting was history and that no one is listening anymore. Podcasting has reached a plateau in its growth. Leo noted that for most veteran podcasters, growth began to flatten out about a year ago. To grow audience beyond the people who are willing to put up with podcasting’s current rather chunky user experience, a new archetype needs to emerge. Leo feels that this new archetype is a combination of live and on-demand streaming… different than podcasting’s “store and forward” approach. New dedicated devices like the Roku will provide this kind of service to consumers. In fact, Leo said that he was teaming with Mediafly to provide his network’s offerings on the Roku device.

Many people listen to podcasts right at their PC – either not realizing that they can go portable with their iPod or just not caring too. Many others take their content with them – to the gym, on the road, to work. I have found that loading up my iPod with programming that I want to listen to allows me – with minimal effort – to listen both at home and on the road. My TSL for broadcast radio dropped precipitously when I began doing this and it has not recovered. One of the reasons for this is content; however, the main one is convenience. I can listen to what I want, when I want. The broadcast radio over-the-air streaming model doesn’t allow for that, yet, although the new iPod Nano is providing a baby step in that direction with the “pause listening” feature. On-demand streaming might, but only when the technology reaches mobile platforms.

On-demand streaming is coming – Flycast and other similar services provide a rich portable mobile experience, mixing live broadcasts with some “on demand.” Until ubiquitous wireless broadband is available – and at a price that can be absorbed by the masses – this will remain a platform suffering from similar restrictions to growth that technologies like podcasting are experiencing. Some sort of local storage of content will be needed for some time to come. Many technical folks feel strongly that the wireless IP network is not yet up to the demands of delivering streaming content to portable devices. Today, with relatively few people (some subset of iPhone, Android and Blackberry users) accessing audio streams while mobile, it’s not an issue. Globally, the iPhone has sold about 20 million units. That’s just the population of New York. Imagine all 300 million Americans trying to stream audio at the same time! It’s not a scalable model yet.

So – to answer my rhetorical question – no, podcasts aren’t dead. Podcasts are just going through the same rapid evolutionary process as other delivery vehicles. Smart people, like Leo, are finding ways to augment the audience that the podcast delivery mechanism provides. Others are building alternative distribution channels to iTunes. The concept of podcasts will be with us for a while – until the practical application of technology provides a better solution.

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4 Responses to “Are Podcasts Dead?”

  1. Podcasting is the clunky precursor to what I still believe could be the most dramatic change in audio delivery since the transistor. OK maybe the Walkman. Think automatic wireless syncs of your favourite programs.

  2. rob walch said

    Interestingly Leo said two years ago that growth for TWiT on the downloads has stopped when talking at Mac World. What really has happened is that growth for those interested in Tech is what stopped over two years ago – but the growth is definitely there for non tech related topics. It is just that Leo is only looking at on segment of Podcasting and then declaring a blanket statement that in-correctly covers all of Podcasting.

  3. Steve said

    Rob – yes, I remember that. There’s probably a curve of adoption for each category which flattens out when the universe of people in that interest group who are open to today’s subscription process is saturated. Leo made the point that podcast distribution has a “flashing 12” problem (not his words, but my interpretation). His point was that the steps of a) learning about a show, b) using iTunes (or other podcast client) to “subscribe” (with implications of payment) and c) then constantly synching a device to freshen the content pose a barrier to those that are on the other side of the “flashing 12” gap. The alternative is some kind of one button push access, like in a Tivo program guide.

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