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Is Podcasting Radio’s Enemy?

“We’re trying to make it…easy for people to listen on the radio.”

With those words, ESPN 980 erected the equivalent of a pay wall when they decided to delay podcasts of on-air content for 24 hours to soak up every second of potential Arbitron credit from this listening.  In other words, the goal was to force people to listen on-air whether they wanted to or not.

This assumes, of course, that you can force consumers to do anything in a world of a zillion choices (hint:  You can’t).

Isn’t it ironic that this news comes on the very day that Apple announces the ability to get your media content across any platform by wiping away the obstacles between platforms?

I don’t blame the station’s program director, because he is operating under a common assumption that he spells out explicitly:  “In order to be in the radio business, we need people to listen when we’re on the radio….The way radio is judged is through ratings and if people download podcasts and listen on headphones we don’t get credit for it. So we need to figure out ways to get people to listen when we get credit.”

No, actually.  We need to figure out ways to make money by giving people with choices what they want when they want it.

Let’s assume for the moment that a podcast is in no way a promotional tool. That is, that a bite-size sample of your content is a lousy ad for that content (if you believe that, then stop reading this now – I give up on you).

Note the language: “The way radio is judged is through ratings….”  In other words, we are incapable as an industry of monetizing our content in the forms consumers want it.  We can only monetize it in the form it has been monetized for almost a hundred years.  We are incapable as an industry of leveraging our content into digital platforms without cannibalizing ourselves.  We are incapable as an industry of following the advertiser’s money unless that money originates from that shrinking pie called “traditional radio advertising.”

Media Confidential reports that the station has gotten “about 100 complaints, maybe more,” though he said 90 to 95 percent of the people who were upset come from outside the D.C. market.

That statistic suggests that a large proportion of repurposed on-air content is consumed by folks beyond the signal radius just as a sizable proportion of streams are consumed outside your market.  This makes sense if you consider that the folks who want to hear it in town generally can do so in the traditional way – by listening to it live.  The fact that the vast majority of the complaints are from outside the market tells me something important:  That 980’s move is the wrong solution to the problem.  Rather than add listeners to the PPM devices, what 980 has achieved is removing listeners from the content altogether.

Nicely done!

In a digital world a fan from afar should be as monetizable as a fan from around the corner.

In a digital world the currency of value is content and the attention and relationships that swirl around that content.

This, in fact, is what “radio” is – “content and the attention and relationships that swirl around that content.”

To say “this is not what radio is” is to mistake the future for the past.  It is to condemn radio to a forever addiction to Arbitron ratings and the agencies which buy off those ratings, no matter what proportion of their total advertising pie is shifting to other media.  It is to guarantee a second class status for radio as the medium which “refuses to change” in presence of nothing but change.

This is particularly ironic coming from an ESPN affiliate given the notoriously forward-thinking digital prowess of the cross-platform ESPN mothership.  I’m going to guess that the protectors of brand ESPN are none too pleased with this publicity and are grateful that they long ago transformed themselves from a cable channel to a sports entertainment platform.

Hmm.  There’s an idea:  We’re not a distribution channel, we’re a sports entertainment platform.  Can you monetize that?

Evidently not.

So what would I do if I were ESPN 980 (or you, for that matter)?

1.  I would recognize that the problem is too LITTLE listening via podcast, not too much.

2.  I would not simply repurpose over the air content as podcasts but create all-new podcasts which extend the over the air content rather than make it redundant

3.  I would work closely with the sales department to create content threads as attractive to advertisers as they are to consumers

4.  I would gather detailed metrics about the users of my podcast content so as to increase their value to potential sponsors

5.  I would build monetizable content across media platforms (not just audio), especially in an interest area with as much passion as Sports.

6.  I would make the fans central to the brand experience, rather than making them chattel that must be funneled into their pens via one narrow and unyielding path

Indeed, the biggest problem here is that the podcast effort is designed as a throwaway and the digital efforts of this station (and many others) are designed to amplify and return listeners to the radio brand rather than to solve problems that brand doesn’t already solve on-air.

This is a huge lost opportunity.

Again, I’m not blaming the station.  I’m blaming the system that rewards programmers on ratings only, the system that fails to design a station structure which can exploit digital opportunities, the system that forces sellers to put monetization before content as if anyone will buy that which they don’t experience first, the system which presumes that what radio was is what it always will be, except with a web page, a Twitter feed, and a few thousand Facebook fans.

If you want to work in that kind of industry you are not a regular reader of this blog.

The truth is that many broadcasters know 980’s move is nuts.  Many broadcasters have strategies in place to monetize their digital content, including podcasts.  Many broadcaster recognize that responding to the future on its terms beats pretending the future is just the past revisited.

It would be oh so nice if the radio trades spilled some digital ink on these types of broadcasters rather than creating the impression that radio can simply step into a tricked out DeLorean where it’s always 1999.

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