Podcasting: Evidently, I don’t get it

So says Doug Kaye, a defender of the podcasting “little guy.”

In his post and the thread which follows, I’m alternately described as a sucker of vitality from commercial radio, a stooge of Big Media, a radio consultant “wholly on the payroll” of the industry, and various other slurs reminiscent of the cat-calls from those dot-commers back in 1999 who predicted the doom of brick-and-mortar.

Why all the mud-slinging? Because I did an interview with Rob Greenlee of IT Conversations where I diminished the enthusiasm of the indie world of podcasting and predicted that the big names in entertainment would coopt podcasting as they coopt all other aspects of the entertainment universe (and this was BEFORE iTunes carried Podcasts and the big Radio names jumped into the market).

The indies don’t like that opinion.

“This guy needs to read about the long tail,” says Mr. Kaye.

Well, I did, a long time ago. The Long Tail, for those of you who don’t know, is that phenomenon that essentially says there’s a market for everything. In a nutshell, it says “Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.”

What the indie podcasters are saying is that the bulk of niche programming pumped into the Internet will in some way make broadcasting irrelevant. Thus, “I don’t get it.”

I’m not denying that there’s a market, however small, for every podcast, however insignificant. Of course there is. But ask your local movie theater how much they care to show a movie only a few people see, ask the local bookseller how much they want to stock a book only a few folks buy.

Make no mistake, there will always be a market for hits. There is not a podcaster under the sun who wouldn’t like to see his or her work in the top 100 of iTunes. And there isn’t a podcaster in the top 100 of iTunes who wouldn’t love their own Radio show. And there isn’t anyone in Radio who wouldn’t like a TV gig, and there isn’t anyone on TV who wouldn’t prefer a movie career. And to pretend that the world – or those of us in it – works differently is naive.

Our culture turns on hits, on what’s popular. This has been true since the time of Dickens and it remains true today. We will always have our Harry Potters, our Howard Sterns, our Steven Spielbergs. We will always need them. We will always share communal experiences by discussing them. Podcasters would sometimes have you think they’re all about what makes us different. I argue they can also be about what makes us the same.

By my rough count, 12 of the top 20 podcasts on iTunes are the products of “evil” Big Media – Newspapers, TV, or Radio. And most of what remains is tech-oriented and thus targeted towards a specific (read: not typical) audience. Even on iTunes, the hits are the hits.

I am not ignorant of Radio’s problems (as regular readers of this blog know), and I am quite aware that listenership to Radio is down, especially among younger listeners. But the proliferation of media options affects ALL media options, not just Radio.

So to suggest that podcasting will create some sort of mom and pop media revolution that somehow unseats the dominance of so-called Big Media is starkly out of tune with the facts.

As I pointed out in that interview, the existence of desktop publishing didn’t put newspapers out of business (indeed, it will be the Internet which does that), and the world of podcasting won’t put Radio out of business (let’s hope our own inept actions don’t do this for us). In fact, Radio is diving in with both feat.

Says Mr. Kaye, “These folks are looking at podcasting only as a platform for stars and hits. It ain’t about that, guys. This is all about us reaching the audiences who care about our programs, and very few of us think for a moment that even the potential audience comes close to the size of that for some of the traditional-media outlets. Not even within two orders of magnitude.”

Mr. Kaye, what you don’t understand is that everything is driven by hits and stars. Everything. You are free to reach any niche audience you want, but the definition of a “revolution” is something that sweeps away the status quo. Making niches happy doesn’t qualify.

If I were an independent podcaster, I would view Radio as my friend. Because podcasting creates a farm team of talent. And nobody needs that farm team more than Radio.

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