Microsoft’s spoken word blind spot

It appears that Microsoft is slowly walking away from spoken word audio content at MSN Radio and its other radio distribution platforms. This is happening during one of the biggest online talk content booms in history — known as “Podcasting.”

I have been very dependent on the various Microsoft Windows Media-based distribution platforms with WebTalk over the years. But in the past six months, I have seen a dramatic shift in Microsoft’s digital media focus. This shift is interesting in how coincidental it was to the birth of Podcasting. Podcasting has audio content producers excited and energized again. It’s unfortunate that during a boom time, Microsoft would choose to move in the opposite direction.

I am not going to name any names or directly point any fingers, as I do understand why Microsoft is doing what it is doing. It is the simplest thing to do at this stage and is all about finding a business model around music and video. Microsoft is mirroring the design and function of iTunes with its MSN Radio service. Even Apple iTunes is ignoring the spoken word content boom going on right now. Yet Apple and the iPod are the ones primarily benefiting from this Podcasting boom.

Clearly, Microsoft has an opportunity to capture some of that podcasting excitement with all the other mp3 players, Pocket PC’s and Portable Media Centers being sold right now. While time shifting through the download of an mp3 or WMA file is the basis for this device boom, it is the content and culture changes that are really creating this talk radio revolution. Content creation is slowly moving away from the major content companies and is being produced more at the edges of the Internet where you and I connect to the net. Everyone is slowly becoming a content creator at the grassroots level. This is a difficult mental concept for large corporations to grasp when they have been so conditioned to think that always partnering with major media companies is the only path to success. Podcasters are building tools to enable all of us to contribute to the network and is the path that Microsoft needs to aggressively pursue. It is a huge competitive marketing opportunity for Microsoft against the Apple iPod.

Microsoft has put all their energies into MSN branded music and video download services at the exclusion of voice over spoken word content like NPR, BBC, PRI and some of the best new podcasts at all of their new distribution platforms. I must be fair in disclosing that Microsoft has given me the opportunity to distribute WebTalk Radio as a video file on the service. I have not launched on the service yet, but I think it speaks volumes for how important spoken word audio content is at Microsoft.

I have been told generally that MSN will only include major branded content channels in all future digital media distribution channels. It appears that none of the new smaller podcast content providers online will be considered for inclusion in any of these new distribution platforms.

When the new Windows Media Player 10 was released recently it presented a whole new priority of content and also severely limited content selection. The prior Windows Media Players had a tab button that went to the radio tuner that presented a large selection of Internet radio stations and a featured station section. This area of the older player drove huge numbers of listeners and traffic to hundreds of Internet radio channels. When the new player was released, this tab was removed and a new tab was added to Windows Media Player 10 and it linked to the MSN Radio page that mainly has music channels and only 11 talk radio stations. This was a huge reduction in the number of Internet talk radio stations and shows in the player.

I believe that Microsoft is missing out on a huge growing opportunity in the area of spoken word content.

Microsoft’s focus is to monetize the distribution of digital media, but leaving talk radio-like content behind is a missed opportunity for Microsoft, listeners and the audio content producer.