Podcasting reality check: the end of 15 minutes of fame

I was quoted this week in a MarketWatch article on podcasting by Frank Barnako:

“Rob Greenlee, producer of WebTalkRadio.com, said he believes Winer shouldn’t be compared to brand-name output from Bravo TV, MSNBC and Air America. ‘Most of the early podcasters are only going to be popular with the PodcastAlley.com crowd,’ said Greenlee. ‘It will be the media celebrities like Leo Laporte and Al Franken and Ted Koppel who will dominate the podcasting space.’”

I may, at times, come across as negative about podcasting, but it is just the opposite. I want it to be a huge success for as many people as possible. It is just that often times we get fed half-truths and hidden agendas that come from a small group’s wish list, and not a true picture of reality. Here is my honest truth as I see it from my experience as a terrestrial and Internet broadcaster.

Being that WebTalkRadio was the first broadcast radio program to start podcasting (see the Wikipedia.com entry under Podcasting), I have seen this movement with podcasting morph over to becoming another enabling distribution method for existing broadcast content. This has been building since I started podcasting back on Sept 15, 2004. Very soon after I started podcasting, Seattle’s KOMO-AM 1000 radio also started doing it.

For an existing broadcaster, it is just another spoke on the distribution wheel — and a cheap and easy one at that. Mp3 downloads have been available from my WebTalk Radio Show site since 2001 and making this change to RSS with enclosure feeds was something that was in my new Web site design plan for almost a year before podcasting actually started. It was easy and simple to add to the new site. We should not be surprised this has happened so fast. Podcasting has been evolving this direction since the beginning as more and more existing broadcasters jumped on board the fast rolling publicity train of podcasting. The iTunes player 4.9 has simply taken this existing media content exposure to a higher level of mainstream visibility.

It is interesting that some of the big-time radio guys like Rush and Hannity — who are charging for podcast subscriptions — are not in the iTunes player. What is going on with that? Is that a political decision or a technological one? I have heard unconfirmed rumors that Apple is locked into an agreement with Audible.com that does not allow them to sell spoken word content until after 2007. This may be why we are not seeing paid subscription based podcasts through iTunes yet.

While I agree the so-called “Indie” podcasts are left behind in iTunes, it is a strategic decision on the part of Apple to primarily promote the major media brands. I think it is reasonable to expect that the majority of the most popular content would ultimately come from the accepted legacy media brands that huge numbers of people trust. I also believe that these major media brands will also create unique content for podcasting, just like ABC News presented an Internet-only streaming program with Sam Donaldson a few years back. I also think we will see these same major- and smaller-media brands do the same thing with downloadable video programs. PBS’s Nerd TV, launching this September, will be the first downloadable Web-exclusive series from a major broadcaster.

The blanket statement that I am hearing — that all of these major media brand content is junk and anti-human — is just plain wrong. You cannot tell me that ABC’s Nightline audio podcast is junk content as I consider Nightline to be some of the best journalism available today — along with the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I know that I am crushing some dreams of fame and money by saying this, but most (and I say the majority) podcasters will not become popular content to a large audience. I also believe that the majority of the smaller podcasters will have an audience that will have a huge range in size and some talented independent podcasters will build larger audiences. Thousands will cater to a small group of loyal listeners that like the content because they either know the host or have a strong affinity to the topic of the content.

I also believe that PodcastAlley.com will become ground zero for the vast majority of podcasters and that popularity in PodcastAlley will lead to building an audience for smaller podcasts.

I get a sense that Microsoft and Real may learn from some of iTunes early mistakes. I can see Microsoft taking a more open approach to podcasting and not be so weighted towards major media content providers. Some “Indie” shows or programs will gain a wide audience, but it will be the prior media celebrities like Leo Laporte, Al Frankin, Ted Kopple, Adam Curry, Chris Pirillo and other successful media personalities who will dominate the wider podcasting space just like they did in broadcast distribution. While the overall grassroots podcasting community would like to have the featured areas more in iTunes, we just all need to keep in mind that Apple is in the business of making money in the iTunes player and featuring popular nationally-known content is a way for Apple to possibly sell placement in the iTunes player. I do not know for a fact that Apple is getting paid for all the featured placement of companies like ABC News and ESPN. It would make sense that it would be a win-win for Apple.

I do believe that we will see more and more original content being produced just for podcast distribution by existing media companies and media personalities. I believe this is a natural evolution as well. Just look at Chris Pirillo’s show. It is a live Internet only show that is repackaged as a podcast.

I have also heard some who say that a podcast done correctly is a huge marketing opportunity for a company or individual.

Podcasting could be used by the major media companies to distribute new types of content; movie director commentaries and newspaper reporters could record interviews that will be included with feature text stories in RSS feeds. These are some of the new uses for podcasting that go beyond broadcast-like shows. But grassroots podcasting content providers will maintain and build following, but most of them just don’t have the name brand personalities and the existing broadcast distribution to go big-time with audience growth. Don’t misunderstand me to say that “indie” podcasts like WebTalk Radio will continue to grow, but will never be bigger than the audience built by a major media personality or network podcast that has other media and big money that can promote the podcast.

I also wanted to add that we will see the other major media players from Real and Windows Media Player follow Apple’s lead. I think we will see Microsoft take more of a tools provider approach that will better enable everyone to be a podcaster as opposed to Apple’s approach.

The next big story coming about podcasting is who is going to financially support podcasting for media podcasts — the listener or the advertiser? Look at BitPass and Audible.com for some innovative solutions to helping media creators to track actual listeners and make preview sampling with pay-per-view transactions.

I think we are seeing the birth of some new kinds of content in a downloadable audio form. Audio only from TV Shows, Presidential addresses, Mommycasts, Daily Downloads, movie director commentary, US Treasury Debt Reports and church sermons. I think we will continue to see all kinds of new audio make it into podcasts feeds. We will also see the birth and fast growth of videocasts from major media and indie content providers.

Even personal audio will be delivered only to family and or friends via password controls.

Rob Greenlee is host of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based nationally syndicated radio and webcast show featuring technology news and interviews