Trying to Solve the Podcast Mystery

In theory, podcasts are an excellent idea. It’s like radio but better because they’re lots of content out there and it’s pretty easy to access what you want.

And while everyone loves the idea of a podcast and lots of people enthusiastically talk about making podcasts, it’s actually difficult to find a lot of people who admit to listening to them. Hands up, how many people out there listen to podcasts on a regular basis. I’d be surprised if more than a few people raised their hands.

If the paucity of podcast listeners is true, why is that? Podcasts should be popular because they’re easy to produce, which means they’re a huge variety of content available; they’re pretty easy to find and download, and listening to them on your computer or MP3 player is user-friendly. Hit play, and you’re good to go.

But in the scheme of things, podcasts have such a low profile. While podcasts struggle to gain momentum, blogs continue to boom, video-casts are becoming more popular as they get easier to make and access through places such as YouTube, and photo-sharing still has plenty of traction. You could argue that podcasts are the ugly-duckling on the user-generated content family.

Even though few people want to admit listening to podcasts, there are apparently lots of people apparently downloading them. According to ReadWriteWeb, Wizzard Media (which owns Libsyn, Switchpod and Blast Podcast) passed the one billion download barrier in 2007.

But as RWW points out, getting an accurate read on what this accomplishment really means given it’s difficult to tell how people consume podcasts after they are downloaded. For example, I’ve got a bunch of podcasts in my iTunes but only listening a very small number.

The other podcasting mystery if whether there is a business to be had. In other words, are advertisers gravitating to the medium at a time when they’re still, at best, dabbling with putting ads on blogs? While there are podcasts that attract sponsors, my sense is the vast majority of podcasts never even get a sniff of advertising revenue – and it’s not like there’s AdSense for podcasting if you are looking to make a few bucks on the side each month.

So, Leesa Barnes (one of Canada’s leading podcasters), what do you think? Is podcasting, in fact, alive and well?

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  • Larry Borsato

    From what I’ve seen, most of the tech podcasts are just folks reading what they would otherwise (or also) blog. Why would I take the extra time to download and listen when I can just read more quickly.

    I do listen to self-help/improvement types of podcasts when I’m out walking though.

    As for videocasting, other than a few like Ze Frank, has it taken off at all?

    Same problem. It takes too much longer. Unless of course the hosts are really photogenic. :)

  • Keith McArthur

    I enthusiastically put up my hand as a podcast listener. And because I use a Sony Walkman rather than an iPod, doing so is more difficult for me than for for the iPod drones. :)

    The thing that will really make podcasts take off is when cars are wired to automatically download them. This is coming and it will take a serious toll on traditional radio and satellite radio.

    The listeners will come and so will the advertisers.

  • Geoff

    I for one can’t imagine going back to life before podcasts.

    It’s the PVR of aural consumption. I have a constantly updated pool of content from tech, business, sports, comedy, etc, that allows me to listen whenever and wherever I like. No, I don’t listen to everything that is on my iPod, and I don’t watch everything I have on my PVR.

    But, honestly, once you are accustomed to watching (or listening) to the content you prefer, you can skip commercial interruptions, and the time of day is irrelevant, traditional over-the-air programming is simply unpalatable.

    I am almost incapable of listening to the radio in my car anymore. The shows I like are never on when I am free to listen. And, when I get lucky and find something I like, the commercial interruptions are unending.

    My wife has even come to appreciate podcasting. I don’t mind folding laundry or washing dishes if I have my iPod and some good content! Can’t do this without headphones as the rest of the family has no interest in the things dad likes to listen to.

    You can’t read blogs while driving, exercising, or doing chores around the house.

  • Chris Clarke

    I heart podcasts, right here!

    What else are people listening to on their way to work in the mornings? Music is cool, but there’s only so much of it – and apparently, it’s not free. Podcasts, meanwhile, are free, the content is original, and the supply is virtually unlimited. With more and more mainstream media producing high-quality podcast content, it amazes me that podcasts aren’t soaring in popularity.

  • Dave

    Podcasts will soon soar in popularity. Especially because a lot of celebrities are gravitating towards it. People like Hilary Duff, Quincy Jones, Dane Cook, Joel Osteen, etc. are increasingly looking to expand their audience base. And podcasting is a great way to do that. Look at people in the gym, on the plane, out for a walk/run, in the car, especially kids, they are all plugged in ALL THE TIME. Plus, the value of the content is getting better. There are some really good shows out there and I think podcasting will help “discover” people just like Youtube did/does. 2008 is going to be a big year for podcasts and I’ll bet Wizzard doubles their numbers. By the way, I’m also a podcaster myself and since I’m around it all the time and hear the buzz, I can tell you it’s only going to get bigger, and fast!

  • lok cheung

    i almost never watch tv “live”. i record them all with VCR, and i am planning to buy something like eyetv to use on my old mac.

    i never listen to radio since i was born. until now, i only listen to podcast.

    why should i rush home or miss anything just for a tv program? it’s so silly to me.

    the future i am hoping for, is one day all those traditional radio and tv programs are available as podcast/video podcast side by side with live boardcast. then everybody can forget about “recording” them, just subscribe!

  • listen_to_mark

    I like to listen to even regular blogs. It just plays in the background like a radio. Nothing beats listening to a blog on the way to commute or on long drives to ski resorts/waiting at the airport etc.

    And no I don’t download podcast. I just use my iphone.

  • Leesa Barnes

    I pledged to no one in particular that I wouldn’t enter the “podcasting is dead” debate ever again, but then, you called me out, Mark.


    On the consumption side, the main complaint I hear is that the number of well produced podcasts are few compared to the number of crappy ones out there. Many podcast consumers complain of having to wade through hundreds of podcasts that have poor audio/video quality or no focus until they find that gem in the rough.

    From a production standpoint, I have a theory and I’m going to post it to my blog in a day or so. Too many podcast producers are claiming that podcasting is dead and I know exactly why.

  • Mark Kaufmann

    I, too, love my podcasts. Why pore through my blog reader when I can get a digest through my iPod while out for a jog. I may not listen to all podcasts I download, but I’m sure glad to have them when I’m stuck in the car.

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  • Andrew Deal

    Judging by the drop off rates of fresh material, it does seem that podcasting is dying. None, I mean NONE of the political candidates have anything fresh since last Summer.

    We are building a new tool to winnow through OPML links to shortlist podcasts that are alive and update regularly. I was surprised that way less than 10% of the podcasts on the lists I have seen out there actually have an episode posted in the last 30 days.

    Would this complied shortlist be of help to any of you out there? If not, maybe you can show me a better list with only active podcasts.

  • subcorpus

    i love podcasts …
    actually a few days ago … i blogged my tech wish and it was to give us more podcasts …
    but i agree with leesa … i had to go thorugh tons of stuff to find what i needed and liked enough to subscribe …
    but now i almost religiously listen to podcast …
    especially tutorials and daily help stuff …
    podcasting is far from dead … i think …

  • http://none Kevin Restivo

    Jaded ex-podcaster much?

    Can’t say I disagree though with your assessment – there’s a lot of digital content available (goes without saying) and far too few hours in the day.