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Guest Column: What Could Go Wrong With Podcasting

Predicting podcasting's future as a promotional vehicle can make you feel like a hurricane forecaster. Consider what has happened since podcasting first appeared on media planners' radar screens June 29, 2005, when Apple added podcasting to its iTunes Music Store. In the three months following, more than 7 million podcasts were downloaded from this one aggregator.

As planners tracked the gathering winds, they saw that beginning with the 2006 model year 30 percent of new U.S. cars would be wired for iPods — and so, podcasting. They then watched as AOL launched a podcast aggregator to the 100 million unique visitors to its network of Web properties in September. The Guinness Book of Records noted recently that “The Ricky Gervais Show” was averaging more than 250,000 downloads a week.

These numbers show why many seers have concluded that podcasting will make landfall as a Category 5 cultural phenomenon … and why many think that by the time it muscles its way through the media landscape, conventional and satellite radio will be swept loose from their foundations. Let's take a moment, though, to consider factors that could weaken Hurricane Podcast to a Category 1 or 2 media force:

The next-big-thing fix. Culture scanners have become next-big-thing junkies. Anytime a bright new thing bobs to the surface of the cultural bucket, they are eager to hold it aloft as a zeitgeist bender. This excessive eagerness can cause these enthusiasts to be hasty in their pronouncements.

The Apple factor. Ever since Apple put on a pressed suit of clothes and minded its parents' admonition to stand up straight, it has become a high-tech darling. Podcasting has benefited mightily from the association. This has led to inflated hype. Call it Windowscasting, and some of the fizz escapes from the bottle (Call it Googlecasting, though, and bubbles tickle your nose again.).

Content. This melodrama has two acts. In the first act, we shift uncomfortably in our seats and head for the exits as we realize that many podcasts have plodding narratives. Why is this a problem? Aside from disobeying the 11th Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Listeners,” this pacing is so, well, yesterday. Ever since “Miami Vice” and MTV debuted more than two generations ago, entertainment targeting younger viewers has been jiggy as a ferret. Yet many podcasts listed in aggregators' directories sound the way a granola bar might if asked to read its list of ingredients.

This brings us to our second act, so let's drink up and head back to our seats. Generations that like some hurry up in their entertainment are the ones most likely to listen to podcasts (The iPod, after all, was created for listeners on the go who want to pack three-minute songs.). So, we are left with long-form entertainment targeting listeners with short-term attention spans. You don't need to be particularly sensitive to know this relationship could have P-R-O-B-L-E-M-S.

Overload. Amazingly, more than 1,000 podcasts were being added to iTunes' music library weekly by the end of 2005. Though aggregators already categorize podcasts by genre and popularity, podcast search missions can be time consuming and tedious. Plus, the surfeit of choices begins to look like a mountain too high. It will be onto the next next big thing for digital voyagers if the cacophony isn't streamed into a conversation listeners can follow.

Blame the name. Though the podcasting name may have given this medium a brilliant start, like a long-stemmed rose it may prove thorny. To listen to a podcast, of course, one doesn't need an iPod. You don't need a portable media player at all. This issue circles back to the generational mismatch. Many people who have the patience, and time, for the long-form narrative structure typical of so many podcasts aren't tuning in because they think they need an iPod. Worse yet, they don't know what they are missing because their ears filter out anything containing the letters p-o-d.

Lack of accountability. Potential podcast advertisers want to know about reach before reaching for their wallets. Though we can cite “hits” on a podcaster's Web site, we who wish to bulk up our own revenue forecasts by selling ad units on podcasts need to do better than this.

What's to be done? Here is a seven-point plan:

· Positioning: Let's spread the news that you don't need an iPod to listen to podcasts. Tell the folks at home who have plenty of time and money that podcasts can be accessed through their computers.

· A killer search engine: I'd like to be the entrepreneur who figures out how to do for podcasting what Google has done for the Web. If not me, though, please let me know who you are before your stock appears on tout sites.

· Index feature: A 30-minute podcast on gardening can be interminable when all the listener wants to know is how to pinch suckers off a tomato plant.

· Less is more: Free speech may be a good thing, but the indiscriminate posting of podcasts is not. Create a peer review panel that vets new podcasts. Good stuff goes up on mainstream aggregator sites while well-intentioned but unlistenable streams of consciousness go into a pod community-supported catch basin. Let's call it the Podgasboard.

· The medium is the message: For some marketers, just the act of joining the podcasting community qualifies as a good thing. Like who? Old-school magazines seeking to connect with new-school media planners and a generally younger demographic, for example. Yankee magazine (www.yankeemagazine.com/judsjournal/index.php) is one student in this classroom that has been quick to raise its hand. Other companies seeking to reach a younger audience should follow suit.

· Accountability: Let's publish criteria to measure the effectiveness of promotional podcasts. Plus, aggregators will need to build in a credible counting device and share the results. Until we do so, the folks paying the bills will address their checks to audited media.

· Manage expectations: Podcasting doesn't have to be the next big thing to mature into a hardworking part of the media whole. If we pump too much air into the balloon, it may burst.

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