Podcasting After ITunesBy Steve Friess
Podcaster Adam Kempenaar's first clue that something was afoot came when his internet host alerted him that he was at 80 percent of his bandwidth capacity.
Next came the note from a co-worker congratulating him for landing his movie-reviews show on the front page of the iTunes podcast directory. Then came the server crash, followed by a half-day of phone calls and negotiations to get it back up and running -- and the e-mails, hundreds of them, from new listeners.
That was a year ago Wednesday, when Apple Computer launched iTunes 4.9, a version of its iPod jukebox software that simplified downloading, subscribing and listening to podcasts and, many say, began the medium's mainstream ascent.
"It brought a whole new user group, a whole new set of listeners in touch with podcasting," said self-styled "Podfather" Adam Curry, who is believed to have coined the word "podcast" and whose Daily Source Code show is cited as inspiration by many first-generation podcasters. "I remember how excited we were at the time."
(Disclosure: The author of this report is co-host of The Strip, a commercial podcast covering Las Vegas that is referenced later in this article.)
The growth of the medium has been explosive ever since. Apple reported 1 million downloads of podcasts in the first 48 hours of the June 28 launch and now will only say that "millions and millions" of episodes of the 60,000-plus shows listed on the site are downloaded each month. By contrast, the largest podcast directory prior to the launch, Podcast Alley, listed just 5,400 shows as of June 28. (Podcast Alley now has more than 30,000 listings.)
Six months after the iTunes 4.9 launch, the word "podcast" was named the new word of 2005 by the editors of The New Oxford American Dictionary.
"Podcasts were popular around the office, so we wanted to create a better home for them," said Chris Bell, director of marketing for Apple's iTunes. "There really wasn't a truly easy-to-use experience until we created one."
Not everybody finds the anniversary of the iTunes launch cause for cheer. This Week in Tech host Leo Laporte, one of the biggest stars in podcasting, said iTunes gets too much credit and that podcasting was already thriving before the launch. Instead, he said, what Apple did was swallow up the vast majority of the current audience and put several podcast aggregators out of business.
The launch "was great because it made it easy to get a podcast, but not so good because all the others wasted away," said Laporte, who notes that 80 percent of his then-200,000 listeners started using iTunes after the launch. "It puts everything in Apple's hands. That's a historically bad thing for any technology.... Podcasting was not created by iTunes. It is not reliant on iTunes."
That may be true, but the iTunes June 28 launch put podcasting on the public map, said Rob Walch, host of the podcaster-interview show podCast411 and co-author of the recently published book Tricks of the Podcasting Masters.
How much of that awareness will translate into a real shift in the audio media market and how much will evaporate as hype remains to be seen. An eMarketer study showed just 3 million Americans are active podcast listeners and only 10 million have ever accessed a podcast.
I've seen firsthand the still-limited penetration the medium has enjoyed. Earlier this month, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was recorded in an interview (.mp3) on The Strip, a podcast show that I co-host. USA Today later posted a link to the audio prominently on its website alongside a lengthy article on Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Just 700 people downloaded the recording from the USA Today link.
Analysts are unfazed by the early returns. Walch said the next year will be "all about monetizing and the almighty buck," a belief the eMarketer study supported by predicting $150 million each year will be spent in advertising on podcasts by 2008. Thus far, Curry's PodShow network and another consortium, Podtrac, have each picked up a few network-wide advertisements from companies like GoDaddy.com, HBO and EarthLink, and one PodShow program, MommyCast, landed a $100,000 deal with the maker of Dixie brand paper products.
Advertisers will continue to tread cautiously, Walch predicted, until someone devises a sensible means of tracking not just downloads but the portions of the files that are actually played. The only such programs out there, he said, amount to spyware, offering no incentive for listeners to allow them onto their computers.
Plus, Walch worries that the credibility of the medium suffers because, he said, "everybody lies through their teeth about their numbers." He noted that FeedBurner, one of the largest providers of RSS feeds, recently reported 3.3 million subscriptions for 56,000 feeds, an average of 59 subscribers per feed. Even assuming that some unknown percentage of those feeds may be dead, he said, those figures imply that podcasts with 500 listeners "are doing really well."
The numbers have done little to shake the sense that the zeitgeist for radio has suddenly and irrevocably changed, forcing traditional stations to fret about being left behind. In San Francisco, CBS-owned KYOU began broadcasting podcasts more than eight hours a day shortly before the iTunes launch. And earlier this month, Kempenaar's movie-review show, Filmspotting, was picked up for a monthly slot on Chicago Public Radio's WBEZ.
Hundreds of terrestrial stations are podcasting parts of their programming, said David Goodman, CBS Radio's marketing president.
"Podcasting can be something of a farm team for new talent for us," he said. "What podcasting offers (is) a tremendous opportunity to discover new talent."
Intriguingly, the second iTunes innovation of the past year, the addition last autumn of video podcast capability, has hardly yielded as large a groundswell, Walch said.
"There's still way, way more audio podcasts out there than video podcasts," Walch said. "I didn't see a plethora of new video podcasts rolling out the door after that. I'd say the audio-video ratio of podcasts is 10-to-1. It's still so much easier to create audio than video, and people have much more time in their day to listen than to watch. You can listen while driving. You lose viewers really fast when they watch while they're driving."
Since the iTunes launch, in fact, the challenge for new podcasters has been to break through the clutter. John Romeo of Richmond, Virginia, started a weekly Romeo Theater podcast in which he shows short films he and others have created and then explains how they were made.
"I'll have a show where 500 people will watch, but then only 120 are subscribers," said Romeo, who first learned of podcasting from the iTunes 4.9 launch. "The conversion from people who click on a link to becoming subscribers is challenging. People will watch it, get a laugh, close their browsers and be done."
Kempenaar agrees and wonders how Chicago-based Filmspotting would have become a hit had it not been fortunate to ride Apple's wave. He figures many podcasters will "podfade," or quit, when they struggle to develop large audiences.
"The people who came in early are in a good space," Kempenaar said. "A couple of guys in Iowa who want to start a movie show probably can, but how are they going to get noticed? How would they break out now that there are 500 other movies shows out there? There isn't ever going to be another iTunes launch."