Podcasting is a serious business

Podcasting has revolutionized modern media. The opportunities it presents and the implications it holds for businesses are continuing to grow as they leverage technology in an ever more interconnected world. In this essay, an introduction to the Internet-based broadcasting medium and its history.

This report will begin by outlining the history of podcasting and describing the technical specifications that make podcasting possible. The main section of the report will focus on business applications of podcasting, such as independent businesses, media corporations, other corporate environments, and education. There will then be a brief discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of podcasting for business purposes along with the report’s overall findings.

History

The original idea behind podcasting—distributing audio recordings over the Internet—dates back to the 1980s, when bulletin board services connected to university networks offered some educational programs and talk shows for download to users that could connect to the network at a great enough speed, and that were in possession of a computer with a sound card. The idea expanded beyond educational networks and to the greater World Wide Web in the 1990s, when “Internet radio” (as it was then referred, before technology provided for a delineation between streaming and downloading) began to take hold and individual users of dial-up connections could download audio programs through online services such as America Online (AOL) or The Microsoft Network (MSN), which Microsoft attempted briefly in 1996 to reinvent as an entertainment destination to compete with radio and television, an idea that was perhaps ahead of its time given the available technology of the era. Of course, by 1999, the concept of downloading audio files from the Internet had reached critical mass in the form of Napster, which Internet users took advantage of primarily to share copyrighted music that they did not have the rights to redistribute. However, it would take a few more years for the technology to come together with business and art to embrace long-form original audio content in the form of podcasting (Hammersley, 2004).

By the early 2000s, the various pieces that make up podcasting were beginning to assemble—high-speed Internet had become widely available, a technology for creating and distributing subscription feeds, RSS (Rich Site Summary), had been standardized, and the portable MP3 player had become popularized thanks to Apple’s iPod. These events coalesced in 2004 into the invention of the term “podcasting” to define this process of publishing and distributing audio programs to listeners over the Internet (Buskirk, 2005). From there, podcasting was promoted and commercialized by Apple’s iTunes software, which included free podcasts as part of its iTunes Music Store, and by major media outlets, which had begun to embrace podcasting to deliver content to listeners. At the same time, individuals and upstart companies had also embraced podcasting to publish original content that otherwise would not have found an audience or distribution mechanism. Eventually, other organizations and corporations began to utilize podcasting for learning opportunities for their employees and the public, and educational institutions began offering lectures as podcasts (Stanley, 2006).

As of present day, podcasts are moderately popular, with listener demographics skewing younger and more tech-savvy. In terms of the overall U.S. population, still a single-digit percentage report listening to podcasts on a regular basis, but it is expected a larger percentage download and listen to audio programs occasionally without labeling themselves as podcast listeners (Lasar, 2008). The scope of podcasting is so wide that it cannot be considered a genre, but rather an outlet for all types of media.

Technical Specifications

Before covering the business applications of podcasting, it is first important to understand the technical specifications that make podcasting possible. Earlier in this report, the “History” section briefly outlined a couple of technologies that are crucial to podcasting—audio file recording and distribution over the Internet via RSS. This section will explore those technologies in greater detail.

The first concept is audio recording. In order to record a podcast, a broadcaster (or “podcaster”) would generally need a computer equipped with a microphone and audio recording software such as Adobe Audition, Apple GarageBand, or for more basic goals, even some accessories included with major operating systems such as Apple QuickTime Player or the Windows Sound Recorder would suffice. Once the program is recorded and edited, it is then generally saved as an MP3 audio file, the dominant file format for audio distribution over the Internet. Once the MP3 file is saved and tagged with the proper metadata, it is ready to be uploaded to a web server and distributed to potential listeners (Stanley, 2006).

With the desired audio files stored on a web server and ready to distribute, the next concept to understand is RSS, or Rich Site Summary (sometimes also referred to as Really Simple Syndication). RSS files are plain text files formatted using XML, or Extensible Markup Language. The content of the XML follows certain guidelines as published in the standard RSS format specifications. The point of the RSS file is to list information about the program or series along with each of the episodes or installments that are available for download. The RSS file would also contain metadata for each episode, often the same metadata embedded in the tags of the MP3 file of each episode itself (Panday, 2009). Once constructed and uploaded to a web server, the broadcaster can supply the location or address of the RSS file to podcast distribution centers such as Apple’s iTunes Store or link to it directly from their own website. When a listener then locates the RSS feed for the podcast, they can use their web browser, media player software on their computer, or an app on their mobile device to access the content of the feed and ultimately listen to the desired program (Gatewood, 2008).

Even though there are several technical steps involved from the initial production of a podcast to its final destination, it is largely simple from the listener’s standpoint—especially one already familiar with podcasting in general. The entire process of finding a podcast to listen to and downloading or streaming it onto their device might only take a few clicks or taps over a minute or less. Depending on the application the listener chooses to listen to podcasts, they may find the episode is streamed in near-real time from the moment they press the “Play” button and requires a constant Internet connection to continue listening, or they may instead download the episode in its entirety so as to listen at a later time and place where an Internet connection might not be available.

Business Applications

With the history and technical specifications of podcasting understood, the main point of focus for this report is to outline various business applications in which podcasts might play a role. Individuals, organizations, corporations, and institutions of all sizes began searching for viable business models for podcasts almost immediately upon their initial introduction and popularization in the early to mid-2000s (Crofts, et al., 2005). This report will examine how independent businesses, larger media corporations, other corporate environments, and educational institutions have utilized podcasting.

Independent Businesses

The introduction of podcasting as a popular distribution mechanism for audio programs opened the door for independent businesses, often led by aspirational individual entrepreneurs, to create their own original content and gain an audience for it without the backing of a traditional media corporation that has a foothold in radio or television. One genre that naturally adapted to the podcasting format was programs about technology. Leo Laporte is a longtime broadcaster that got his start in radio several decades ago, and later was the face of a little-known television channel called TechTV from 1998 to 2004. When that channel was sold to Comcast in 2004 and his program was cancelled, he decided to embrace podcasting to continue talking about technology to a wide audience. By starting his own podcast network, TWiT (This Week in Tech), in 2005, he was able to bring much of his existing audience with him, while continuing to use word-of-mouth on the Internet to reach new listeners. By collecting statistics about the number of listeners tuning into his podcasts, he was able to work with advertisers to place ad slots inside of the programs and collect revenue for the network. By the year 2009, TWiT had reached an annual revenue of $1.5 million on annual operating costs of $350,000, leading to a significant profit for the network that enabled further expansion in the following years. Once seen as subversive, TWiT is regarded as a model for the industry (Townes, 2009).

Of course, other genres of podcasts have also managed to break into mainstream popularity. Stand-up comedian Marc Maron started a podcast in 2009 titled WTF with Marc Maron, in which he interviews celebrities and other known personalities from comedy and music twice a week from a studio he set up in his garage. Like TWiT, he was able to leverage his listener statistics to convince advertisers to support the program and make the program self-sustainable. WTF also offers a premium subscription service that allows fans of the show to access additional audio clips and a complete back catalog of episodes that is not available to the general public (Berkowitz, 2011). One personality that made the transition from a traditional radio program to a podcast is Adam Carolla, who departed terrestrial radio in the mid-2000s to start his own Internet venture. In order to increase interest in his podcast, which was already one of the most popular in iTunes’ directory, he began offering it for streaming daily at “drive time,” a traditional radio term for the hours that people tend to be in their cars. Through modern technology such as smartphones and vehicles with audio-in ports, listeners could easily listen to his program while on the road instead of usual radio programs (Hopkinson, 2010). Examples like these demonstrate how individual entrepreneurs and independent businesses have made a viable, successful business model out of podcasting.

Media Corporations

Traditional media corporations have also found uses for podcasting, both to offer original content that might not be available through their usual outlets, and also to repurpose existing content for the podcast format so that listeners can play back programs at their convenience. NBC was the first major media corporation to offer its full news broadcasts as podcasts in 2006; it made both Nightly News and Meet the Press available for download shortly after the programs air on TV. Other networks soon followed with similar offerings (Cheng, 2006). In recent years, some media corporations have created additional opportunities for promotion by way of podcasts, releasing clips of their more popular programs as podcasts, encouraging listeners to tune into the full shows on their traditional media outlets. Networks like Comedy Central have utilized podcasts to publish extended versions of their popular programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart with additional segments that did not air on television, fostering a two-way promotion between the TV program and its associated podcast.

Corporate Environments

It took a couple of years after the popularization of podcasts for other types of businesses and corporations that are not themselves in the media business to embrace and utilize the medium. Corporate podcasts are one example of how an organization can use the technology to reach out to its own employees as well as interested third parties. IBM began a podcasting initiative in 2005 to improve relations from the central organization to units across the nation and around the world (Poncini, 2007). By reaching out in this way, the company was able to present itself as more desirable and modern, while at the same time exploring new ways to improve corporate communication and encourage interactivity. A journal report from 2008 found that corporations that implemented new, more social forms of media interaction such as podcasts—both internally with their employees and externally in their relations with the public—stood to benefit from an improved reputation and perception among its stakeholders, and those that did not would suffer in comparison (Baker & Green, 2008).

Education

Higher education was quick to embrace podcasting, which is no wonder given the history of Internet radio and university networks explored earlier in this report. By 2005, several top universities were already offering some of their lectures as podcasts for students to download (Campbell, 2005). Apple expanded its iTunes podcast offerings in 2007 with iTunes U, a curated directory of educational lectures, demonstrations, and other instructional tools offered by higher education institutions and other organizations that offer educational material. An article in the journal Educause floated the idea that students anywhere in the world could potentially have access to the best educational content by way of podcasting, eliminating geographical restrictions, cost barriers, and other hurdles associated with traditional learning (Campbell, 2005).

There is a great amount of room for experimentation with new kinds of teaching through podcasting, including massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are open to the general public and have gained popularity in recent years, though research has challenged the efficacy of such programs as opposed to traditional courses (Heilesen, 2010). Still, educational institutions of all types have turned to podcasting to open up their lessons and make them accessible to more people.

Discussion of Findings

By learning about the history of podcasting, the technical specifications that make it possible, and its applications in various businesses, including independent startups, media organizations, corporations, and educational institutions, it becomes apparent how much podcasting has managed to make an impact on technology, business, art and culture in a relatively short period of time.

That’s not to say podcasting isn’t without its faults. Depending on the technical platform a listener is using when first exploring podcasts, the user experience could be anywhere from obvious to bewildering—despite Apple generally being at the forefront of podcasting with iTunes, journalists have criticized the company’s own “Podcasts” app for iOS as confusing and clunky, which might discourage potential new users (Beijnum, 2012). There has also been some consumer confusion over the term “podcasting” itself, which can incorrectly imply that an iPod is required to listen to a podcast, when in reality nearly any computer or mobile device is capable. A team of researchers at McGill University even went so far as to say that podcasting is a “preposterously branded name” and that any success of the medium is in spite of its name (Sterne, et al., 2008). There is also the fact that despite much of the hype over the past decade, the majority of the population has still yet to listen to a podcast (Lasar, 2008).

Luckily, with rapidly evolving technology and expanding access to it, all of those issues can be resolved in time. Podcasting is more than just a different way to transmit audio bits and bytes. Businesses of all varieties have discovered and embraced this fact: The open nature of the Internet, which led to the democratization of public thought and discourse, enables podcasting to do what radio and television cannot—lend a global voice to anyone with Internet access who can manage to find an audience, with no overseers or deciders in the way.

References

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  • Townes, F. (2009, October 3). Leo Laporte Makes $1.5 Million Per Year from Podcasting. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from Mashable.
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