The Podcast Question
It appears there’s a bug in a certain podcast client that’s really serious. I’ll let the real journalist who’s been working on it keep the scoop he more than deserves. I am looking forward to his work on the issue. If he does publish something, I’ll update to link to it here.
Talking about it with him on Twitter as he chased it down reminded me of this old piece from 2006.
I published the post below pseudonymously at the time because my job precluded publishing pieces that could be misconstrued to be the official position of my then employer.
The blog it appeared on is now defunct. There was only this post and one other I didn’t write alone and didn’t completely agree with in tone so it’s not like there’s a lurking archive of old verbosity you can fear being shoveled at you as re-posts here.
The podcast question
A question I’m all too often asked is: “How do I make/promote/submit a podcast?”. That, for the overwhelming majority of people who’ve asked it of me, is the wrong question…
As promised, the topic for this post is podcasting. Were I to succomb to my more primal nature, I’d begin with a stream of invective usually reserved for the guy who finished the last beer before the the pregame show ended. In an effort to walk the delicate line between fully conveying my sentiments on the subject and not allowing my feelings to overshadow the real issues, I’ll try to restrain myself.
This is long. About four thousand words worth of long. Executive summaries are for people who don’t have time to digest a complicated problem before making a snap judgement that will affect countless lives and move millions of dollars. You, dear reader, are the reflective type who really wants to explore a topic and get to the meat of the matter.
For the moment, we’ll restrict the discussion to audio-only podcats rather than video podcasts or (gagging sounds reminiscent of Bill The Cat) “vodcasts” the inanity of which should be apparent by the time we get there.
I’m not going to cite particularly bad podcasts or podcasters because, well, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel and there’s no need to be mean. More important, if I cite them, you, dear reader, would be encouraged to go subscribe to one to confirm or disupte my assessment and the last thing I want is to send them more traffic.
You can pretty much randomly sample podcasts produced by individuals and get a clear sense of the worthlessness of most of them to a general audience. They’re not worthless to their makers and even a close circle of people with a personal connection to their makers. They’re worthless as media. If that distinction isn’t clear or is a distinction you find offensive, the rest of this piece isn’t worth your time to read. Stop now… enjoy yourself elsewhere… it’s fine. Really. Personal publishing is a good thing… it’s just not what this piece is about.
I have no complaint that people use the internet to publish their highly personal opinions and anything-but-journalistically-informed commentaries. That the internet fascilitates this is a good thing. My complaint about podcasts has nothing to do with the volume of crud out there but rather how the buzz about podcasting is making otherwise highly capable, informed and content-driven producers get themselves all tied in knots trying to be players in a “new genre”, or worse yet, making Phred the Venture Capitalist throw good money at doomed business endeavors in this new “space”. Why do I care if VCs waste money? Well, money invested in the pointless is unavailable to the worthwhile. [2012 Note: How many Podcasting startups from 2006 are booming concerns now or got sold for big bucks? I count, let’s see, none. There are many extant podcasts that are terrifically good but that’s surviving content, not this business: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podzinger which was being very aggressively pitched to me at the time and which is now moved on to broader and hopefully more fruitful pastures. The underlying tech was interesting. Hitching their business model to podcasting was unwise and I told them so at the time.]
Let’s begin with what podcasting can be when it’s good. A podcast, when it’s good, is like a recording of radio. That it’s a recording of radio rather than live radio is an important distinction and one that further reduces the general utility of podcasts as we’ll discuss later.
Podcasts usually fall into one of a narrow set of genres: audible op-ed, radio play, confessional, act of audio exhibitionism or interviews. The overwhelming majority of podcasts seek to be in the audible op-ed category. Frighteningly few podcasts strike a useful balance between the Op and the Ed. They frequently dregrade into the mire of pure Op (Opposite). This is the kindest possible description. In reality most are rant-du-jour or autobiographical. They’re trivially easy to make, have a way of rolling off the tongues of their creators and they are, of course, cathartic for the maker.
Another way podcasting can be good media is as story-telling. There was a great tradition of radio play but the pre-television glory days of radio dramas are, sadly long behind us. (I know I picked a post-television example. Do you think maybe I did that by way of not-so-subtly pointing out that the medium shouldn’t be as dead as it is?)
Even at its best, however, podcasting is far less flexible than radio for the content producer because it’s pre-recorded and the overwhelming majority of radio is live. Talk radio remains a wildly popular genre whether you like Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern. Some radio is pre-recorded but much of the best of pre-recorded radio retains much of the intimacy and immediacy of live radio because it was recently or topically recorded live (a news dispatch from a BBC reporter in the field for example) or is delicately produced or, is music programming with a live DJ.
Podcasting is inherently time-shifted and this has significant content implications. You can’t realistically have a call-in podcast. Well, you could but the request for a listener call-in and the actual comment being heard in a podcast would be temporily disconnected in a way that’s difficult (at best) to produce around. Creating the sense of immediacy and engagement that drives call in show popularity without being live is so difficult as to approach impossible for all but the most adept producers. There are exceptions like NPR’s Car Talk becuase it’s extremely well produced and the artifice of “call-in” is delicately maintained and not over-played while the hosts are uniquely engaging. To expect a podcaster to hit this bar would be unreasonable on many levels.
The flexibility that podcasts offer the user to download and forward actually creates constraints for the creator. These constraints include rights clearance for downloadability, the need to create in-band context, the latency between creation and audience reaction, cost per user to distribute etc. These are all ways podcasts differ from radio.
So, if you have an ongoing and rights-cleared source of essentially ephemeral content that is particularly well suited to a radio-like user experience, and if you want to fascilitate the automated offline use of this content for your users, then podcasting makes sense. A collection of (not breaking) news stories or profiles a commuter will want to listen to on long subway ride to work is poster-child content for podcasting and this use case is what’s best supported by the delivery system invented by Kevin Marks and then riffed on by any of the various folks who make much more noise about their contributions. Unless you (or, more precisely, your content) meets this pretty narrow set of defining criteria you’re wasting a lot of time, effort, and bandwidth podcasting. If you’re thinking a podcast is a great way to promote your website, you’ve got the whole een-tar-web thing turned upside down. If you think a podcast is a great way to promote your television show, well…
The audience measurement models of podcasting are broken.
The pathetic ratio of podcasts to subscribers is a function of the early adopter appeal of both creation and consumption (More recent articles don’t present it so clearly as that piece from 6.6.05 but look at your own logs. If they’re anything like what I and colleagues are seeing the weirdness is still there only the gross numbers are larger). The idea that such a personal creative work could get a mass audience drives creation among the nominal digerati. The white knuckle terror that somebody else will beat them to market in the next big thing drives Big Media to disgorge all manner of inane podcastery. The development of products like PODTRAC is an attempt to make sane the irrational optimism that drives fruitless investment in podcasting. These guys seem to be trying to find the right answers and I haven’t the time or space to deconstruct their approach completely. The problem is, the premises of PODTRAC’s methods start seming thin as soon as you begin examine their claims. To choose one example, they claim they can report feed subscriptions and differentiate partial rather than complete downloads. Sounds good except basic http log analysis would tell you the same things. Not necessarily a flaw in PODTRAC per se but careful engineering of a web site coupled with log analysis will tell you a lot more about user behavior than even the best of what PODTRAC claims.
As people talk about podcast usage there’s a lot of confusion. The conflation of terms and the muddy thinking that comes from it is evident here. Read the sidebar. They mix terms all over the place. If no deliberate obfuscation is intended (and I’d bet it’s not), then they just aren’t really thinking about the data. If you really want to know about actual usage of your podcasts and don’t want to give away a Porsche by mentioning it’s free to the first person to hear the offer twenty minutes into your podcast and call you at your mom’s house, there’s Audible who’d like to convince you to use their proprietary format and pay for the tracking. Om Malik discusses the Audible offering in his blog but the response from Audible’s blog consultant does more to make me doubt the idea.
As the medium matures, one would think the audience to creator ratio would rationalize and competition and appeal would create a balance similar to the web as whole: An enormous volume of crap amateur content with the cream rising to the top alongside “professionally” produced content. Issues intrinsic to the nature of podcasting preclude this outcome for some very concrete reasons. Changes in the way podcasting is implemented may improve this but, those technological improvements are really all about making podcasting more like downloadable files made available from websites and less like long-dead push technologies like Pointcast. To fix podcasting, one must innovate backward.
The discovery/promotion model of podcasts is broken.
Users subscribe to podcasts via tools like iTunes and “discover them” via aggregation sites like Odeo or Podcast Alley (you’ll note there are no links here…that stuff is bad for you…go eat a carrot stick). Distributors create a light weight metadata structure to describe the podcast content (rss) which, by design, is limited in its ability to describe the content. Based on this cursory description of the content and, in some cases, on a graphic image, users are supposed to decide a particular podcast is of interest to them. Some sites let users sample a podcast. The enormous volume of noise (see above) means that finding subscribers for your podcast requires an investment in promotion that actually exceeds that required to promote a web site. Why? Because podcasts can’t be found by search. There are people attempting to remediate this problem like Podzinger but that, in and of itself, is broken because to search for a podcast on podzinger you have to know you want one and… what exactly is a podcast? Try explaining podcasting to your mother and ask her if she’s interested enough that, after you’d subscribed her to NPR, The NYT or another podcast of particular interest to mumsy, she’d go looking for more. If she is, see if she can do it. To find a podcast, you have to go looking for a podcast. The “phenomenon” of podcasting is irrepairably self referential. It’s like blogs. You know when a blog becomes good? When it becomes a website. Funny thing about that innovating backward business. Ole Tim had him one honkin’ good idea when he invented the web.
The playback model of podcasts is broken.
The podcast client downloads the episodes linked in the feeds the user has subscribed to and the user either syncs the audio files to a portable device or plays them on their desktop pc. Assuming the user gets a single audio file per pordcast, they queue up and play the day’s haul. Each file has needs its contextualization in-line in the audio file. If I collect six episodes of “Little Timmy’s Daily Podcast About World of Warcraft” each episode will start with “Hi, I’m little Timmy. This is my podcast about World of Warcraft.” If it doesn’t start with at least that, the user who receives a single file or who subscribes to the feed after an introuctory file has “scrolled off” the feed doesn’t know what their listening to. Even Little Timmy knows enough to know that’s important. (Yes there is ID3 metadata available but this is pretty shallow. Playback environments are inconsistent in how much they show and how they deal with prioritizing RSS metadata vs. ID3 metadata.)
In point of fact most podcasts waste a lot more than a sentence setting context and branding at the begining and end of each segment. This is actually worse for many video podcasts because despite the opportunity video affords to use a simple title card and/or radio-like voiceover to achieve this goal, an enormous number of video podcasts spend too much time (and bandwidth) setting context for each episode (TikiBar TV burned about 10% of their total runtime on intro and outro).
Podcast producers have to set context for each episode, they often do it to excess but they must do it becuase each episode is severable from the context of the “feed”. One can never know reliably which podcast is the first one a user hears and one can’t even be sure that the user got the file via podcast where the RSS metadata could set context. This “setup” is all wasted bandwidth and wasted time for the regular user but all users get the padding.
This padding is the tip of the wasted effort iceberg. Because podcasts are delivered via rss with attachements, a user may subscribe to a feed and listen to only one file. Once subscribed, the user receives each new episode whether they listen to the last one or not. Eventually, iTunes throws a warning and asks whether the user wants to remain subscribed to an unlistened to podcast but how much waste is there?
What percentage of the delivered files are completely unused by the recipient? Since download counts can’t be trusted as anything but an indtcator of mounting bandwidth bills, what, other than new subscription rankings does a podcast publisher have to judge their success or tune their offerings to better meet their audiences’ needs? Producers need feedback both in the form of user comments and metrics. The delivery system of podcasts makes metrics meaningless. iTunes rankings are based on recent subscription activity not active subscriptions or downloads so they too are misleading. When aggregation sites offer previews or, worse yet, re-constitute a feed or the content the creator/server of the feed can’t even wildly optimisitically interpret their download count.
The delivery model is broken.
The delivery model is broken because the content model is almost universally abused. If you’ve ever been responsible for managing server infrastructure, all of the above has you thinking about this already but, in case it’s not obvious, podcasting is a wretchedly wasteful and hard to manage way to deliver media. The files are enormous. Not enormous compared to other web audio and video but positively massive compared to the text, graphics and/or Flash the content most podcasts really should be delivered in. The “subscribe” model means users pull down enourmous wads of data they can’t possibly be actually using. The fact that the pulling of files is done by automated clients means traffic can be oddly spiky (though well designed clients mitgate this). This is fine if you’re a broadcaster and your users are using a DVR to record every episode of The Brady Bunch off air or cable but on the internet (absent workable I.P. multicast [Hah!]) it costs money to move bits. There’s no method for meta-file handling and file types are, for reasons of guarantied compatibility with themost common client applications and the iPod, restricted to .mp3 and .m4v. With steaming (including progressive or “fast start”) media, you can use metafiles to arbitrate different versions of a given piece of content tuned both for your client’s available bandwidth and to manage your own bandwidth usage. Browsers have been matured enough to, usually, leave useful referrer data, user agent strings and handle cookies. Podcast clients don’t do these things to even the fragmented and broken extent that browsers do and even if they did, the screwiness created by all the various aggrators and “portals” replicating the feeds confounds attempt to use the servers to tune bandwidth utilization or optimize for user experience. If a user was offered a download of an audio file from a web site, the producer could offer MP3, AAC, Ogg and WMA versions to the preference of the user. With a podcast client, you’d better have hit a common denominator format and bit rate.
There’s no gold in them thar hills.
All of this would be fine if there was any possibility of a growing value proposition but there just isn’t. Once a content producer has decided to deliver to the technology instead of the user, they’ve foregone opportunities to maximize value. An individual or small organization faces an uphill battle from a content perspective because podcasting has all the requirements of radio but fewer of the benefits. To compete in a marketplace being crowded with recognized brands and high production values the podcaster must reach a high bar. The nature of the medium escalates the cost of delivering advertising but the size of the audience precludes charging more for it. The size of the audience for any given podcast is capped. There are only 24 hours in a day. Assuming users engage with some form of media in some way for 8 hours a day and typical podcasts are 7 minutes long, users who dedicate all 8 hours to consuming podcasts (absurd I know but stay with me here) they can listen to a total of about 68 episodes a day. With any experience in media at all, a producer will recognize that sports, news, sex and pop culture will lead the pack. The wasted downloads we discussed earlier will swamp the net and the disk drives of users. Big Media will displace small players. What chance does any single producer have to reach critical mass in these circumstances? How can small producers get visibility for their podcasts when the space is crowded by Big Media and niche audiences can’t search usefully? From a bang for buck (or bit) analysis does reason support significant investment in this “medium”?
A quick scan of the top 25 podcasts today on iTunes, 3.11.06, shows that less than half are audio. Roughly half of the pure audio podcasts on the top 25 are old media shoveling offerings into the podcast-o-sphere including an audio summary of the day’s top headlines from the New York Times, a couple of different NPR programs, a political chat show from KCRW and the ESPN radio podcast. The Onion Radio News, and a Simpsons audio podcast round out most of the remaining most popular audio podcasts. Given the rise in popularity of video podcasts relative to audio, the lesson of television’s rise over radio is playing itself out again. This is a bit bizzare since traditional radio continues to thrive delivering to use cases where portability (cars, walkpersons, the workplace) and, theoretically, podcasts could be used in the same contexts as radio. Yet, video, once again, seems to have greater mass appeal. Why is this the case? It’s likely that podcasts continue to be consumed by the early adopter seeking novelty and haven’t permeated into the general culture. Were your average mom and pop internet users podcast consumers, audio only content that favored portability or or multi-tasking (listen while you work/drive) use would, likely, have more traction.
Now that Big Media has entered the podcast-o-sphere with a vengeance, the recognizable brands and high production value content is winning the popularity contest. Even the outliers at the top of the popularity pile have significant brands in the alt-internet universe like Homestar Runner and Joe Cartoon. This is inevitble and wouldn’t be a problem except for the ultimate limiting factor of podcasts which is that they have no long tail and they aren’t searchable. This is the showstopper flaw in podcasting as a “medium”.
So… the right question…
Remember… we’re talking about/to professional content producers here… if you want to make a podcast about your summer at band camp, have at it! Your friends and family will love it and, if you discover you’re a talented producer in the process then so much the better. But, no matter what, you and those close to you will enjoy it!
“Should I make a podcast at all and if so, how much should I invest in it?”
That’s the right question and like all right questions there’s no single right answer. There is something of a decision tree process to getting the right answer for a particular producer. What follows is, by no means, an exhaustive exploration but it should be a good foundation.
Start with content. Assuming you have the rights to distribute downloadables ask yourself; “Is my content conducive to a podcast use-case?” If you make a news or public affairs radio show and your ad sales folks think they can sell additional spots for the podcast, making a podcast is likely a no-brainer. If you make a cooking show and you can create short segments that teach useful things. Put the clips on your web site. Build an accessible index page of all the clips. Include transcripts, clear descriptive titles and descriptions on your site for every clip. Offer the clips in formats and contexts that work well in Windows Media Player and QuickTime. When you do the encoding for WiMP and QuickTime, also encode an MP3 if your clips are audio, and an M4V if the clips are video. Package the clips so they stand alone but do it efficiently. A bit of branding at the front, a bit of branding at the back and end on a slate with with URL for your web site. Now you have all the metadata you need for an RSS feed and all the file formats you need so the effort of offering as a podcast is trivial. What they heck? Incremental cost. Why not? If your desire to be in podcast space motivates you to package the clips, great! Don’t let the desire to be in podcast space make you forget the “traditional” web. Puting the clips on your site in a useful way will generate more traffic, be more usable to a broader user base and will allow you to maintain a long tail archive that will make you a destination for content in your genre.
Consider your goals. Are you hoping to use a podcast to promote something else or is the podcast an end in and of itself? If you’re planning to use the podcast to promote something else, stop. Immediately. Think. How much investment will I need to make to produce and promote the podcast so it can promote the thing I really care about? Is it branding? Getting your brand visible is important but what’s the ROI of a podcast relative to increased investment elsewhere? Consider the signal to noise problem. Most podcasts are crap. Will your brand rise above the crap or be burried under it? Can you make a podcast that appeals to the demographic that seems to like the crap? Can you climb up out of the pile of crap and break through or embed within the top crust of “Big Media”?
Consider your costs. To break this down, I’m going to pick on a podcast I actually like. I’m going to pick on them because I think they could have been so much smarter than they are. Why do I care that they could have been smarter? Because if they’re smart, they make money. If they make money, they make more content and I want more content. A 48 second audio podcast from the Onion uses 279k on disk (a wee bit more over the wire due to overhead). The audio file uses eight seconds for intro and branding. The last six seconds are used for an audio advertisement for Chilli’s restaurants. The ad plays after content has very obviously ended. The URL for The Onion is never mentioned nor is a URL for Chilli’s. There’s no way to know how much Chilli’s paid for the spot. If they paid a lot more than they do for a banner ad, they’ve been bushwacked by the podcast hype and more power to the Onion for bilking them. If they paid less than they do for a banner ad, the Onion got hornswaggled because making that podcast cost them a lot more than updating their homepage.
Now let’s look at the Onion home page. As of this writing the homepage downloads 328kb. Before it loads, an interstitial Flash ad is displayed (a subject for another post) and the user can skip (if you must use interstitials, make them skipable, way to go Onion!) or watch the ad and load the Onion home page. The home page loads a banner ad for a web based employment agency, a weird masthead ad for a content site, a Flash ad for a movie, a sidebar ad for the New York Times, another ad at the footer for the same content site plugged in the masthead, approximately 24 sponsored text links, a link to a sample personal ad (a personals service the Onion syndicates) a graphic and link to the Onion store where they sell stuff and a spot in the sidebar to promote the podcast. The page weight for the home page includes data served at the expense of others (ads) and is roughly comparable in size (read bandwidth cost) to 48 seconds of worth podcast.
The podcast has one advertiser and no option for the user to take any action (click a link, dig deeper for more content, click to an affiliate or buy Onion swag). Some significant percentage of the users who download the podcast will never hear it. Every user who loads the Onion’s homepage will see some fraction of it. Spiders will load the homepage and index it. If the Onion’s CMS isn’t too stupid to maintain persistant links and the Onion maintains a content archive, every page on their site will be indexed by search engines and exposed to any user who searches terms relevant to those pages. Users who like the articles will link to them in their emails and blogs. The long tail builds traffic, increases impressions and increases revenue.
Users who like the podcast will email their friends a particularly funny eposide. When this happens, the Onion dodges 279k of bandwidth bill and this is a good thing but, absent context and metadata contained in the rss xml or on a page containing the link to download (get the hint?), there’s very little payoff for the Onion from the secondary recipient of the file. Some users may forward a link to the feed so this ups the subscription rate (and the bandwidth bill) but it is also likely to be unsatisfying for the the second layer user because they may not get the episode their friend was raving about because if the first user didn’t get a chance to listen for a day or two, the recpient dawdles following the link to the rss the episode described by the first user because it may have “scrolled off the feed” Spiders won’t index the content and, unless the Onion maintains an index (they do but it seems only the most recent episodes and the information about each episode is shallow and not especially spider friendly).
So… why exactly is the Onion getting into the audio business? Why, since they decided to do it, are they doing it in such a short sighted and podcast-centric way? What’s the business model?. Most important of all, are they actually delivering value to the user as efficiently as possible?
How do these economics work when instead of 48 seconds and audio-only at 292k we get three and a half minutes and 16 MB of iPod-friendly video?
It’s time to take podcasting out to the back forty and put it out of my misery. Downlodable audio and video are wonderful! One can do amazingly powerful things with them and there are ways to make money doing it. Using rss with attachments to shovel bits down the pipe to users who won’t see/hear them and can’t do much with them when they do is just wasteful except in very special cases. In those special cases, strategic thinking about maintaining an online archive, placing interstial advertisements and being tidy about mentioning URLs in-band are the starting points for not being a clueless n00b.
Wanna see what you should be looking to as the future of internet rich media content models? The Crystal Method: London [9.27.2012 Note: The link preceeding is now dead but the piece had been a really nice ‘Wired QuickTime” interactive piece to promote the album London by “The Crystal Method”. Almost all (aside the media skin) functionality of that piece could be replicated today in HTML 5 or, heaven forfend, a Flash ‘projector’ if one wanted it to be a downloadable piece.]