Democratizing Radio

Blearily drinking my morning coffee on Saturday, my eyes opened wide upon seeing a front-page story in The New York Times about podcasting. The story immediately brought to mind certain predictions I had made for 2005 and beyond, and made me wonder just how far away the democratization of radio might be.

Think of podcasting as audio blogging - the ability for an independent publisher to release audio content to the masses and make it available for download and playback on a portable device. The article in the Times claims over 3,000 podcasts have sprung up, but there may be many more. Podcasting is something well known to the blogging community and early adopters, but it is just starting to be introduced to the mainstream.

According to the Times article, Heineken has been sponsoring music podcasts, and certain radio stations, especially ones like Air America that integrate blogging into their regular routine of disseminating information, have been releasing podcasts of their radio programs regularly.



Indeed, with the popularity of portable music devices like the iPod, podcasting has great potential to be an alternative delivery mechanism for all sorts of terrific content. I haven't written about it until now, however, because I think the delivery mechanism will benefit from advances in technology and may not look anything like it does today within a year or two.

The iPod is a popular consumer product, as are download-centric audio devices in general, but what I'm really waiting for is bandwidth to open up such that consumers will be able to receive independently produced audio content over the airwaves, rather than via download. After all, we're an instant gratification society.

The Times article mentions that popular podcasts are downloaded thousands of times. But in the current media landscape, are downloads numbering in the thousands anything to get terribly excited about? Not likely. (Tens or hundreds of thousands? Now we're talkin'...)

In my 2005 predictions column, I predicted the eventual opening up of satellite bandwidth, such that independent content providers would be able to buy time for their own broadcasts. I can't help but think this is just around the corner - satellite companies currently sell bandwidth to content providers who cybercast live events and other bandwidth-intensive applications. This begs the question: What happens when portable audio devices and satellite converge? I think this is when podcasting will get much bigger and the playing field for audio could be leveled in much the same way as the Web leveled the playing field for the written word.

Picture, if you will, an explosion of niche content delivered via audio to your portable device, such that you're listening to an interest-based "narrowcast" on the train on your way to work. Your portable device has a time-shifting function much like TiVo, such that it recorded a program about rare stamp collecting while you slept and saved it for playback during your train ride.

The stamp collecting show is produced by two avid collectors podcasting from their home in rural New Jersey, and it reaches 5,000 collectors and enthusiasts with its initial broadcast via rented satellite bandwidth, with another 125,000 downloading the program on a weekly basis for later listening. The show is sponsored by the top stamp appraisal company in the United States.

Wouldn't this be terrific? Audio listeners could align themselves with content providers by interest and lifestyle, as they've done on the Web. This would deliver an opportunity to businesses to produce spots that aren't broadcast to wide swaths of people all over a terrestrial radio market, but to people with a particular niche interest all over the country or the world. Sound familiar? It should. It's what the Web has been doing to mass media for more than 10 years.

I might have a case of pie-in-the-sky-itis, but maybe this eventually loosens the grip on radio that certain large conglomerates have had for several years. And maybe it cures the injustice of, say, the "one size fits all" classic rock station in your market that plays Led Zeppelin to death until you want to heave your copy of "Houses of the Holy" into the trash. Personally, I'm excited and I'm watching this very carefully.

In last week's spin, Tom Hespos referred to the Claria Corp. It should have been noted that Claria is a client at his company. MediaPost regrets the error.

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