Podcasting Gets Legs

Why is podcasting so difficult to explain? Is there something inscrutable here I am missing? From the time I discovered the podcast library in iTunes, I was a total addict. But when it comes to convincing the people around me of the platform's ease of use and the joy of time-shifting, I feel like Tom Cruise proselytizing Scientology.

"I guess it's good for you young people but it is too confusing for me," my father insists. This 50-year-old "young person" tried to show "Mr. Fixed Income" how all of his favorite CNBC shows and Wall Street Journal and The Economist brands have audio he can hear while walking the neighborhood. But honestly, I still haven't gotten him to vault the hurdle of making a playlist.

My daughter is too busy filling her iPod with MegaDeath for me to convince her that the pink Nano I got her can be put to other uses. I try to show her my catalog of time-shifts.


"Eww! Why would I want to watch GeekBriefs and 'Face the Nation'?" Dave Mustaine's wailing drowns out any attempt to explain. In her head, podcasting is now associated with my thinning hair and "relentless" parade of blue polo shirts. "They do sell other colors, Dad," she informs me.



I turn to my fiancée, a lifelong runner, a computer scientist, and a devoted NPR listener. She should be all over the podcasting format. But no. She is an audiobook fan, and those things cost serious money on an iPod. She leaves the iPod I got her at home and runs with a discus-sized CD player with titles she borrows from the public library. "Don't screw with my running. If you like these legs, and you say that you do -- then you don't want to screw with my running."  I try to show her my podcast catalog, but that only makes matters worse. "Who is this GeekBriefs chick? Why is there a babe doing stock news in this WallStrip show?" I try in vain to convince her that Web video is a bit stuck on babes. That didn't help, either. Now she thinks podcasting is some creepy middle-aged-male fixation on younger women.

This may explain why even eMarketer's relatively upbeat sizing of the podcast audience estimates only 10 million "active" listeners who download one or more shows a week. That's a nice niche, but it is very much a niche. There are a lot of iPod owners for whom podcasting just doesn't click.

But if my family isn't embracing this minority activity, advertisers are. The number of audio and video ads in podcasts has escalated dramatically in the last few months. Some of these spots are truly memorable, like the Bank of America series I see in front of several of my shows. Comedian Mo Rocca does man-on-the-street interviews on topics like "using protection" -- double entendres for the product. Acura and Visa audio preambles are now familiar to any NPR listener, too.

"We are seeing some advertisers buying across multiple programs," says Jonathan Cobb, founder and CTO, Kiptronic, which serves ads into distributed media for some of the major media brands in the broadcast realm. In the case of the Bank of America series, this is designed expressly for the medium, and the client is even swapping new creative in on a regular schedule. Cobb says he is seeing a lot of pre-roll creative that is being developed for Web and downloadable formats now, rather than the repurposed TV spots we all suffered last year. "We are seeing 10s and 20s, a lot of pre-rolls, some mid-rolls and post-rolls." On the creative side, the publishers seem to have settled on these lengths as short enough to be tolerable and not long enough for users to fast-forward through.

More amazing, even to Cobb, is that across his clients there is about a 50% sell-through. "That is amazing, higher than expected," he says. Some publishers are seeing the inventory demand and developing new shows to open up more opportunity. News and entertainment are the big buckets. "New York Time and NPR volume is large. They are producing daily and their audiences are passionate," he says. On the entertainment side, youth-oriented material like FuelTV is doing especially well. The format split is about two-thirds audio to one-third video, but Cobb has seen video grow 300%, with players like VH1 and MTV now feeding material into the video channel.

Kiptronic is serving ads into over 100 devices, and Cobb sees the podcasting format expanding. Aside from the iPod itself, the iPhone is among the more popular download destinations, as is the Nokia N series of phones. Surprisingly, the Sony PSP is a strong contender, especially now that the firmware makes RSS pull downs much easier. But ultimately, Cobb thinks that people like my father, daughter and fiancé will get the bug. "I don't see it settling into a niche. This is going to become a part of the fabric of how people consume media. It took my parents forever to understand the DVR, but once they reach that point of discovery they never go back."

Maybe. I am a big believer in the podcast format and its portability to other platforms. In fact, I reserve some of the video programming now for my AppleTV on the big screen at night. I see Web programming migrating easily to set top boxes in the future. It certainly has in the strange media lab that is my home and family. But I think they may have a stickier tipping point than Jonathan's parents.

"No, we are not watching your podcast babes on your 60-inch screen tonight," my fiancée insists. "I bet they haven't been running for 20 years. They are barely 20 as it is. And are their legs better than mine?"

I may be old and slow, but I know better than to fall into that trap. "We'll never know," I say. "They are talking heads, so we only see them from the waist up."

Some silent pauses in my home are more pregnant than Juno.

"But your breasts definitely are better than theirs," I add. "Anyone can see that."

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