Why I’m Not Smoking the Podcasting Dope

Nearly a year ago, I was at Gnomedex, the annual alpha geek fest. During one of the sessions, Steve Gillmor remarked that everyone at the conference “was smoking the RSS dope”. When I go to Gnomedex this year, I suspect that every third person will have a portable recording device, and be podcasting the hell out of the conference.

I’m skeptical about podcasting. I’m skeptical about who’s doing it, who’s going to do it, and who’s going to listen to it. In short, I don’t think podcasting is going to get very far into the mainstream. Here are my thoughts, in a kind of rhetorical discussion.

It’s still early days.

It’s not. Mainstream radio is already all over this trend. The CBC and radio conglomerate Clear Channel are both getting their toes wet. Not only that, but mainstream radio content is already being monetized (thanks, Steve Rubel) for podcasting. In six months to a year, it’s easy to imagine that most radio stations in North America will offer time-shifted content. That’s a real threat to the revolutionary fervor around podcasting.

But it’s just like blogging, man–we’re adding a zillion voices to the long tail.

Podcasting actually has a comparatively short tail. Why?

  • Unlike blogs, which we can aggregate, syndicate and consume in all sorts of interesting ways, audio doesn’t compress. There are only so many hours for listening in the day, so we can only listen to so many podcasts. I can consume 250 blogs in a day without much trouble, but can I listen to more than 10 podcasts?
  • While about 65% of North America has Internet access, only about 40% has broadband access. A fraction of those people have portable digital music players which are the de facto device for listening to podcasts. That really shrinks (and, demographically speaking, narrows) the potential audience.
  • Personally, I have no commute, and I find that I can’t listen to talking while I’m writing. So, that really limits the available hours for listening to podcasts.

Anybody can do it.

Unlike a blog, anybody can’t do it. First, you need the equipment and the acumen. That’s going to appeal first, foremost and perhaps only to the geeks.

Second, and more importantly, you need the talent. Everyone learns writing in school, so the barrier to entry is pretty small. However, nobody (or very few) learns how to be a radio broadcaster. Like it or not, that takes ability, practice and, ideally, a great voice. I try not to read poorly-written blogs, and I don’t have the patience for dead air and mumbling. Finally, if you’re keen to produce professional results, you need to understand how to edit audio files, layer in music, etc.

This issue is only going to be multiplied when video blogs, or vlogging becomes popular. Amanda Congdon is charming, smart, cute and has a great formula, but she’s not a professional newscaster. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you or me, but it matters to average humans who are accustomed to watching professionals.

Say we manage to get simple-to-use technology in the hands of average consumers. Say Apple offers a podcast-listening-ready iTunes. What’s the average consumer going to choose? Some dude like me talking in my pajamas or the CBC?

There’s a large willing audience.

Radio listenership, particularly among teens, is in decline. Are these people not listening because mainstream radio sucks? Maybe, but I suspect the main reason is the same old diversification story–many choices reduce the attention given to each.

Furthermore, the diversity problem in the blogosphere is multiplied in podcasting land. The vast majority of podcasters are white, male geeks.

Podcasting is revolutionary.

That’s what people said about FM radio in the sixties and seventies. What have we got these days? I suspect that podcasting will, like college radio, be consigned to sit on the bench and play when it can–heard and appreciated by few.

I don’t mean to be a downer. I just don’t think that podcasting is going to have the legs that blogs have had. I’d be glad to be proven wrong–check back in a year or so. Of course, if all that podcasting really achieves is providing eager listeners with time shifted content, then that’s a great victory. Of course, you might want to credit TiVo for that innovation–clearly it popularized the concept.

I was talking to Will Pate today about this issue, and complaining about the lack of diversity. I suggested that we need more voices, and more subject matter, in podcasting. I pitched the idea of doing a bad-acting, one-man Hamlet. He (kindly and with a straight face) said he’d subscribe. Why would he do a thing like that?


  1. Oh, I’ve got my reasons:

    – Dormant love of literature and appreciation of Shakespearian prose.
    – Bad acting makes me laugh. Same reason Frank Stallone was bigger on SNL’s Weekend Update than the silver screen.
    – Most podcasts don’t tickle my fancy anyway, so it has little competition for my commuting ear.

  2. Thought about POD casting, still entertaining the idea. I think as far as blogging goes it could be an add on to a site, but few will actually just be all audio or close to all audio.

  3. While I think the podcasting phenom is pretty neat, I’m a commuter and captive to public transportation, meaning my threshold for “entertainment,” is low.
    At the same time, I work for the US Treasury Dept, and can see the eventual applicability for use of podcasts by many seeking niche audiences. For example, a Fed “brethren” associate, NASA, has a very cool podcast about their programs, geared to those with a science interest (lending itself, perhaps, to your “only geeks” will listen thought), but other federal agencies could follow.
    The niche approach will also appeal to private sector organizations serving a unique audience.
    But I agree with you, radio will be all over this, and podcasting will never supplant it.

  4. The “revolutionary fervor” has far too much to do with the prevailing misconception that podcasting is some form of “pirate radio,” as Bloglines poorly chose to characterize the concept. The deception is that podcasting is a type of content, rather than simply a mechanism to distribute content. Therefore, any notion that podcasting will supplant radio is naive. Podcasting merely offers another avenue for radio stations to get their content to more people than ever.

    However, I think it may be a mistake to dismiss the long tail aspects of podcasting. I’m thinking of the most well-known long tail representative: music. Music production has similar barriers to entry, yet still produces a bazillion different voices and there proves to be an audience for virtually everything made available. To misquote Ranganathan, “Every book has its reader.” Compared to blogging, maybe it is a shorter tail, but the blogs:podcasts analogy does a disservice to the unique elements of both on a number of levels.

    For what it’s worth, I listen to a variety of “mostly music” shows via podcast that are perfectly suited to times when I’m primarily focused on reading or writing. Still, there should indeed be more diversity in the syndicated audio realm and I think there will be. If the buzz surrounding podcasting is what’s required to make it so, so be it. I’d love to see mainstream radio driven to provide more niche content in order to find a new generation of listeners who are used to personalizing their experiences. Mainstream and independent voices will hopefully be able to co-exist in this space, each finding an audience worth having.

  5. Amen Darren.

    Podcasting is little. Has been, will be.

    I think CBC has a 10 minute segment on it last week (followed by “A network called ‘internet'”).

    Podcasting is essentially ham-radio for the 21st century.

  6. I agree with all of your objections. They’re the same ones I’ve raised.

    With an audience of 1500 I’m one of the top 100 or so podcasters around. Crazy. Stupid. Scary.

    But, all of that said, I have a lot of fun doing it and you just never know what innovations might come out of it.

    Was blogging important only because of blogging, or was it also important because of syndication?

    Will Podcasting produce a similar innovation?

    Dunno, but if it did, it’d tip the metrics completely.

  7. uh, CBC has a semi-decent history
    with experimenting in non-mainstream
    stuff — are you going to use the fact
    that [some of] their radio streams are
    available in OGG to claim that OGG is
    “mainstream” and therefore uninteresting?

  8. Mike: My concerns aren’t with the technology, they’re with the social aspects of podcasting. The majority of interested parties are talking as if podcasting revolutionize the media landscape, and I don’t think it will.

    I’m not implying that the mainstream is uninteresting or otherwise bad. I’m just saying that they’re already adopting podcasting, and are likely to own the vast majority of the audience as well.

  9. I think both `sides` of the pdcst debate are right. Yes the big news outlets will use it. Yes its currently rather geeky, (how many podcasts are there about podcasting for example?) No it wont kill radio.
    But as you point out its about the content and the niche…just like all the other technologies that have come about due to the internet/the internet itself…there will be a geeky start, a huge rush of new pdcsts, then a die-off…after all web sites in all their varied forms did not kill newspapers, radio or tv they exist alongside each other…

    all the best
    adam p

  10. I don’t buy into podcasting either. You’ve stated most of the common objections, but you’ve missed one, the point about podcasting that irks me the most.

    Podcasting is for control freaks. It should come as no surprise that the ultimate control freak, Dave Winer, claims to have invented it. Podcasters are basically laying down a linear stream of words that you cannot skim, you must take it in exactly the linear order that it is presented, or not at all.

    Writing and reading are nonlinear activities. As a writer, I can go back and edit, add more thoughts, reorder my words, and completely revise a text before releasing it. As a reader, I can skim some sections and read other sections in close detail, I can search texts, I can go back and reread, I can I can cut out quotes and save them for includion in articles I’m writing. As a browser, I can aggregate, search in a search engine, I can change the font or font size, I can print the words for reading as a hardcopy, or do any number of browser related methods to control how I like the material to be presented, however I see fit.

    Podcasting goes against everything the Web stands for. It demands that the user take things exactly as the podcaster presents it, which is often a rambling, unedited stream-of-consciousness rant. There are many talented writers, but there are few people who are capable of putting the care into podcasting that even a good amateur writer will put into their webpage. A good podcaster will have to be a good writer first, even before the technical requirements for a compelling audio presentation. Why would anyone waste time on wrapping good writing in another format that adds little or no value, and destroys much of the value of the writing itself?

  11. Finally, someone said what I was thinking. Why did posting a short mp3 file to your website and letting people download suddenly get a new fancy name?
    Why don’t we call all the people running porn sites (short video clips available for download) videocasters? Maybe we’ll start calling them that when Apple comes out with a video iPod. Either way, I think you aptly pointed out a major problem with both: you can only listen to so many podcasts while you’re driving home from work. At some point you have to take the earbuds out.

  12. Thanks for the opportunity. I was just thinking this moring, reading the New York Times which has an article about putting wall plugs on Prions, and thinking, well if the car is getting juiced up from the line current, what’s the line carrying for information?

    Just imagine having all those podcasts pouring into your car over night. The next day you could listen to everybody in the world and their opinions on everything in the world.

    Or you could be selective. It might just be some tapes of your buddies’ new bands. Which *would* be nice.


  13. I can only agree somewhat. I like podcasting. As a commuter it allows some choice on what to hear. I agree that there are some that should be left unheard. But there are some very good ones, especially those that are interviewing people. Basically the best are those that are telling stories. The aural aspect of our culture is sometimes forgotten because it “takes too long” and really a good and well spoken story is good to listen to.

  14. I posted about this a couple of weeks ago, yours is expanded and thought out. Mine was simply…
    “Stop the PodCast, I Want to Get Off!
    I love the ITconversations podcasts and the Larry Lessig presentation at eTech is great. But, for the rest of you radio star wannabes, go back to blogging, I can read faster then you can talk. Just because podCasting is the hot new buzzword, doesn’t mean everything should now be a podCast.”

  15. I posted about this a couple of weeks ago, yours is expanded and thought out. Mine was simply…
    “Stop the PodCast, I Want to Get Off!
    I love the ITconversations podcasts and the Larry Lessig presentation at eTech is great. But, for the rest of you radio star wannabes, go back to blogging, I can read faster then you can talk. Just because podCasting is the hot new buzzword, doesn’t mean everything should now be a podCast.”

  16. Podcasting is obviously limited by the existing hardware constraints … namely remote wireless bandwidth. If your car stereo had a few hundred gigs of storage space and a reasonable Wi-Fi hookup wouldn’t you enjoy pulling down new songs your friends like and listening to them without network hiccups? Two years from now you’ll see devices like these in the bargain bins at Wal-Mart.

  17. I’ve listened to six or eight of them, most listed among the “most popular.”


  18. I’m new to podcasting but I really get a kick out of listening to all the weirdoes out there, and I hope you will listen to my podcast 🙂 I agree that the average Joe will get encreasing trouble getting a large audience once the professionals start pounding out gigabytes of really really good content, but so what? I will still scrounge for good people to communicate with, and all in all I think the subscriptions will stay at the same level, thats is LOW! And thats totally ok if you ask me. Hyping podcasting now is not to soon, the timing is actually perfect to get the big hitters in on the action in order so make podcasting better and more awailable.
    When you get down to brass it is just a new way to download stuff you already listen to but in a scheduled way, and if you happen to be the curious type who like blogs written by Joe and homepages with animated flames on them, you might also use podcasting for this.

    In short: Ignore Darrenbarefoot and keep making fun podcast like Tokyo calling. I’ll be listening as long as youve got something to say 🙂

  19. Wikipedia definition: “Podcasting is a web-based broadcast medium in which files are made available online in a way that allows software to automatically detect new files (generally via RSS), and download them. A podcast can be thought of an audio magazine subscription, in that a subscriber receives regular programs without having to remember to go get them, and can listen or watch them at leisure.”

    Darren: If that’s accurate, then I don’t understand why you say that since mainstream radio is going to offer something similar, it’s “a real threat to the revolutionary fervor around podcasting.” Won’t mainstream radio’s offering be podcasts? If mainstream radio offers time-shifted subscriptions, then it will be jumping on the podcasting bandwagon, not a threat to it.

    Am I missing something here?

  20. You mentioned that there are only enough hours in the day to listen to a few podcasts. This is certainly true, but as someone previously mentioned: I listen to podcasts where previously I listened to the Radio.

    The obvious benefit of podcasting is that I can listen to what I want, when I want – admittedly with a fairly limited range at present. No longer do I need to listen to the personality-deficient DJs that are rife in traditional radio, I can listen instead to a much wider range of subjects from a much wider range of people. Even the level of professionalism doesn’t bother me; after all, why should it.

    You need to stop looking at this with ‘I don’t like this technology so it is no good’ mentality. Of *course* it has a use, otherwise it would not have got even this far.

  21. Though I may regret letting this comment get archived, I do think that Podcasting is a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon.

    It may lead to an audio revolution, but it does not in and of itself comprise one. Like the fella said: short tail, small audience, little if any clear advantage over more experienced broadcasters (at least if you listen to something halfway decent like CBC-1).

    Still, more power to the podcasters. It’ll be fun while it lasts. Like PDAs.

  22. Well, here’s the deal: you’re right and you’re wrong, all at the same time. I have a little personal blog, and I have a little personal podcast. I put both out for the benefit of myself and my friends. I don’t expect you, or anyone else, really, to seek out my blog ro my podcast, subscribe, and send me money because you like me so damn much. I do it for myself, for my own enterntainment, and for the entertainment of my friends who do read and listen to me. So if I get 15 downloads on each of my podcasts, I’m downright thrilled. I’m not out to change the world or bring down The Man. I’m not a pro, nor do I pretend to be. And just like me, there’s literally thousands of bloggers and now podcasters who aren’t doing it to seek out huge audiences. They’re doing it for themselves and their circle of friends. They don’t subsribe to my podcast, I don’t subscribe to theirs, and that’s OK. I don’t *have* to listen to all 4,000 podcasts out there. I don’t *have* to worry about where I’ll find the time to listen to all that programming. I just find the time to listen to what I like.

    The advantage for me is pure variety. So long as there are people out there willing to do podcasts even if they’ve got tiny audiences, then there’s gonna be podcasts for just about any subject, just like there are blogs for pretty much any subject out there. Maybe you don’t give a damn about, say, board games. I, on the other hand, love ’em. Well, there’s a podcast over at BoardGameGeek.com called GeekSpeak that I listen to religiously.. and which would probably bore you to tears. But the wonderful part about it is that you don’t have to listen to it. Nobody is making you. And my listening to that show takes nothing away from you (while, if the show is ont he radio, that’s one slice of spectrum less for you to listen to, right there). Variety and diversification are good things, to me. We can each listen to what we like, and there’s enough spectrum/bandwith for all of them. Nobody has to listen to *every* podcast. Nobody has to listen to *any* podcasts. But it’s nice to know they’re there.

    As for quality, just like there are many shows (mine included) that are simply stream of consciousness rants, low-quality productions, there are many gems in there, and these are gems that, in the increasingly top-40 dominated radio landscape, there’s just no room for. For example, here’s a sampling of podcasts I listen to that give me good, high-quality content that is simply not available on the radio where I live (my radio landscape here is top-40, spanish ballads and salsa/merengue, and religious/political talk radio): IT Conversations is one, for me, where I get to listen to many of the most brilliant minds in IT. Coverville is a good, high-quality show that brings great music 3 times a week that I would never hear on the radio (and, yes, they’re licensed). The Dragon Page and GeekSpeak spend time on sci-fi and board game stuff that would never get airtime around here. There’s several other examples, btu this post is way too long allready.

    And, finally: so what if established radio stations are putting their content out in podcast for as well? So long as it’s the same content they’ve allready got on the airwaves, it doesn’t make a whit of difference to me. If I don’t want to listen to their bland programming on regular radio, putting it on a podcast won’t magically make me desire it.

  23. For me it is about convienience and content. I listen to what I want when I want. There is content in the podcasting world that doesn’t exist in on radio.

    For a broadcaster/podcaster once they publish on the web they can reach a much bigger audience than if they simply slapped a transmitter on the roof, and they don’t need a licence to start.

  24. Hello Darren!

    I believe (and our research shows it) that you are “on the money”!

    As an Internet Marketing Agency, we presently identify the PodCast medium as simply another “arrow in the marketing quiver”. That is, our intent is to use this podcasting practice as another marketing instrument that can be effectively teamed with other Internet Marketing tools and targeted training.

    We adamantly feel that podcasting for sheer entertainment will be as you put it so eloquently, “Why I’m not smoking the podcasting dope”. 🙂

    Keep up the great insight!

    All the very best,


  25. Actually, sometimes when I’m doing my tech columns from home, I do them in my pajamas. So… am I the guy in the PJs or the guy from CBC? 😉

  26. For me, it’s about choice — what I listen to and when. So call me a control freak! And yes it replaces the time I listen to the radio. Where I am, at least, I had access to about 3 non-music shows on the radio that interested me. I now have access to hundreds, on many topics of interest. Despite the amateur nature of many (most) of the feeds, I’m surprised at and fascinated by the quality of content. I actually enjoy the non-commercial side of this, but I’m sure it will be predominantly commerical at some point. Something is clearly happening here. And podcasts are easier set up than a new Tivo 🙂

  27. Yes, please don’t smoke it. Leave it to the people who have something interesting to podcast. There should be a reason to share your content as audio files– otherwise what’s the point? The only podcasts I subscribe to are the ones that could not convey the information via text. Interesting interviews, archived FM radio shows, music and even “sound art” are are great for podcasts. I love having the WFMU radio show podcasts for my daily commute.

  28. Podcasting (From the term Broadcasting and similar to Radio Broadcasting that uses RSS feed). Podcasting is able to provide more content normal than radio. A Podcast can be released at a specific time and the place and the user may decide when they want to receive and when they want to listen to the Podcast. Podcasting is able to be targeted to the listeners interests.

  29. Podcasting isn’t going to get into the mainstream at all. The mainstream is going away, being replaced by a gradient of niche markets. Audio-only distribution will give way to audio/video as it has always done, only faster. Audio distribution will become support for video distribution the same way many radio stations have relationships with television stations that provide weather and news coverage during catastrophes for battery powered radios when the power is out.

    Podcasting is getting a lot of inflated press from people looking for “the next big thing” in a world already so compartmentalized that there is no next big thing.

  30. hmmmm, I can’t say that I’m smoking anything coming out of the podcast camp, but I see some value in the distribution method. Right now the director/writer of Battlestar Galactica provides podcasts containing directors commentary to be listened to while watching the show. He provides beeps which signal pauses for commercial breaks.

    You could also imagine art history instructors providing podcasts for use in museums or maybe a do-it-yourself show selling podcasts of instructions (“Pause until you are done threading the pipe onto the connector.”). But at that point are they really podcasts or are the just really short audio books?

    The most annoying thing about podcasting is that it’s just a rebranding of existing techniques. It’s like a website powered by a CMS that you regularly update suddenly becoming a “blog” and being cool. I think your main objection is the same objection that I have with blogs, it’s the content that makes it. Lame content (*cough*Adam Curry*cough*Evil Genius*cough*) makes for a lamecast instead of a podcast.

  31. Here is why Podcasting is cool. RADIO SUCKS. If I download a podcast that is not doing anything for me, I can fast forward to a better part (do that with satelite radio). I can fire up my ipodder, download the sites I’ve subscribed to, and listen in the car, or anywhere. I have audiobook subscriptions, and satelite radio, and I haven’t touched either since discovering Podcasting last week. Saying it’s all crap is like walking in to a library, picking up two books that do not interest you and sayig “it all sucks.” Granted, we have bandwidth to deal with, but I’ve learned things from the community that I wouldn’t have heard anywhere else. It is the freedom of satelite radio, with the connectivity of the Internet. As it is a technical medium, you will get your share of geeks. I asked 15 people this week, and nobody had ever heard the term “Podcast” (one of them being a CompUSA employee). Calling it dead when it hasn’t even ventured out of the crib is a little premature.

    Dave Jackson

  32. Why does everything have to become huge before we can think it relevant? Isn’t that what the long tail is all about? Regardless of whether or not podcasting ever “gets big,” it’s still fun, informative, relevant, even (gasp) revolutionary for those who do it, and those who tune in.

    I’ll trade production quality for a bit of authenticity — but I’m not mainstream. I agree with you that podcasting in current form doesn’t have a lot of mainstream appeal — but I think that’s a positive, not a negative. It doesn’t need a mainstream appeal to survive and thrive in its own little way.

    Oh, and mainstream radio really does suck. Unless you must have all of your culture spoon fed from a can. Which appears to be exactly what the mainstream wants. 😉

  33. On the money!! When I said this on the AlwaysOn Network, I got my rear fried, primarily by Eric Rice (who I now chat with and consider a long-distance friend). See http://tinyurl.com/3qrnx .

    I’m a bit more bullish than you are, Darren, but still skeptical. I’m even more skeptical about video blogs.

    I have my own podcast at http://feeds.feedburner.com/Software. It’s tough work. Much, much tougher than writing a column, even though I have all the basics put to bed: Music track, sweeper, all this kind of stuff. It’s STILL tough to do and not sound ridiculous.

  34. >> Amanda Congdon is charming, smart, cute and has a great formula, but she’s not a professional newscaster.

    Sure, she’s much better 🙂

    I’m not smoking the podcast dope either because it bores me to death to listen to simple audio, but a few vlogs deserve much more attention than the podcasting mainstream.

  35. Oh, please, podcasting is in its infancy … give it a chance. Creative, imaginative people will come up with interesting, fun-to-listen-to, informative podcasts. Be patient, wait and see.
    I have one in mind already.
    I also have ideas for non-internet ways to promote it to the people who will be most interested in listening.
    The idea is to target your niche audience and then promote promote promote. And then have fun with it.

  36. I think someone made the point earlier, but I’ll make it again.
    CBC is Podcasting. Clear Channel is Podcasting. KCRW is Podcasting. Tod Maffin is Podcasting…or is thaty CBC, (is Gene Simmons really Gene Simons when he’s not wearing makeup? Is Sting really Gordon Sumner? Is a Rose…)

    It appears to be catching on.

    You seem to be associating the name Podcasting with content. I see it as a medium, where there will be amatuer shows, and professional shows, (just like there are community newspapers and national newspapers.)

  37. A podcast is neither good nor bad; like blogs, it is a tool. All that matters is the talent of the author. Will it catch on with the millions? I could care less but podcasting like the internet, is here to stay. Personally I find some of the podcasts to be very entertaining. Contray to popular opinion, you don’t need an mp3 player to listen to a podcast. When no direct download is offered, I simply copy the url of the mp3 file from the rss feed source code and paste it into my browser. I enjoy listening to a good podcast with my eyes closed in bed. I hope you listened to what Dave Slusher said about your blog.

  38. Just thought I’d mention that this post has been circulated among the group members of this year’s PodCamp in Boston, which just concluded last week (Sept 8-10). It was cited as an example of a still-relevant post — namely, what other barriers are still in place that might prevent people from further embracing podcasting? While it’s still too early to say that everyone is “smoking the podcasting dope,” I do think it’s fair to say that the concept of podcasting, and of portable media in general, is definitely become increasingly mainstream.

  39. Thanks for your opinion! Future = 1,000,000 channels all noise, all ads and pop-ups, voice overs.
    Cant wait…

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