Is There Money In Podcasting

August 29, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — This past weekend WZZM TV13 became the first West Michigan company to turn podcasting into a revenue source, as Centennial Securities Co. sponsored the podcasting of the station's prep football roundup, "13 On Your Sidelines."

"I know that because of the success that we've had with it, some of our other stations are looking at starting it now," said General Manager Janet Mason. "People discovered it without us having to promote it."

Named for Apple's industry-leading portable MP3 player, the iPod, podcasting refers to the publishing of audio broadcasts via the Internet. Although seldom used as a distinguishing characteristic, a podcast by definition has a subscription model, whereby updated content is automatically downloaded through a syndication protocol like RSS or Atom.

In June, TV13, Grand Rapids' ABC affiliate, became the first property of Gannett Co. Inc. to test the burgeoning medium when it began posting its coverage of the Detroit Pistons' playoff run as podcasts. Within its first few days, the offering was downloaded by more than 1,000 people and was linked to by hometown Detroit media, including The Detroit News, then a Gannett property.

The station has since added a wide variety of offerings, including coverage of U-M and MSU football and the Detroit Lions, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's weekly radio address, and audio files of regular segments like Carrie Manders' "Today's Health" and "Take Five Grand Rapids."

"Podcast" is actually one of pop culture's greatest misnomers: an iPod, or any portable MP3 player, is not necessary to either create or listen to a podcast. Podcasts can just as easily be listened to on a personal computer, or downloaded to a CD. Some practitioners have suggested redefining "pod" as Personal On Demand. The BBC calls it RadioMe.

Although podcasting has been in mainstream use for barely a year, similar practices are as old as the Internet itself. Local radio stations have long provided Internet feeds, just as local TV stations have provided segments online.

In the corporate world, Webcasts are a staple of quarterly investor briefings.

The use of MP3 as a musical format exploded a few years ago with peer-to-peer services like Napster and the proliferation of CD-copying software on personal computers. Then came the wave of portable MP3 players and iPod's subsequent capture of the market.

In 2001, Dave Winer, a former HarvardLawSchool fellow and founder of blog pioneer Userland Software, teamed up with MTV personality Adam Curry on experiments that would marry the MP3 with RSS syndication. In 2003, Winer applied his technology to Harvard colleague Christopher Lydon's NPR show, allowing it to be downloaded through Lydon's blog.

Throughout the next year, the practice became common among bloggers, such as, locally, CommunityMediaCenter's Catalyst Radio and software engineer Jim Becher's Digital Grand Rapids, and was slowly adopted by commercial media and television.

In June, Apple added a podcast subscription feature to its popular iTunes store, and launched a directory of podcasts, starting at 3,000 entries. In two days, Apple reported more than 1 million podcast subscriptions.

WZZM 13 podcasts are available on the station's Web site and through iTunes.

"Our philosophy is to deliver our news, weather and sports in all the ways that people want to receive our content," Mason said. "That's why we now have many different delivery systems."

WZZM 13 distributes its content through the analog and digital airwaves, through cable and HD-TV, on its Web site and through e-mail, PDAs and cell phones. For the station, it's just one more distribution channel, one aimed at the younger generation that may be more likely to listen to an iPod while jogging than to turn on the evening news.

"Podcasting won't appeal to everyone," Mason said. "But it will appeal to a certain segment that are very, very busy. That want the information, but they want it portable and they want to be able to take it with them.

"In essence, it's audio on demand."

There are other uses for podcasts besides news and blogs. The city of Warren has added podcasts to its municipal Web site. Political and religious messages are common, as are educational materials and audio tours. Astronaut Steve Robinson used a podcast to communicate from the space shuttle Discovery earlier this month.

For all kinds of mass communicators, podcasting provides a new distribution channel that is portable and on-demand. The business community, however, may have a difficult time finding new uses.

Structure Interactive Director of Creative Services Charlie McGrath recalled how one client, a Dow executive, had years ago distributed daily audio messages as e-mail attachments.

"It's nothing new, but all of a sudden because it's getting more popular, the tools are getting easier to use. Everything is driven by how easy we can make it," he said.

"It's a convergence of elements, no one of which is revolutionary, but when pulled together take something that is possible but arcane and make it mainstream. And once that ease of use comes into play, corporations start jumping on it."

According to McGrath, the new technology will likely have no effect on the majority of people within a corporation.

"But if their job is communication and now they can do this in 15 minutes instead of an hour, it becomes doable," he said.

Conference calls, training materials and memos all could be distributed via podcast. Also, because of the RSS distribution, it wouldn't wreak havoc on e-mail bandwidth like an audio attachment would.

"It's a natural and small step, but just like every other published media, is has to be something that the user wants to listen to," he said. "For years, everyone wanted to put an audio message from the CEO on their Web site. It used to be a joke among Web developers, because nobody ever went to it."    

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