Can Podcasting Do Business?

Search tools, ads, listener analysis -- the medium may be growing up too fast

Media today. They grow up so fast.

Latest evidence: The beta test of, which performs keyword searches through transcribed audio feeds for thousands of podcasts. Podzinger, which is expected to launch in December, ultimately seeks to be a Google (GOOG ) of multimedia search -- and sell Google-style text ads alongside search results -- but is honing its service first with podcasts. These, a Podzinger executive argues, need some sort of organizing principle. "Without relevant search results, it's a world before Google," says Alex Laats, a divisional president at Podzinger's Boston-based parent BBN Technologies.

Podzinger is a relative latecomer. (Assuming, that is, you can append "latecomer" to a medium so new its name is less than two years old.) Already in the space:, Yahoo! (YHOO ), and AOL (AOL ). And on Nov. 11, Audible Inc. (ADBL ) unveiled a measurement tool for podcast listenership.

Some of these tools seem very Version 1.0, but more on that later. They all show a semi-medium rapidly reaching early adolescence. An infrastructure to enable commerce -- search, networks, measurement -- is sprouting. There are two reasons for this. One is the ubiquity of the iPod (almost 30 million units sold). The other is the speed these days with which players glom onto anything that glimmers, even faintly, like the Next Big Media Thing.

Still, some basic conceptual questions about the medium remain unsettled. Podcasting is, obviously, downloaded audio. But it's not clear if listeners will ultimately regard podcasts the way they do downloaded songs, in which case an ad is unwelcome, or as a form of radio, in which case it's acceptable. This being the 21st century, it's hard to imagine that podcast advertising will be universally rejected. But some ad executives still express caution. "We are trying to test what the tolerance [for advertising] is going to be," says Eric Blankfein, a senior vice-president at New York-based media buyer Horizon Media. Podcasting "is something quote-unquote pure. How do you mess it up with branding?"

We're finding out. On Nov. 14, Georgia-Pacific (GP ) announced its Dixie brand's first podcast sponsorship, on parent-themed The MommyCast. "Somewhere amidst all of this we will reinvent audio advertising," says Adam Curry, a former MTV VJ and president of programming for the PodShow Podcast Network, which brokered the deal and counts The MommyCast as a member.

Curry posits that the business model for podcasts may resemble blog networks such as Weblogs Inc. So it may come as a surprise that he sees little "value for search in podcasting." It's true that Podzinger theoretically endangers PodShow's hopes to be the portal and front door to the medium. But Curry's views are shared by others in the podcast universe.

There are limits to the blog analogy: Blogs may struggle with invisibility, especially among advertisers, without blog-search engines like IceRocket. You don't need Google to navigate the radio dial. With podcasting, you may need recommendations, such as's (AMZN ), or promotional snippets, or podcasts organized by genre. It's less useful to know which podcasts use the terms "Volvo" or "AC/DC" the most.

Still, search engine moves are being met with chocolates and flowers compared with Audible's effort to measure podcast audiences. Audible plans to charge podcasters 3 cents per download to analyze usage. Podcast enthusiasts point out that this amounts to impossible sums for podcasts that count downloads by the hundred thousand -- and revenues by the nickel. "The marketplace is telling [Audible] they're on the wrong road," wrote Jeff Jarvis on his blog, echoing many critics.

Podcasting is the teenage clique of media. Small enough that its pioneers refer to one another by first names only, young enough that it's unclear which media model fits it, and brazen enough to believe it can figure it all out by itself. Parents will tell you how stubborn adolescents can be -- and how, more annoyingly, adolescents are sometimes right.

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By Jon Fine

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