What Podcasting Revolution?

More people are downloading audio feeds, but few do it regularly, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project

By Catherine Holahan

No doubt about it, podcasting is growing in popularity. More people than ever are downloading audio files for listening on music players and other electronic devices. The question is: Are they doing it with much regularity? More to the point, how long before masses trade in the daily paper for the daily download? Not anytime soon, judging from a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The study, which polled nearly 3,000 adults in August, concluded that roughly 12% of Internet users have downloaded podcasts in order to listen in at a later time. That's up from 7% of Web surfers who downloaded podcasts early this year. Most tuning into podcasts, however, are sampling shows available when they have some time, rather than subscribing and regularly listening to particular programs, according to the study. In fact, only 1% of Internet users reported downloading podcasts on a typical day. A March study by Forrester Research (FORR) came to a similar conclusion, finding that while 2% of North American Internet users have tried podcasts, only 1% tune in regularly.

Pew report author Mary Madden says the study shows that, while people are becoming more comfortable watching or listening to programs on their computer, they are far from tuning in with any regularity. "It is difficult to tell how much of [podcasting] is going to become part of their regular rhythm with people downloading shows to their iPod to take on their morning commute, for example," says Madden. "For some, it will. But I think those people, at least at this point, will be the exception."

Still Shopping Around

How long they will be the exception depends on whom you ask. PodTrac, a firm that monitors the reach of thousands of podcasts and links podcasters with advertisers, maintains that such a future is right around the corner, if not here already. Mark McCrery, Podtrac's co-founder and CEO, works with podcasters, such as the group that produces "This Week in Tech" and the guys behind "Ask a Ninja." Those, he points out, have established audiences who tune in regularly.

But most users are still shopping around, and there's a lot to sample. Estimates of the number of podcasts range from 30,000 to more than 60,000, depending on the research firm and how narrowly it defines podcast. (Some firms maintain that podcasts must be made for the Internet, be able to be downloaded to a portable media player, and be available for subscription through an RSS feed or other syndication device. Others say that syndication via the Internet is enough.)

McCrery believes that subscriptions will rise as more people ferret out high-quality podcasters. "We do see a lot of sampling," says McCrery. "But we also find that a high percentage of audience members tend to listen or watch the same podcast. There are some podcasts that are getting to be must-listen or must-watch." So he hopes. The better a podcast becomes at retaining a loyal audience, the more money PodTrac stands to make.

Seeking Mainstream Status

McCrery isn't alone in holding out optimism that podcasts will eventually become mainstream. Researchers at the Diffusion Group forecast that 11.4 million Americans will tune into podcasts by the end of this year and 21.7 million Americans—or about 10% of those using the Internet—will download an episode in 2007. "We are going to see it reaching into the mainstream consumer market," explains Andy Tarczon, founding partner of the Diffusion Group. Tarczon is confident of growth because he believes that both the availability of podcasts and the increase in people buying digital media players capable of serving podcasts will increase interest in them.

That's if you can find the good ones. Analysts point out that it's still hard for many Internet users to find satisfying podcasts, much less ones that you want to hear on a regular basis.

Currently, most podcast traffic, roughly 75%, is driven through Apple (AAPL) iTunes' list of the Top 100 podcasts. That cuts off people who don't have an iPod or any other media player, yet would still want to download podcasts for consumption over a PC. There are several other aggregator sites, such as Podcast Alley, but they are not yet mainstream and rely on users to add podcasts to the directory.

And for the time being, traditional media outlets have little reason to fear cannibalization by podcast. In fact, the technology is more likely to extend their reach. That's because, despite the large quantity of podcasts produced by independent sources, many of the most popular podcasts are produced by traditional media outlets. For example, people tend to tune into podcasts of their favorite radio hosts or newscasters when they miss their shows, says Tarczon. "In many cases podcasting becomes a backup to traditional media," he says.

Traditional Media Still Triumphant

About half of iTunes' top 100 podcasts are from existing media companies. That's in spite of the fact that the vast majority of podcasts are produced by independent podcasters, says McCrery. "In comparison to the overall podcasting universe, there is a disproportionate number of podcasts produced by existing media companies in the top 100."

The Forrester study provided some data to back this up, finding that the content many respondents were most interested in receiving via podcast was produced by traditional media outlets. About 23% of respondents were interested in hearing radio news programs on podcasts and 20% wanted to tune into broadcast radio shows. Another 20% wanted to listen to recorded books, 18% wanted television news programs, and 10% wanted recorded news or magazine articles. Compare that to only 8% who wanted audio content from bloggers.

That doesn't mean there won't be some independent bloggers who gain regular followings that compete with traditional media for time. Already, there are video bloggers/podcasters such as Rocketboom that claim daily audiences in the hundreds of thousands. As more bloggers produce professional podcasts, such content will become a greater competitor to television and other forms of media. But podcasting has a long way to go before it poses a serious threat. "Podcasting is still in its infancy," says Pew's Madden. "It is unlikely that it is going to usurp traditional media. It is more likely that it will become one of the many different ways that we get content in an increasingly mobile environment."

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