Thursday, December 22, 2005


Podcasting and the decline of public radio audience growth

This is news that public broadcasters would rather you didn't have. Until recently, there has been no viable alternative to a local public radio outlet, but now there is. Podcasting has become mature enough to siphon off part of the audience.

It's hard to shill for funds twice a year, but Hawaii Public Radio has to do it. They have studios and transmitters to pay for. Suppose, for a moment, though, that listeners could get quality alternative programming free or for very little cost? That time is now, and many public radio stations are beginning to feel a financial squeeze for the first time as audiences begin to defect to a new paradigm in listening: freedom in time and place, and no more annoying bi-annual pledge drives.

Commercial radio has been in a sorry state for some time, but at least we have still have public radio. While NPR is accused of bias by both the left and the right, it has a huge following among those who are interested in listening to quality programming or hearing the "real" news instead of propaganda, pap, fixed playlists, and endless commercials. Yet some of the loyal audience is now tuning in elsewhere.

The featured article October 31, 2005 issue of Current,"The newspaper about public television and radio", warns that:
This year, for the first time, the decline in listening to public radio exceeded the decline in radio listening overall.

“It’s the first time we’re not growing,” says Carl Nelson, manager of client services for the Radio Research Consortium, which buys and processes Arbitron ratings for the public radio system.

The glum news echoes similarly lackluster performance in fundraising. Most of the 51 stations surveyed by Target Analysis Group lost members for the first time in a decade from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2004, and their member and revenue growth tapered off for the second straight year.
It seems that the author and editor had not yet figured out what might be causing the decline:
Researchers are unable to explain what causes the audience declines, but they hope further analysis in coming weeks will clarify the picture.

But just one paragraph up, the answer may be found:
New technologies such as podcasting and digital radio may be distracting managers and programmers from their core broadcast services, . . .

With the release of Apple's iTunes version 4.9 earlier this year, iPod owners (and those owning other MP3 players) suddenly had access to the growing number of podcasts that are being produced, including podcasts made available by public broadcast stations.

Podcast reception, that is, selecting the programs and having them automatically delivered to the player, is so automatic now that not only kids but their parents and maybe some grandparents are loading up on podcasts and listening whenever and wherever they like.

The magic of this time-shifting is irresistable, and radio station managers now have to confront the impact that this newly invented (only since about August 2004) technology is going to have on their audiences.

An undated article by Tod Maffin observes:
Podcasting's distribution model is transparent: The shows you want get dropped into your mobile audio device as they air, and you can listen to them, pause them, resume listening, whenever.

Indeed, it's just that easy. The comparison with the freedom that TIVO has brought to television is obvious. I plug my MP3 player into my computer in the morning and it fills up with programs that I've selected. I listen to them while preparing breakfast, later while doing the dishes, and on the weekend while folding the laundry. In my car I might listen to NPR, or more often, I listen to podcasts sent from my player into the car radio. New high-end cars have iPod jacks built right in.

Several of the programs I listen to are also broadcast on HPR. I hear them earlier in the week when they are freshest, and I listen on my own schedule, I don't have to be sitting in front of a radio at a prescribed time. If the phone should ring, I hit the "pause" button. I can back up to re-hear something. I can pause to discuss something and then resume. It's got every advantage.

Readers of Disappeared News might enjoy these media-related programs as a starting selection (they can also be heard directly from the computer if you have no iPod or MP3 player):

  Democracy Now! (go to the "listen page")

  On the Media from WNYC (podcast icon upper right)

  Counterspin (look for the podcast icon at the bottom)

The last two are also broadcast, conventionally, on Hawaii Public Radio. But you can listen to them sooner, whenever and whereever you like, as a podcast.

The handwriting is on the wall.

The news you haven't heard yet is that Hawaii is a leader in podcasting. Visit The Hawaii Association of Podcasters website to learn about locally-produced shows that might interest you as much or more than programs on your radio dial. Some of these have nationwide listenership and are near the top of all podcasts in popularity.

What kind of an audience do they have? It's hard to say. Arbitron isn't calling people to ask what podcast they're listening to, so the best measure may be the number of downloads of each show. Even with this uncertain measure the numbers are impressive. Some Hawaii podcasters can claim probably 8,000 to 20,000 listeners or more per show. That's right -- one show with 20,000 listeners. Not bad for something that can be produced in a living room with an inexpensive microphone and a laptop computer.

The first book to appear on podcasting, and still probably the best, is by Hawaii resident and podcaster Todd Cochran. Podcasting: Do It Yourself Guide is still the "bible" for those interested in producing a show themselves.

Just as bloggers can react swiftly to changing events, podcasters can react speedily with programming that is in demand. They have no need of transmitters, volunteer staff, or fundraising marathons to support all that infrastructure. Podcaster Ryan Ozawa, a founder of the Hawaii Association of Podcasters, put together a special podcast of Hawaiian music including cuts from musicians located outside of Hawaii. Try and find that on the radio anywhere. His podcast page with notes on the CDs is here and to listen to his program #35 Slack Key Special, click or download here.

Many public radio stations have embraced this new technology. The Pacifica stations, in particular, now podcast almost everything they broadcast.

Podcasting includes both fine general interest programming and specialized programing that would never be broadcast on the public airwaves. The software to receive the programs is free. There are still few if any commercials, and the home-spun nature of many of the programs has proven to have mass appeal. There are many shows that rival in quality anything to be found on the commercial or public airwaves. It's not surprising that people are making the switch.

Is radio becoming obsolete? Not yet. But although there have been a few programs on NPR about podcasting, by and large, Hawaii Public Radio would rather not talk much about it.


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