Programmes in the Pod

By Ian Beaumont

It's the latest phenomenon in broadcasting - the podcast.

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There was a time when the very notion of recording a television or radio broadcast for later playback was considered a completely alien notion. Broadcasts were for the here and now, and not considered to be of any relevance after that. But in recent years, that has changed.

First, the BBC decided to offer some programmes, streamed on-demand via the BBC's own Media Player. And more recently, a new phenomenon has evolved, out of the growing use of MP3 players and iPods. It's called podcasting.

As I write this is in mid-2006, podcasting has only been around for about 18 months or so: we are really in the early stages of finding out both what the technology is capable of, and what the public really wants.

The basics of the podcast are simple. The content, originally either an MP3 or an MP4 audio-only file but now optionally including images, is downloaded to your computer via your podcasting application, usually something like iTunes or iPodder. These can be played on your computer, or synchronised to your MP3 player or iPod. You can also get video podcasts; also known as Vodcasts, which are MP4 video files, again downloaded the same way as audio podcasts. You can subscribe to podcasting sources and your software will download new 'casts automatically as they become available.

Content

Podcasts can be, in theory, absolutely anything that you want to do. Theoretically, it's possible to produce a 3 or 4 hour music show, or longer, and offer that as a podcast. In more practical terms, however, the cost of music rights make such a show a nightmare to do. Usually, a podcast will be all speech. The result is that any show or station with a bias towards news, talk, sports or business is more likely to end up becoming available as a podcast.

At the moment, news bulletins seem to be quite popular. NPR - National Public Radio from the United States - was one of the first to offer news bulletins, producing individual bulletins as podcasts and then a news summary, updated hourly. CNN and the BBC World Service also offer hourly news summaries as podcasts.

Local news radio stations in the United States have started a particular trend in news podcasting, offering two daily bulletins, one in the morning for before you go to work, and one in the afternoon, for when you're coming home. These bulletins, often promoted as "News To Go" or something similar, are thus designed for commuters and offer long-form news, anything from 15 minutes to a full half hour. Whether this idea of downloaded news on the commute will take over from listening to live radio broadcasts, remains to be seen.

News podcasting now extends to video. ABC News in America, City News in Toronto, Canada, and Sky News all currently provide daily news video podcasts, ranging from 5 minutes to 15 minutes in length, as does ARD's Tagesschau, recorded straight from their 8pm CET transmission. Other TV news bulletins are provided in audio-only form. The NBC Nightly News is available as an audio podcast, as are all three of the main Sunday political programmes from the US. Global in Canada offer their main evening bulletin as an audio-only podcast.

Some local news radio stations in the US are also offering downloads of raw news material. News conferences and speeches are presented as live and in full. There are also news reports and interviews offered as well.

It's not a big surprise that technology news, features and programmes also feature quite strongly in the podcasting world. Again, BBC, NPR and US local news radio tend to be the main providers here. But of course, not all podcasts are provided by the big broadcasters.

Newspapers are getting in on the podcasting act. The Sun, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian are amongst the newspapers now providing both audio and video podcasts.

And of course, the general public themselves are amongst those providing some of the more interesting podcasts. Two video podcasts that have attracted a lot of attention in the media are Ask A Ninja which is pretty self explanatory and Rocketboom which was the original daily news podcast before the big boys got in on the act. One that caught my attention is TrailerCast.tv, which offers movie trailers to be downloaded.

But there are podcasts that are quite literally breaking new ground. For instance, CBS offer the complete audio track of their soap opera, Guiding Light, as an audio podcast. Guiding Light began life on NBC's radio network on January 25th 1937. It lasted for 15 years on radio, before transferring to the CBS Television Network on June 30th 1952. In September 2005, CBS began offering the audio as a podcast, in essence, returning the show to its radio roots. CBS also offers the audio portion of another soap, As The World Turns, as an audio podcast. These are, as I write this, the only two dramas that are available as full-length podcasts, and they are audio-only.

Impact

So, with all this content available, what impact is it having on broadcasting as a whole?

Well, the very arrival of the iPod had an effect. As iPods began to hold more and more songs, people starting leaving music radio stations behind, as they disliked the heavy rotation of chart songs, and started listening to their own mix of music. This has meant that most music radio stations, mainly the local commercial ones, have cut back on the rotation of chart songs, and have added more songs to their own playlists.

Now all forms of broadcasting have taken notice of the new technology's capabilities, and have already begun providing content. But will there be any lasting impact on the broadcast medium?

I believe there probably will be. In general, podcast material is short-form, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, although there is some longer-form material. Although you can find a few 3 hour long podcasts currently, I don't believe there will be much demand for long-form programming via podcast (as opposed to ‘on demand' shows like the BBC's ‘Listen Again'). About 1 hour is as long a podcast as I think you will generally find in future, and most will be 15 minutes or less.

This will in turn have an effect on programme material. Any programming that has potential for being used as a podcast, will be of appropriate length. Whether there will continue to be hourly news bulletin podcasts, or whether there will become a regular schedule of bulletins, remains to be seen.

Any longer form material will probably form the basis of multiple podcasts, or be shortened into a "highlights" podcast. Long-form programming, as already noted, is not really suitable for a podcast.

Radio itself will not move away from long-form programming, but will probably find more speech-based features being added to the schedules in order to facilitate more podcasts, and to counter the desertion of listeners from music-based radio stations to iPods and MP3 players. There is a possibility of some shorter-form programming outside radio's prime listening times, especially in the evening, but this is fairly remote. Commercial radio spent ages trying to move away from this, but now they might find themselves under commercial pressure to go back to shorter-form programming of a more specialised nature.

Television is in a different position, however. A lot of TV podcasts at the moment are sound only, with only a very few video-based podcasts. Most video podcasts are specially produced, with most downloads of actual broadcasts being sound only, the exceptions being Sky News and ARD's Tagesschau.

As the internet gets faster, and personal multimedia devices continue to hold more and more, I believe that in the not too distant future, television podcasts will move over to mainly video content.

The podcast represents one vision of the "on-demand" future of broadcasting. Streamed programming and broadcast schedules are some of the alternatives. The future, now more than ever, is in the hands of the consumer.

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Article ©2006 Ian Beaumont

Compilation ©2006 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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