Media Studies – Podcasting and Radio
Ben Hammersley of the Guardian first discussed the advent of podcasting technology only two years ago (Hammersley, 2004). Yet this newly created communications channel has grown from being a small niche market – with only six thousand hits on Google in 2004 according to Terdimann (2004) as compared to today’s excess of forty-one million (Google, 2006). Podcasting has changed radio with breathtaking speed, removing almost all barriers to access in ways that Internet radio was never able to on its own.
This paper will discuss how and why podcasting is the radio of the future because of its convenience, intimacy and ease of access.
In simple terms, podcasting is a digital music file that is presented to the end user within an RSS feed, where RSS is a grouping of different feed formats used to update and publish web content. Users subscribe to an RSS to listen to audio files, are automatically updated each time a new file is uploaded, and can listen to the podcasts on any MP3 player. What makes podcasting unusual is the automatic updating portion of the system: instead of having to return to a particular website to see if the content has been updated, the users’ subscribed-to feeds automatically deliver the content on-demand.
A Brief History of Radio as Related to Podcasting
Initially, radio was used in the late 19th century for users separated by geography to communicate. However, other people started ‘overhearing’ these radio transmissions and slowly it became a means with which to talk to a larger populace, evidenced by BBC’s start-up three decades later.
It didn’t take long for radio listeners to realize radio’s potential scope as shown by comments made in 1930:
“The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship not isolating him (Bretcht, 1993).
Interestingly, these comments seem to describe podcasting to a tee, as anyone can transmit information using this technology, with no higher authority monitoring its use.
A similar growth pattern is seen when reviewing the advent of Internet radio as well, with the 1995 creation of Real Audio software, allowing radio stations to send transmissions through the Internet instead of through other, more traditional processes (Priestman, 2001). While this was a huge breakthrough in technology and access to mediums previously controlled by geography and cost, it still made Internet radio dependent on positioning: you had to be in front of a computer to listen (Wall, 2004). This lack of portability has somewhat been trumped by new WiFi radio options in the UK (Rose, 2005), but that discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.
Portable music devices first appeared in the late 90’s (Van Buskirk, 2005) but it wasn’t until Apple’s 2001 release of the iPod that podcasting became a household name. At that time, no other commercial venture had successfully sold legally available songs online and then facilitated transferring them onto a digital media device.
Podcasting Success Factors
We must go back in time to 1996 to determine just why MP3 players such as the iPod and podcasting in general took off at such an alarming rate. It was at this time when The Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed American radio forever by allowing companies to own more than four radio stations in a specific market and more than forty nationwide, both of which were previous limiters (Mann, 2005).
This allowed Clear Channel, one of the more infamous radio station consolidators, to merge well over one thousand stations across the U.S. using their tried-and-true content-weak system of providing lots of specifically targeted music to a specifically targeted consumer and the addition of even more commercial time. It seems evident, then, that radio listeners were well primed for an on-demand music service with fewer (or no) commercials without the WalMart of radio forcing listening decisions.
How Has, and Will, Podcasting Changed Radio?
In a sense, podcasting has changed radio into a new medium entirely. Now anyone, anywhere, with no prior radio, media or telecommunications knowledge can create a podcast for listeners around the world to enjoy, respond to and interact with. Plus, it has provided access to public figures in ways that radio couldn’t previously, as with Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards’ kitchen table talks or President Bush’s weekly radio addresses (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/radio).
Future applications of podcasting technology are only limited by the accessibility of MP3 players and the ingenuity of the users. The next step of all-access, user-driven radio is to have the smaller hand-held devices download podcasts (technology which is just become available now) through wireless technology. This will work in tandem with current movement towards Wi-Max networks (where entire cities have wireless access availability instead of merely chosen ‘hotspots’), enabling users to save the costs of downloading content through their cellular phone providers or current fatport company. In fact, the Nokia N91 was to be released earlier this year with this same technology on board (Rose, 2005).
Yet as MacFarland stated in 1997:
“The answer will lie not so much in technical improvements to audio reproduction as in improvements to the product the audience is seeking – programming that is responsive to the listener’s needs.
Conventional radio stations have already picked up on this trend such as the Boston-based “Jack FM” which boasts an iPod-like random playlist complete with an “I don’t care” attitude as shown by the DJ’s frequent mentions of the company’s tag line: Playing What We Want. Although podcasting may not reconnect traditional radio listeners with their radio roots (such as CBC has done in Canada with Radio One), it may add increased interest on the part of listeners, intent on learning more about new media and music not previously available to them.
Some media experts may feel that podcasting is the end of radio as we know it, but rather it should be looked at as new way, method, technology and available to connect intimately with an audience hard to pin down and even harder to communicate with.
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Hammersley, B. “Audible revolution.” Guardian Unlimited: Technology. 12 Feb 2004. Media Guardian. 30 Nov 2006 <http://technology.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,1145689,00.html>.
Mann, Charles. “The Ressurection of Indie Radio.” Wired Magazine 13.03Mar 2005 30 Nov 2005.
Priestman, Chris. Web Radio: Production for Internet Streaming. London: Focal Press, 2001.
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Van Buskirk, Eliot. “Introducing the World’s First MP3 Player.” MP3 Insider. 21 Jan 2005. CNET Reviews. 30 Nov 2006 <http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6450_7-5622055-1.html>.