The Year of the Podcast

A status report on a much-hyped new medium.

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Podcast is the word of the year, or hadn’t you heard? I mean literally; the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary chose “podcast” as their word of the year, beating out such runners-up as “lifehack” and “sudoku.” As a podcaster, I naturally applaud their choice (although, truth be told, I think it’s a terrible-sounding word, almost as bad as “blog”).

As the year of the podcast ends, I want to take a moment to reflect on how this new medium has evolved and where it may be headed.

A glance at the iTunes Top 100 Podcasts list is like staring at a wall where both hobbyists and huge companies have thrown ideas to see what sticks. Oh look, there’s one for The Simpsons! But listen and you realize it’s just an ad for the TV show. And over there are podcasts for NPR, PRI, PBS, and BBC shows! But wait—most are just short segments, not entire programs.

Elsewhere on the wall are lots and lots of tech podcasts, a selection of horribly violent video cartoons, newspapers and magazines (including Slate) trying to figure out how to translate print to audio and video, alleged comedy segments, indie music, and sex talk. As I scroll through all the choices and listen to more of them than is probably healthy, I’m increasingly confused about what this medium of podcasting really is. An outlet for new talent? An outlet for the painfully untalented? A real threat to traditional broadcasting? A promotional tool for mega-corporations? The biggest waste of bandwidth yet created? Probably all of the above.

What it isn’t, at least not yet, is much of a business. Whenever podcasters gather in numbers greater than one, the talk inevitably turns to the question of how to make the medium pay. Sometimes you can almost see the dollar signs appear in our eyes as we recall the absurd fortunes amassed during the last Internet boom. Some podcasters, again including Slate, have tried placing ads in the audio files. Others ask for donations. Still others charge for access, although that stretches the understanding most of us have about what a podcast is.

Big companies like Yahoo! and smaller ones like Podshow and Podtrac are plotting ways to aggregate and “monetize” the medium. No doubt podcasting “consultants” are charging hefty sums to impart their wisdom to companies who want on this bandwagon. But no one, at least no one I’ve come across, is getting rich from producing podcasts alone.

It’s even questionable whether this medium carries any glory with it. The “word of the year” designation notwithstanding, podcasting remains the nichiest of niche media—or as one friendly Fray poster put it recently, “What the hell’s a Podcast?” The number of times a day I have to answer that question serves as a sobering agent. (This study confirms the medium’s obscurity.) Yet podcasts rack up millions of downloads per week—Slate’s alone gets more than half a million downloads a month—so somebody’s listening.

If I had to guess, I would say that what we now call podcasting will soon vanish into a much richer soup of downloadable media. Our car stereos will download programs over wireless Internet connections, and they’ll be waiting for us when we strap on our seatbelts. Our TiVos won’t need to record TV shows in real time, because we’ll purchase the pre-recorded programs, and they’ll also be delivered via the Internet.

What won’t vanish, I hope, is what I really love about podcasting. When I started in radio in the 1980s, producing a high-quality audio program and sending it around the country involved dozens of people, several huge satellite dishes, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and studio space. Today, I do Slate’s daily podcast by myself from my den closet with foam mattress pads tacked to the walls, and send it out directly to the entire world from my creaky old computer over a standard DSL line. What do you call a technology that allows anyone to do the same? Whatever name you give it certainly qualifies as the word of the year.

Slate’s Pod Picks for 2005:

Eat Feed: Food history and mysteries
Fly With Me: A commercial pilot podcasts from behind the TSA curtain
Grape Radio: A podcast for Sideways fans
Left, Right and Center: Weekly news roundup from KCRW
Little Toe Radio: The best kids radio show you’ve never heard
Open Source: A smart daily public radio show from Boston (here’s a great sample show)
The Ricky Gervais Show: The creators of The Office take to the podways
Security Now: Internet security podcast
Seven Second Delay: The worst talk show host ever may also be the funniest
The University Channel: Terrific lectures from great univeristies around the country

Write us anytime: Podcasts@slate.com