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Page last updated at 07:59 GMT, Saturday, 23 July 2011 08:59 UK

Podcasts: Who still listens to them?


Click's LJ Rich asks whether podcasting has become too corporate

By Alex Hudson
BBC Click

Since becoming a buzzword more than five years ago, the term "podcasting" has largely disappeared from view as attention has increasingly turned to social media. So why has such a popular technology received such a small amount of attention?

Named word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2005, podcast has become a widely understood term, with more than 150,000 podcasts available about almost any subject imaginable.

A podcast is defined as a multimedia digital file made available on the Internet for downloading to a portable media player, computer, etc..
It is derived from the terms iPod and broadcast, though Apple did not do anything to develop the podcast itself
On 3 December 2005, podcast was named word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, two days before the first Ricky Gervais Show podcast

Podcasting was going to be the next big thing - changing the broadcasting landscape forever. Radio would become inferior to this new medium that could be easily downloaded onto any device and listened to at any time.

And when comedian Ricky Gervais took up podcasting in late 2005 - exceeding 4.5 million downloads within two months of The Ricky Gervais Show's first release, according to the Guinness Book of World Records - podcasting was going from strength to strength.

"Podcasting created a level platform," says Brett Spencer, head of digital at BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music.

"For the first time, people in their bedroom could upload and get their work on iTunes alongside content from the BBC."

And then, nothing.

Bigger than Twitter

Well, that is not strictly true but podcasting appeared to fall pretty quickly from public consciousness, the media instead filled with talk of the newer technologies, Facebook and Twitter.

But podcasting has continued to grow and grow.

Twitter icon on computer screen
Podcasting remains more popular than the social media site Twitter

More than eight million adults in the UK - around 16% of the adult population - have downloaded a podcast, with almost half listening to one at least once a week. This figure is echoed in the US.

As a comparison, this is still a greater percentage of people than use Twitter.

The Adam Carolla Show, a daily US download set up after his radio programme was cancelled in February 2009, officially broke the record for the most downloaded podcast recently, receiving 59,574,843 unique downloads up until March 2011 - beating Gervais's record.

So why hasn't this now mainstream technology been more widely discussed?

The common perception is that a podcast is just a download of something that has already been made available elsewhere. Rather than changing the traditional media landscape, many believe that it is just replicating it.

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"Half of podcasting is about just another medium to deliver the same content," says radio futurologist James Cridland.

"The other half is the real democratisation of creating new interesting audio content.

"Is it something different to normal radio? Not really. I look at quite a lot of the podcasts and the fact they are on a downloadable medium that you can listen to whenever you like doesn't necessarily change a lot of the content."

Turning tide

Despite the big stars often taking all the plaudits and the big broadcasters often occupying the top spots of the charts, the tide seems to be turning towards the smaller broadcaster and the amateur enthusiasts, each carving out a niche audience for themselves.

"Podcasting offers a good alternative to the kind of programmes you would expect on the radio," says Cridland.

"The hard part is finding the quality. There are some really good podcasts but there are a load of terrible ones as well."

Podcasting is the best way to showcase your talent, especially with commercial radio running out of space for personality
Olly Mann, Answer Me This podcast

The Sony Radio Academy Awards - the radio industry's Oscars - has begun to recognise independent and individual podcast content.

This year, the gold award for internet programme was awarded to Answer Me This, co-founded by Olly Mann. While starting from humble beginnings and modest audience numbers, it now gets downloaded 50,000 times each week.

"It's been amazing that by making a programme in [co-founder] Helen Zaltzman's sitting room, we're able to sit alongside Desert Island Discs, Friday Night Comedy on Radio 4 or Adam and Joe. It's a really exciting feeling."


And what it has done for the presenters is open doors into traditional ways of audio broadcasting - they now appear regularly on Radio 5 Live.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
Ricky Gervais is often credited with making podcasts more mainstream

"It's getting to the point now where if someone wants a radio programme the question will be asked 'Why haven't you already been making one?' Podcasting is the best way to showcase your talent, especially with commercial radio running out of space for personality."

New forms of audio techniques have arrived to challenge traditional broadcasting even further. Audioboo for example, described as a service which is "to podcasting what Twitter is to blogging", offers almost instant uploading of audio content.

"Podcasting is quite an old-fashioned approach to getting content on the internet," says Audioboo founder Mark Rock.

"Really, it's looking at the internet as a broadcast mechanism. The internet to us is more social. It's very much about curated content. Our approach is that anything you say is important - whether that's important to 10,000 people or just two."

When we first started the Kermode and Mayo podcast in 2005, it was downloaded 42 times in the first week and I was jumping around the office
Brett Spencer, BBC

What podcasting still offers is a chance for anyone to get behind a microphone and, for all intents and purposes, make a radio programme.

But even for the biggest in the business, it takes a little time for it to get going.

"It takes time to burn through," says Spencer, who used to work for BBC Radio 5 live.

"History is littered with great television programmes that did nothing in their first season and it's a little bit like that. They rely heavily on word of mouth.

"When we first started the Kermode and Mayo podcast in 2005, it was downloaded 42 times in the first week and I was jumping around the office, amazed that people were actually downloading it.

"Now it's downloaded 120,000 times a week."

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