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When Will Public Radio Deliver Podcasting?

Adam Curry is ruining radio.For me, anyway. About a month ago, I downloaded the former MTV host’s podcast aggregator, iPodder, and now I’m a regular podcast demon. I’ve set iPodder to download Curry’s The Daily Source Code every morning, and…
March 19, 2005

Adam Curry is ruining radio.

For me, anyway. About a month ago, I downloaded the former MTV host’s podcast aggregator, iPodder, and now I’m a regular podcast demon. I’ve set iPodder to download Curry’s The Daily Source Code every morning, and I’m also listening regularly to The Chris Pirillo Show, Jon Gordon’s Future Tense, Todd Maffin’s /Nerd from the CBC, WGBH’s Morning Stories, and NPR’s On the Media. Thanks to Curry’s minions and my iPod, I can now fill every formerly umediated moment in my life with geekdom’s latest news, gossip, rants, and mashups.

Here’s the problem. Podcasting is time-shifting for radio–and we all know where that leads. When I got a ReplayTV (the poor man’s TiVo) five years ago, I stopped watching live TV. Completely and forever. Okay, maybe I watched part of the Academy Awards last month, but then I went to bed and recorded the last hour, including Best Picture. (As if anyone even saw Million Dollar Baby.)

Now that it’s so easy to find and download high-quality podcasts and listen to them during the interstices of my day, like when I’m washing the dishes, doing housework, or walking to work, my patience with live radio is nearing an end. In particular, I want to be able to listen to my favorite public radio shows–Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Car Talk, and A Prairie Home Companion–at a time and place of my choosing.

I know, it’s already possible to listen to archived streaming-audio versions of these shows on the Web. But that’s not the same. To listen to streaming audio, you need a computer and an Internet connection. Even a wireless laptop is too much to carry around when all you want to do is listen to a radio show. Streaming, ironically, has given us TiVo-like time-shifting, but it has taken away the mobility we all associate with radio.

So when are public radio producers going to deliver podcasts of their best shows? There are already a few pioneers: On the Media (which, as I journalist, I consider essential listening) offers a weekly podcast, Tony Kahn at WGBH is producing the aforementioned Morning Stories, and a fair number of local stations are offering podcasts of selected local shows. ( has a good list). But why aren’t more shows popping up as podcasts?

The reason is clear, of course, and it has nothing to do with Luddism. I’m sure that public-radio folks are acutely aware of the latest trends in microcontent delivery, and that they would gladly podcast all of their work if it meant they could reach more listeners. No, the reason has to do with survival. Streaming audio hasn’t undermined broadcast radio–but podcasting just might. If people could listen to Fresh Air on their iPods, they would stop listening to it on their public radio stations. Which means they wouldn’t have to suffer through most stations’ quarterly pledge drives, which means they’d forget to donate. The bottom line is that public radio’s current funding model–more than half of the money comes from listeners–means NPR stations must maintain a certain amount of control over the way their content is distributed; otherwise they’d lose their main point of leverage over their audiences.

But there must be a way around this pothole. It’s a no-brainer that public radio’s vast supply of high-quality, live and archived programming should be available for on-demand consumption; in fact, that’s exactly what the BBC is in the middle of doing with its Creative Archive project. The question is how to pay for it. Podcasting is still so new that nobody’s had time to figure out whether there’s even money to be made. But I’m counting on someone to do so, promptly. (Perhaps it will be Odeo, a much-talked-about San Francisco startup, led by Blogger co-creator Evan Williams, that’s about to roll out a bunch of cool tools for discovering, subscribing to, and creating podcasts.) I want my NPR and I want it to go!

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