In his most recent online chat, Bill Simmons offered the following exchange:
PeteFitz (chicago): Mr. Sportsguy, Any reason for the podcasts over the columns these last two weeks? I personally like the columns better (for selfish reasons, I like to read at work), so I was wondering if there was a specific reason.
Bill Simmons: (12:50 PM ET ) Again, I am desperatrely trying to finish my book – so that’s one reason, I only have so many writing hours in me each day. The other reason is that I love doing the podcasts and feel like I’m on the ground floor of a medium that is really starting to take off. It’s like radio on demand and I think it’s going to kill satellite radio in 2 years. I really do. It’s also a huge threat to real radio in my opinion, especially when people can get internet in their cars and can just cue podcasts up within 3 clicks. It’s astonishing to me that nobody has written a long piece about podcasts yet. This is EXACTLY the same as what happened with sportswriting in the late-90s where nobody was taking the internet seriously and suddenly within 7 years there were a million sports blogs, mainstream sites were crushing newspapers and newspapers were hemorrhaging money. We are headed that way with podcasts. I just think radio is going to become much more niche-oriented over these next 10 years… people don’t see it yet. Christian Slater in “Pump Up The Volume” is going to look like a genius.
Bill’s a smart guy, and he’s obviously got a horse in this fight, so I’ll forgive him a bit of rose-tinted boosterism here. The death of radio has been confidently predicted for the better part of the last half-century to no avail, because what fans of [INSERT COMPETING MEDIA HERE] don’t quite get is just what it is that radio does or is. Radio is at base a very low-bandwidth media – you click it on and it’s there, and you can listen to it or not but can also be doing any one of a number of things (e.g., driving a car, cooking, working, etc.) and radio doesn’t get in the way. TV, the Internet and even podcasts demand more attention from the audience – you have to watch TV, read (or watch) the Internet and with podcasts, there’s the matter of a multi-click process of finding and then selecting the desired program. Those three clicks are a lot more important than Simmons allows for, because you have to think before and during them – radio doesn’t ask that.
This isn’t to say that radio is going to be unchanged by the introduction of the Internet and podcasts (which radio developed a fancy word for a long time ago, “programs”). Before the introduction of TV, dramas and comedies dominated radio – they don’t anymore, but people still listen to radio. After a long period of domination by music, the 1980s through the present saw the rise and increasing dominance of the radio airwaves by talk and news radio – NPR is at least as big a success in this regard as the right-wing talkers. And maybe the large and still-increasing relevance of online news and commentary means that there’ll be a bite out of that audience. But that won’t be the end of radio, either.
What will happen – because it’s already happening – is that there’s going to be much more of a dialogue between radio and podcasts. Because radio producers haven’t had the same hang-ups about intellectual property as TV or the movie or record industry – they’re already giving their product away free and over the air – they’ve been very well-positioned to move online, and NPR has been among the best in this regard. Taking a look at the iTunes store’s (yes, yes, but it’s not unrepresentative) top-25 downloaded podcasts, fully seven of them are produced by NPR. Eight others are produced by the mainstream media; two are President Obama’s weekly address; one is produced by iTunes, another is ringtones, and only six can really properly be called Internet-based podcasts (including the Onion). Similarly, music blogs are now moving onto radio – Sirius’ XMU channel features several hours a week of music bloggers on their Blog Radio feature, which is a good deal for both – low production costs for Sirius, and more exposure for the music bloggers.
Radio is a channel, a low-commitment, low-bandwidth channel that’s good for passive interaction and has a huge installed base of receivers that isn’t going anywhere (to wit: what car manufacturer is going to go all Apple and be the first to take the radio out of the car?). I’ll allow – and hope! – that the Internet and podcasts might turn out to be good for radio by showing that there are large audiences for audio content outside of the current top-40/urban/country/Latino/classic rock/right-wing-talk/sports talk/NPR selection of channels (go on – try to find more than a few examples of major-market broadcast radio stations that don’t fit one of those). Or it could just work to reinforce the dominance of current audio content producers by giving them another another opportunity to disseminate their content. Most likely, a bit of both. But radio isn’t going away.