Written Dec. 1, 2009 by Tom Webster in Podcasting with 1 Comment
John Wilkens recently wrote an article in the San Diego Tribune about a local public radio show ("A Way With Words") finding a second life as a podcast. I was honored to be asked to contribute to this piece, which explores how a show that the local public radio outlet axed has found a new, post-broadcast life as a self-syndicated podcast with over a quarter of a million listeners.
The money may not be there yet, but the audience is certainly heading in their direction. If you are a content producer, this story should give you a little extra encouragement, but if you are in the business of running broadcast properties, it should also give you pause. That shows like A Way With Words are making the transition to podcast is really the intersection of two broad trends--the fact that the major operators are cutting air talent faster than they can print IOU's, and the fact that it has never been easier to syndicate yourself online.
Building an audience online is difficult--but the potential is vast. Now A Way With Words can effectively syndicate itself well beyond the borders of San Diego without owning a tower, or even having a relationship with one. Howard Stern certainly has to be asking himself why he bothers with Sirius XM (save the wallet-busting contract he signed) when he can effectively be his own media channel, and probably charge a healthy subscription to boot--all without requiring his listeners to own anything more than an Internet connection.
The thought I wanted John to include in this article was this: If you are a broadcaster who makes his living airing content syndicated from other sources, this is a short term play at best. In effect, you are nothing more than a middleman between the content (A Way With Words, Stern, Limbaugh--whatever) and the audience. As travel agents and stockbrokers discovered nearly 10 years ago, the Internet is not kind to middlemen.
Yet breaking through with a new show is incredibly difficult, and content producers need radio's reach--as much as radio needs to develop better relationships with content providers. It's never been easier to plant your own flag into the ground, but having a head start sure helps. The broadcast paradigm restricts stations to airing a few shows--but the Internet allows for multiple streams, multiple experiences. What a great opportunity for the radio industry to also rethink "syndication" as stations begin to fix their web properties and start down the long (but ultimately correct) road of treating their websites as independent properties, and not merely repeaters of their broadcast programming. Maybe your station won't air "A Way With Words," but you could certainly syndicate it online with just a little shift in thinking, and develop a mutually profitable relationship with podcasters and "ex" broadcasters in your community and beyond.
With that, I offer a final thought to the large operators out there who are currently burning the furniture in an effort to service debt--if you are going to fire talent, skip the "outplacement counseling" (if you even do this) and instead offer up some studio time, web space and have a think about the vast wheel of karma that the Internet has put in motion. Imagine the bigger picture--ending the broadcast life of a show shouldn't have to mean putting an end to the show or the relationships it has built with its audience. A radio station's web properties might best be used to manage a portfolio of such shows, aggregating content and audience from potentially hundreds of programs that may not make sense in broadcast economics, but together offer a compelling way to monetize the "middle tail" that radio is increasingly abandoning. Air talent, too, should keep their minds open to such relationships and the possibilities they enable. Can you syndicate yourself? Of course. But having a radio station use its reach to drive podcast subscriptions sure couldn't hurt.
Life is too short for either side to burn the bridges between them.