Reflections on PodcastCon

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Is the geeky, sniggering, know-it-all world of ham radio alive and well in the UK? The answer of course is, who knows and who cares. But it’s clear a similar crowd is being attracted to a new craze – podcasting. That, at least, could well have been the impression some took away from PodcastCon.co.uk, the first ever conference held on podcasting in the UK yesterday.

Ok, let me back-up here. True, the conference was a great expose of some of the new, innovative and interesting things being done with podcasting. And unlike a lot of Internet movements, podcasting – creating audio shows designed to seamlessly download to an MP3 player – has hit the mainstream consciousness even faster than blogging took. A recent BBC Radio 3 podcast got a million downloads, for instance.

At the event I chatted to Mark Hunter from Tartan.Podshow.com, Scotland’s first music-based podcast which hunts down hot unsigned bands and gives them a platform. There was someone doing a regular podcast about archaeology, another producing a niche technology show.

This was Podcasting playing to its strengths – aiming for an enthusiast audience and giving them what they wanted – not unlike the best blogs. The atmosphere was boosterish and upbeat.

But then James Cridland stood up.

Cridland is the affable head of strategy and new media for Virgin Radio.

Unusually for a mainstream media guy, he wanted to be on the side of the podcasters. Podcasting should not be described as “amateur” he said, but as “me-casting” – creating radio-style content for niche, targeted audiences.

It appears Virgin plans to use podcasting to make more of it’s “Long Tail” of content – both its niche-focused and archived material. These could “time-shift” the personalities of radio which don’t date, unlike the music which does. This included a “Best of the guests” Podcast and one for Unsigned bands, which, he proclaimed, other podcasters would get access to, to ‘re-podcast’.

But the delegates weren’t impressed. Here was “MSM” incarnate – a “Main-Stream Media” guy who presumed to tell all assembled that he ‘got it’.

One questioner rounded on Cridland: “You fundamentally misunderstand the nature of podcasting. You just don’t get it. Mainstream media doesn’t know what is going to hit it.”

Moreover, in not facing up to the music industry to allow podcasters to broadcast music inside their shows, he was ‘part of the problem.’ Did I detect some frustrated Chris Tarrants in the audience?

The crowd seemed determined to turn this into the downfall of Ceausescu on his balcony, Romania’s old dictator. Ironically, I’d seen a video played of Ceausescu’s last speech before the baying democratic mob over ran him at a blogging conference barely two months before, designed to illustrate how ‘citizen media’ would swamp the mainstream.

But was Cridland a Ceausescu in waiting? Evidently not. He’d come to explain to the podcasters that he wanted to encourage their exploitation of the medium. This was the equivalent of the record companies saying to music lovers in 1998, before Napster arrived on the scene, “we’ll release some digital music which you can share with your friends, how about that?”

If Cridland didn’t ‘get it’, what the hell was he doing at PodcastCon, an amateur conference advertised only on Wiki’s and blogs?

Half way through his mauling one of the conference organises whispers in my ear: “We didn’t expect he’d be quite so attacked, honest.”

The criticism Cridland got on the podium was made even more ironic, given that we’d all just been the audience on a ‘recorded live’ podcast for the Vobes.com ‘podshow’. A former “children’s TV entertainer”, Richard Vobes has cottoned on to podcasting as a new hobby-come-job. Alas, the show was like being transported into the film Good Morning Vietnam, which featured an Army-appointed DJ whose attempt at humour is a child’s squeaky toy and a few ‘funny’ voices, prior to the arrival of the brilliant Robin Williams. When the show veered off into a discussion about beer tasting, the picture of CAMRA members at a ham radio event was, alas, complete.

And there was further irony in the crowd attacking “the man” from the radio industry.

Cridland pointed out research which shows that nearly 80% of owners of mobile phones with FM radios built-in, shock horror, listen to the radio. Radios are also appearing inside MP3 players as standard. In other words, live radio has a bright future, even if the ‘time-shifted’ nature of pod casts are gaining in currency.

In 1997 I went to a debate about the future of multi-channel TV. It concluded that there would one day be a TV channel only about beetles.

This is absolutely fine if you like beetles. Indeed, I predict that there will shortly be a podcast only about beetles. And that is a strength podcasters must play to. But whether the “Long Tail” of the Internet can wag the mainstream media dog is a debate which… will probably be appearing on a podcast near you very shortly.

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