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Will Podcasts Kill The Radio Star?

14 Feb 2006  |  Paul Chantler 
Paul Chantler

Podcasts have grabbed public attention in recent months, from conventional broadcasters offering 'catch-up' editions, to Channel 4 launching its own assault on the radio world, fronted by news reader John Snow. Programming consultant Paul Chantler looks at the threat posed by these radio 'alternatives,' asking if they could really spell the end for traditional broadcasting...

Like hundreds of thousands of others a few weeks ago, I hungrily signed up to download the weekly Ricky Gervais Podcast from the Guardian Unlimited website. Since then I have been listening to Ricky, Steve Merchant and sidekick Karl shoot the breeze for 30 minutes or so about whatever takes their fancy.

Unfortunately it's not been laughs all the way. The quality of comedy and chat is pretty inconsistent - just like listening to three guys in a pub sometime. The popularity of this podcast has more to do with the brand that is Ricky Gervais and the ceaseless quest for more and more from the great man aside from the TV shows, theatre performances and DVDs.

It's been the number one podcast on the iTunes website since it started, having been downloaded more than two million times, consistently beating the best of Radio One's Chris Moyles breakfast show. Many say radio has a lot to fear from podcasting - but I'm not so sure.

This is essentially because I believe podcasts aren't really radio. Sure, they can be a way of listening to your favourite Radio Four programme when it suits you, or for listening to a compilation of best bits from your favourite DJ or shock jock. But real radio they are not.

Firstly podcasting can never replicate what a lot of people tune into radio for - live, real-time information. This is especially so in the mornings when service information is to the fore. Radio is best when it is live and reporting real events, be they traffic jams on the M25 or breaking news of the London bombings.

Secondly, podcasts don't yet have music, because of rights issues with the record companies, so the best-of radio shows only have the speech bits. Music agreements will come but that will take time.

Finally, those downloading numbers aren't necessarily what they seem. My Gervais podcast downloads regularly - but, after the novelty wore off, I found myself listening to less and less of it and sometimes not at all. But the download still happened whether I listened or not, much like a magazine ordered on subscription but then unread. I was counted among the two million, even though I was not listening. So how many of those proudly quoted downloads are, in fact, listeners?

What podcasts actually are, and where they will ultimately score, is the audio equivalent of newspaper columns and instant audiobooks marketed in short chapters. When you understand this, you begin to see the real future of the podcast.

I can hear in my head thousands of podcasts covering all sorts of diverse subjects - the electronic equivalent of magazine part-works, maybe no more than ten minutes a week or five minutes a day. Maybe there's a gossip podcast, a motoring podcast or even a model railway podcast.

Maybe there are also podcast columnists where every star from Robbie Williams to Chantelle from Big Brother has his or her own daily or weekly soap box to speak directly to fans.

And these bits of audio may well use radio techniques in terms of scripting and production to encourage people to listen but they wont necessarily be radio "shows".

Think of the old style Home Service "talks" of the 1950s and 1960s. Just a man or woman and a microphone. That's the key. It's what Ricky Gervais has done. No gimmicks - just three guys chatting away.

The killer is that I don't think radio will necessarily suffer from people listening to these things. Cynics are assuming people will abandon some of their radio listening in order to make time to listen to these audio nuggets. I'm not so sure.

I think its much more likely that podcast listening will be deducted from the time spent listening to music on i-Pods. Real live radio has always had a place in people's hearts and that wont change, podcast or no podcast.

So will "podcasts kill the radio star?" to adapt the words of that 1980's band The Buggles? Never!

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