Monday, May 16, 2005

Podcast radio: Dud on arrival

Podcast radio was a dud on arrival when it debuted this morning in San Francisco.

In what either is a bold, cutting-edge experiment or a cheap way to fill dead air until a better idea comes along, a moribund AM station at the far right of the dial became the first known broadcaster to dedicate itself to airing home-brewed programming.

In recasting KYCY-AM (1550) as, Infinity Broadcasting is trying to bring the cheek and chic of podcasting to the airwaves. Unfortunately, the linear format of radio is anathema to this rambunctious online medium. As exciting as podcasting is in real life, it comes off as being somewhere between boorish and boring on the radio.

The power and popularity of podcasting derives from the listener’s ability to choose what she wants to hear and when she wants to hear it. That, of course, is flat-out impossible in radio, which permits only one thing to be broadcast at a time.

While the strength of podcasting is its randomness and serendipity, the strength of radio as medium and a business derives from the predictability of its programming. If you are in the mood for acid rock, you tune into one station; if you want NPR, you go someplace else. For good or ill, radio has developed into a genre-specific medium, and broadcasters who think outside the box are likely to get their ears boxed at ratings time.

KYCY’s incarnation of podcast radio, which depends on the availability of submissions selected by its programmers, proved in its early hours to be a disjointed, discordant auditory smorgasbord. The mix also irritatingly included some programs that seemed more like infomercials than entertainment. Here’s a quick air check:

A program called “Rock Your Computer” was billed as a discussion of how to create music on your computer, but it devolved quickly into a series of shameless plugs for the podcaster’s ear-splitting album and the Apple software he used to make it.

This was followed by a guy who podcasts on his morning commute to work. He began with mundane gripes about lousy weather, heavy traffic, no coffee and a sick wife and kids, and then took a sharp turn to gloomy ruminations about death. “When you’re gone, you’re gone,” concluded our host. “It’s a dirt nap. There’s nothing. The thought of that is frightening, because you realize there’s no place to go to.”

Next up was a quickie riff from a European jazz artist, who played a tune that started promisingly but ended in teeth-grinding dissonance that sounded, so far as could be determined, like an out-of-tune piano in a blender.

This was followed by a fast-talking financial adviser who must have belted out his toll-free number five times in the first 90 seconds of the program.

While this fare deserves high marks for utter randomness, which could be construed by some as a plus, the rough-hewn quality of the programming makes listening a chore. Most of the shows appeared to be unedited first takes in which the podcaster aimlessly meandered down an uncertain path with no particular destination in mind, unless it was to hawk something. While some people may find this charming, I find it a waste of time.

A positive sign for this experiment is that more than 400 podcasts already have been submitted for future consideration from around the country and around the world, according to Infinity. The question is how many of those folks actually can – or would – listen to this radio station on a sustained basis.

The future of podcast radio ultimately will depend on how fondly it is perceived by the real people who matter, the folks in the front office at Infinity. At the moment, you can listen to podcast radio with complete confidence that you won’t be annoyed by any commercial messages other than the incessant promotions for the station itself.

If the audience builds and advertisers support it, then the station can look forward to a healthy run. If not, then podcasting will be sent back to its natural habitat, the web, where it will conteinue to thrive. Just like Br’er Rabbit in the briarpatch.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, I suspect that podcasters are ignoring the first rule of life in a multi-media world: Content always migrates to the most appropriate platform. An iPod or other digital player is a great platform for music -- even better than broadcast or satellite radio. That's why so many people use them when stuck on long plane flights, exercising, in the dentist's chair or doing boring chores. Music is a great anesthetic, and a digital player fills your suffering head with whatever you like, whenever you want. But a Pod as a platform for news or talk? We'll hear from the consumer jury before the year is out. Until then, I'm skeptical.

9:48 AM  

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