Podcasting takes hold

As media owners and advertisers prepare to go to try harder and get involved with the iPod revolution, Sean Hargrave finds out how the “play now, listen to it later” craze could be about to take the industry by storm.

It was only ever going to be a matter of time before media owners and advertisers decided how best to tap in to the newly-dubbed "iPod generation" and, as ever, a snappy buzz word for a new channel is starting to come in to common parlance.

By making radio shows available for download on to MP3 players, or "podcasting" as it being called, radio stations can reach listeners on the move who were not able to tune in to a broadcast at the scheduled time. With these time-shifted shows comes new advertising, or "podvertising", and sponsorship opportunities that the stations claim open up a route for brands to get their message on to the must-have gadget of the day.

While nearly every radio station currently allows web-users to listen to live and past broadcasts over the internet, podcasting allows the public to download a whole show on to a computer and then transfer it to an iPod, or other MP3 player, so they can listen to it on the move, rather than sat in front of a computer.

The BBC podcasts several shows, but the country's first daily podcast is already available from Virgin Radio. It makes a half-hour edited version of The Pete and Geoff Breakfast Show available from 10.30am each day. The main content lost in this is music, because no radio station has yet worked out the rights issues with record labels.

James Cridland, the station's head of strategic development and new media, believes this is not a problem because people have plenty of music already on their iPods. He predicts the breakfast podcast is the first of several shows that will soon be available to listen on MP3 players. For him, the major advance is not just radio stations' content being available on iPods, but rather the fact that content automatically downloads itself on to the devices.

"The really clever bit is the software that you need to download the first time you want to listen to Pete and Geoff makes sure that your MP3 player is then automatically updated with the latest show," he enthuses.

"It's proving really popular. It means that people who can't listen to all or part of the show because they're on the tube going to work can listen to it later that day. It's already proved popular with advertisers too, because we're finding that people don't wind through the advert because they accept that one 30-second advert at the start of a 30-minute commercial programme is pretty good going. We've had the likes of Orange and Expedia booking slots, as well as the Central Office of Information, which ran a campaign for recruiting Special Constables."

The COI has often advertised on Virgin Radio and, according to Jonathan Gillespie, director at its media buyer OPera, it saw targeting iPods as "a natural step to be a trailblazer and reach an even wider audience".

Similarly, Danny Barnes, broadcast group manager at media buyer PHD Media, sums up Expedia experimenting with podcasting as a good way to reach "technology- savvy consumers with better- than average disposable spending power". Podcasting, he explains, is "an innovative way for Expedia to get its messages across to an important niche audience that's sometimes difficult to reach".

Podcast debut

Xfm is hoping to follow suit soon and make its podcast debut with the return of Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant to the station on Saturday afternoons for a six-week run, starting last weekend – although podcasting was not due to be up and running in time for the first show.

"We don't see it as a major revenue earner at first until the advertisers get seriously involved," reveals Xfm's business development director, Graham Hodge.

"It's basically a way for us to get more listeners and it doesn't matter what device someone listens on – as long as they listen, that's a tick in the box for Xfm. Ricky and Steve's show is obviously ideal, as it's mainly speech-based, so there aren't the rights issues over songs."

Similarly, LBC is on the verge of launching its first podcast. Paul Fairburn, managing director of Chrysalis Radio Digital Operations (including Heart, Galaxy and LBC), agrees that there is an opportunity for speech to test out the market while the rights issues for music are ironed out with record labels.

"We're about to make our first show as a podcast to see what demand is like among listeners," he says. "We don't fall into the classic mistake of thinking podcasting's free, so we're going to test the water through LBC and if there is sufficient interest from listeners and advertisers, then it's something we'll do more of."

For Chrysalis, podcasting and podvertising are simply means of building brand among listeners who could not tune in at that time and, without podcasting, would instead listen to their pre-downloaded tracks which offer no opportunity for third-party branding.

"For the radio station and the advertiser alike, I think the main benefit is you can reach people that you've missed on air and so extend your reach," he sums up.

"It should be great for branding, because if somebody likes a show they've got it on their iPod to let mates listen, so there's a viral element there too for spreading brand awareness for the radio station and sponsor."

At the other major forces in UK radio, Emap and GCap – the latter formed by the merger of GWR and Capital Radio Group – the consensus is that podcasting is an important new technology, although the respective boards have yet to decide how best to use it.

Additional advertising

While radio stations are obviously only too happy to provide an extra channel to raise their Rajar figures and attract additional advertising and sponsorship, podcasting is on the verge of being a major consideration for big brands.

According to Jean-Paul Edwards, head of media futures at OMD, the major advertisers are starting to look at podcasting not purely as a radio opportunity. Instead, in the campaigns he is currently devising for clients for this summer, he is beginning to see how the station could get on to iPods by going direct to consumers or, more likely, through websites that consumers trust for information.

"Podcasting opens up a whole range of opportunities," he surmises. "Once the digital rights management is sorted out, there will be lots of shows available on MP3 players. Some may even just allow you to play them once, so it's just like listening to the radio and there's no need for the podcaster to buy additional rights.

"Where I see brands getting a real advantage, though, is in releasing their own audio content. A bank, for example, may want to make or sponsor a short weekly podcast that talks about mortgages and pensions with expert advice. As long as you can convince people they're going to get something from it, I'm convinced they'll download it.

"Volvo's a great example. They sponsor the podcasts on autoblog.com which features regular radio-style shows about cars. It's subtle, because I don't think the iPod model will follow the 30-second advert message being forced down somebody's throat."

For Edwards, the convincing factor that there is a huge future in podcasting for advertisers, lies in the fact that it delivers a very real benefit you cannot emulate elsewhere.

"Podcasting obviously gets brands on to iPods and MP3 players which they otherwise wouldn't get on," he argues.

"The real advantage, though, is that you only have to convince somebody once. All you have to do is get them to download the show and the nature of podcasting means the software on their computer will automatically be updated with the next show. That's a tempting proposition for any brand."

How it works

MP3 technology has been around for several years, allowing computer buffs to download music on to a portable player.

The genre has now really taken off though, with Apple's launch of the eponymous iPod.

Not only does its range of portable music players have oodles of street cred, the software that sits on the PC or Mac and updates the player is intuitive. Simply put, a CD in your computer's drive and it is copied on to the supplied iTunes software and automatically put on the iPod the next time it is connected to the computer.

The technology has revolutionised music downloading and arrived at the same time as record labels have made their tracks available for legal download – in fact, downloads are now included in the UK's official chart.

This opens up a new channel for radio stations as well as smart brands. The latter now have the opportunity of sponsoring shows or "podvertising" during them as well as producing their own audio content, so long as it is compelling enough for consumers to download.

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