Podcasting: An Emerging Industry? (Part 4)

Three weeks ago I outlined the history of the podcast. I noticed that previous attempts to launch podcast-like services as organized business ventures had failed. Podcasting only took on its modern form around 2005, when it launched as an open-source method of embedding audio files in RSS feeds. The first user-side podcast service was the personal project of an ex-MTV host. These observations raise the question: why did podcasting emerge outside of the corporate sphere? Two weeks ago, I addressed this question by considering podcasting as a “disruptive technology.” This week, I’ll look at the early days of podcasting in light of the open-source movement.

Although one might assume that the open-source movement only effects Pengun-shirt wearing, bowl-cut sporting, pocket protector type folks, it actually has become quite mainstream. Case in point: Wikipedia. Podcasting, although the process can involve proprietary components, has open source roots. The technical underpinning of podcasts is an open-source web format known as “RSS.” Although the format was initially pioneered by Netscape in the late ‘90s, they quickly abandoned the project. An independent group known as the “RSS-DEV Working Group” stepped in and continued developing the format. In the mid 2000’s a non-affiliated “RSS Advisory Board,” which publishes specifications, also popped up. On the most basic level, RSS provides a mechanism for new content to be distributed to consumers directly (without needing to visit the website hosting the content). For example, this blog publishes an RSS feed where new posts are published as they go up. Users can then aggregate multiple feeds into an inbox for their convenience. Podcasts essentially sandwich audio files into an RSS (or RSS-like) feed. Although (at least) two parties claim to hold patents on podcasting—a man who published serial audio programs on cassette in the ’90’s and a media company called VoloMedia—however, they have had very little success pushing their patent claims. The back-end of podcasting has remained basically open-source. Podcasts are then aggregated from the RSS feed for a user by a “pod-catcher.” Although early pod-catching software was open source (such as iPodder), Apple has come to dominate the market.

So why did podcasting first take off as an open source product? The reasons are similar to why so many other internet-related products and services are open source: cost/accessibility. By reducing the barrier to market entry for consumers and producers and reducing the base cost of production and consumption (in many cases) to just the time put in by recorders and listeners, allowed for the emergence of many products (i.e. “shows”) that perhaps wouldn’t have been practicable in other markets. The abundance of fan podcasts dedicated to individual TV shows (I counted upwards of 20 for Game of Thrones alone) exemplifies the consequences of this low barrier to entry and production: a diverse and flourishing marketplace. Well, you might ask, what about the programmers who wrote the open source code underpinning podcasting? Why would they consent to labor for no tangible reward? It’s not just altruism In an article published by the Harvard Business School, Martha Lagace lays out a convincing set of reasons why open source development is desirable for developers. The main two reasons she identifies are: complete control over the product (especially in relation to timely patches and updates) and personal professional recognition for contributions, which can go a long ways towards advancing an individual’s career.

Although, grassroots producers still podcast as frequently as ever, several monetization and organization models for podcasting and have emerged over the last decade. Although traditional models (read: advertising) are widely used, several other models also exist. Particularly interesting is the “freemium” model (which has also exploded in the mobile gaming market). I hope to delve into these in the upcoming weeks.

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