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Podcasting News and Shows for your Turkey Day Travels

It certainly seems like for the rest of the year I’ll be mentioning at least one or two press articles covering podcasting’s newfound popularity. However, I’ll focus on pieces that are notable, cover new ground, or suggest a novel angle.

First, the New York Times’ inimitable media reporter and critic David Carr finally submits his take on podcasting’s recent rise in prominence. “And after dismissing podcasts for years, I am now dialed in,” he writes. Quite correctly, he compares the ability of podcast apps to bring up shows on-demand to Netflix, explicitly acknowledging the latter service’s disruptive force. While that’s a comparison I made back in January–arguing that we need the Netflix or Hulu of podcasting–it’s one I’m surprised I don’t see more often.

The second one this week is notable, in part, for selfish reasons. I talked with writer Lene Bech Sillesen for her Columbia Journalism Review article. More importantly, she also talked with Lea Thau, former executive director of The Moth and now host of her own podcast Strangers.

Thau makes a good point that,

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to partner with radio stations,” she says. “A lot of them are realizing they might become obsolete if they don’t get on board with digital and on-demand."

How Much Does It Cost to “Broadcast” Serial?

One of the most critical, yet poorly understood differences between broadcast and the internet is bandwidth. While broadcast stations have relatively high fixed costs to transmit their signals, the number of listeners they can support with one broadcast signal is only limited by how many people with receivers can exist in their coverage area. The same 10,000 watt FM station can serve ten, ten thousand or a hundred thousand listeners with the exact same fixed cost.

In contrast, an internet broadcaster pays for every single person who tunes in or downloads. That’s why viral popularity on the internet can be double-edged sword. It’s nice to quickly gain a big audience, but every listener grows the bandwidth bill. The cost differential between ten listeners to a stream and ten thousand is monumental.

Writer and podcaster Glenn Fleishman did a little back-of-the-envelope math to try and figure out how much the bandwidth bill might be for Serial, perhaps the most downloaded podcast at this moment.

He estimates the show has seen an average of 4.5 million downloads a month, adding up to 135 terabytes of data being served out to listeners. Looking at published rates for a couple of content distribution networks, he thinks that kind of data transfer would cost anywhere from $3,700 to $6,144 a month. It’s an amount he compares to the salary of an entry-level employee.

I’m glad Glenn took up this question. An annual bandwidth cost of $73,728 is nothing to sneeze at. Yet, that’s still less than operating a full-power radio station anywhere in the US. And, at this moment, it’s an outlier. Most podcasts don’t have anything near Serial’s listenership.

Yet, I’m sure many podcasters would kill for that kind of success. And podcasting supporters certainly believe more shows will see that size of audience.

It should also be noted that 1.5 million listeners an episode gets you close to cable TV size ratings. And producing and distributing cable television shows is much more expensive than even producing Serial or This American Life. That disparity works in podcasting’s favor, since advertisers are willing to pay to reach that many listeners, even with a podcast.

A Few For The Road

For me, podcasts are a savior for holiday travel time. Whether flying or driving, taking the train or the bus, a good queue of shows helps pass the time, especially during inevitable traffic jams and delays. So, I thought I would share a few shows I’ve added to my list that might be of interest.

The first one is almost custom designed for an old-school geek like me. On his Internet History Podcast, producer Brian McCullough is interviewing some of the most influential actors in the early days of the internet. He’s using these interviews as the source for a book on the same topic.

Having been online since 1993 I know of many of his guests, and certainly admired some from afar. So it’s a real kick to hear Wired’s founding editor John Battelle discuss the first days of that magazine, or ReadWrite.com editor Owen Thomas tell the story behind the illustrated daily humor and criticism site Suck.com.

Reply All is the new podcast from Alex Blumberg’s Gimlet Media. It’s hosted and produced by two veterans of NPR’s On The Media, Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt. They say it’s a show about the internet, which is true. Though more accurately I’d say it seems like a show about how the internet works in our daily lives. In that way it feels like an outgrowth of the TL;DR podcast Vogt and Goldman produced for On The Media until the end of October.

The first episode tells the story of “how a woman in Washington DC who tells her ex in California that she loves him through stocky blond man who neither of them have ever met.” There are only two episodes, and they’re both under 30 minutes. So there’s not a ton of listening there, but worth putting into your queue.

Finally, if you want to laugh hysterically and out loud, perhaps looking like a maniac on the plane or train, then I suggest you check out Superego. This show is one part improv and one part radio drama, produced by some of the best podcasters and comedians working today, like Jeremy Carter, Matt Gourley and Paul F. Tompkins, along with guests like Patton Oswalt, Neko Case and Kristen Schaal. The shows don’t come out frequently, but there are enough episodes in the archive to keep you in stitches from Columbus to Wichita and beyond.


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