Media: All About ... The podcast platform

Advertisers are waking up to podvertising's potential.

Virgin Radio's new Sunday afternoon programme, The Tim Lovejoy Show, which launched at the weekend, is available as a podcast. Nothing remarkable about that, we hear you say. These days, when launching a new radio show, it's almost obligatory to mention that it will also, naturally, be available in digital downloadable format.

Virgin, though, claims it is a market leader in this sector - and not without justification. Back in March of this year, a "repurposed" Pete and Geoff breakfast show was the first UK radio show to be podcast on a daily basis.

It was also the first to feature ... wait for it ... podvertising. It's not as whizzy as it sounds - it's merely a matter of creating and selling tailored sponsorship and advertising opportunities around the tailored content. The Pete and Geoff show's first podvertisers were COI Communications and Expedia.

Nivea, which is sponsoring the live broadcast version of The Tim Lovejoy Show, will also be the podcast sponsor and Virgin is selling the equivalent of spot ads into the podcast show. It's early days still, but Virgin's efforts are helping convince many that this is not just a passing (and terribly geeky) fad, but something that may be of relevance to the ad industry.

1 Cynics suggest the podcasting term is an astute piece of marketing by Apple Computer, the manufacturer of the iPod, in seeking to turn a brand name into a generic. Podcasts, however, can be played on any portable MP3 player - and also, increasingly, on next-generation mobile phones.

2. A podcast is a digital audio file of substantial length (longer than 15 minutes, say) that can be downloaded from a website via the internet. It can then be transferred on to an MP3 player for later consumption.

3. The platform has by no means been the exclusive province of the professional. In the US especially, scores of enthusiastic amateurs have seized the opportunity to produce home-made shows (most of which, the near-legendary Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything at www.toeradio.org aside, are rubbish) and it has also attracted special-interest groups such as evangelical Christians.

4. The first podcasts began in the US in the autumn of 2004. In March this year, Virgin Radio was the first UK media owner to begin daily podcasting, with a reformatted version of the Pete and Geoff breakfast show. Everything that would date the content needs to be removed - for instance, news, weather and travel. For copyright reasons, the music has to be removed too. Which leaves us with the thoughts of Pete. And, of course, Geoff.

5. Radio companies see podcasts as a way to reach early adopters among younger age groups. Across Europe, almost 30 per cent of those in the 16- to 24-year-old segment own an MP3 player - and this group will be listening to less radio.

6. Podcast audience levels have doubled in six months. Back in January, according to unaudited and unofficial figures compiled from media owners, the average worldwide audience for a podcast was 15 individuals. Now, the equivalent figure is thought to be greater than 30. There are a handful of successful podcasts and podcasters but the medium has a very long "tail", which tends to pull down the average.

7. But there have already been many notable success stories. Virgin, for instance, claims that the Pete and Geoff show is downloaded 85,000 times a month - an average of more than 4,000 per show. When BBC Radio 1 recently began podcasting the Chris Moyles breakfast show, it shot to the top of the Apple iTunes chart.

8. There are three main commercial angles to podcasting. First, and most simply, any producer of content can seek to charge a fee per download.

9. Second, media owners can sell sponsorship and spot advertising into a repurposed show - as Virgin is doing with its Tim Lovejoy Show.

10. But the third area is perhaps the most interesting - some advertisers are already experimenting with producing audio content aimed at special-interest groups. For instance, Virgin Atlantic has produced a series of podcast guides to New York.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- Some of the issues podcasting raises for advertisers are pretty scary - and they are similar to the potential ad avoidance and audience fragmentation spectres raised in TV by the advent of personal video recorders such as the Sky+ box.

- Listeners are able to fast-forward through ad and sponsorship slots. Also, the spot ad breaks offer limited flexibility - there's little point in running anything that is acutely time-sensitive.

- There's also a geographical problem - many of Pete and Geoff's podcast audience, for instance, may be listening outside the UK.

- On the good news side, it's relatively accountable - you can accurately record who's taking the download feed. There's no way of measuring how much of each file is actively listened to, however.

- But many advertisers are beginning to look at this as an opportunity to experiment (relatively cheaply) with some of the advertiser-funded content techniques they might apply in the future in the TV market.

MEDIA OWNERS

- Established media owners see podcasting as an important way to maintain contact with a generation of early adopters they are in danger of losing. They will also be pleased at their first steps towards generating revenues on the platform.

- But listening to a radio station's output, shorn of the useful stuff (news, weather and traffic reports) and the creative stuff (music), can be a sobering experience for programme directors.

- As with other digital developments, podcasting will force the commercial radio medium to re-examine its unique selling proposition in an era when the consumer has instant digital access to an almost unlimited spectrum of entertainment content.

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