Podcasting: Adding the human and informal touch

Some say it’s a revolution that will change radio broadcasting and people’s listening habits for ever. Others say it’s a fad that’s of limited appeal and use beyond geeks and enthusiasts.

Whatever anyone says, you’d have to admit that something that, in just eight months, has rocketed out of nowhere and today got big companies and radio stations alike interested must be worth taking a look at to see what all the buzz is about.

That ‘something’ is called podcasting.

So what, exactly, is it, and what’s its relevance to organizational communication?

First, let’s take a look at what it is.

Put simply, podcasting is making a recording – which can be voice or music – as a digital file, usually in the common MP3 file format. The recording is then made available for automatic distribution – broadcasting, in a sense – from a website by a technology called RSS. That recording is then known as a podcast.

The term ‘podcasting’ was popularized by media entrepreneur and former MTV VJ Adam Curry. He created a computer program that automated the process of receiving podcasts on your computer and then automatically synchronizing them with iPods, the ubiquitous digital music players made by Apple Computer. Hence the ‘pod’ in ‘podcasting.’

The ability to listen to these recordings – also referred to as ‘internet radio shows’ – on a portable digital player (not only an iPod) has great appeal for many people. No longer are you tied to broadcast schedules and fixed places to listen. Now, you can choose exactly when and where you listen. On your daily commute, driving to the shopping mall, on a plane, or even on the exercise bike or treadmill.

The choices of time and place are entirely yours.

The rapid growth in popularity of podcasts and podcasting has been astonishing since the groundbreaking work by Curry and others in late summer 2004 – just eight short months ago.

Such rapid growth has been driven primarily by three factors:

  1. Because it is easy: to create a podcast, all you need is a PC, a microphone, a network connection, some free recording software and a bit of imagination.
  2. It enables you to create and publish audio material that, before, would have needed to be done in a recording studio with professional equipment and often complex production processes.
  3. The explosive growth in ownership and use of digital music players, notably the iPod.

Today, you can find podcasts that cover almost any subject you can imagine.

Do you support the Red Sox, or have an interest in Australian Rules football? There are podcasts on these topics that might interest you.

Perhaps you make your own wine? Or would like news and analysis on the oil and gas industry? There are podcasts.

Small business advice in the UK? Some insight into the Catholic church? Yep, there are podcasts. And all of them are free.

More organizations are paying attention to this new communication medium, and beginning to experiment with it.

They’re asking themselves questions like: how can we use this tool to reach out to our customers.

Perhaps the most prominent company to have taken up podcasting and embraced it, together with weblogs, as an integral element of the new ways in which they are building relationships with their customers is General Motors.

In February, GM began their experiment by creating podcasts that were interviews with GM executives on the launch of new car models. Since then, GM has produced other podcasts, all to do with their cars. The reactions of customers and car enthusiasts have been highly positive and receptive, and enabled GM to gain invaluable feedback from listeners to the podcasts – feedback they would not have obtained otherwise.

But you don’t need to be GM to see the value such a communication channel could present to almost any business as part of overall communication and developing more effective relationships with stakeholders of all types.

Here are three other examples of how podcasts could be used:

  • A weekly 15-minute business update for employees spoken by the CEO: employees worldwide ‘subscribe’ to receive the podcast via the company intranet (or, better yet, from the CEO’s weblog).
  • New product announcement: traditional product info on the public marketing website, press release goes out – and there’s also a podcast which contains an informal interview (a conversation) between, say, a customer and one of the men or women in the factory who made the product.
  • The sales director records an occasional podcast for her geographically-dispersed sales team with tips and tricks on, say, how to close deals with certain types of customers; the podcast is available from the sales intranet as additional information to complement other, more formal, sales collateral.

These are simple examples, yet you can probably imagine how effective a podcast could be in such situations as a complement to other communication channels.

Hearing the voice of a CEO or factory employee or sales director adds a human and informal touch to what’s often the formalness of organizational communication, which can be a powerful emotional influencer on internal and external audiences alike.

But it’s not only companies looking closely at podcasts as communication tools.

Broadcasters and other mainstream media are also diving in as the growth in podcasting looks like picking up even more steam as the technology gets even easier and the means to listen – the digital players – get better and cheaper.

They’re seeing the writing on the wall as trends show an increasing shift in listening habits away from traditional broadcasting towards internet-based media. Indeed, some radio stations, notably in the US and the UK, are already beginning to offer some of their programming as podcasts. You can certainly expect to see more of that.

Now some politicians in the US are jumping on the bandwagon, so to speak, and launching podcasts. So there’s no escape!

Whether at work or play, you won’t be able to ignore this communication channel for much longer.

[First published on 9 May 2005 in CW Bulletin, the monthly online supplement to Communication World, the magazine for IABC members.]