01 July 2011

The Problem with Podcasts Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the problems with language learning podcasts.  I said the problem was that they modelled themselves on the form of radio programmes, and I stand by that, but I've been listening to a few podcasts since and I think there's another problem podcasts suffer, and it's maybe even more fundamental to the problem.

Podcasts are in a very awkward position when it comes to monetising their business, because their core product in fact doubles up as their primary marketing tool.

Basically, the main podcast is almost always free, and the podcasters make their money out of various add-ons: transcripts, grammar notes, flashcards, games etc.  That means that the core podcast has to continually remind the listener to go to the website.

Compare this with Pimsleur or Michel Thomas -- these courses do not need to constantly remind you what you're listening to.  Any announcements on these courses are merely as a sort of index ("advanced Spanish with Michel Thomas recording 2") or for copyright purposes.  Why so?  Because you've already bought it -- there's no need for the publisher to go chasing you for cash.

But with the podcasts, buying it doesn't stop you hearing the marketing, becuase even if you're a premium user, you get the same podcast: jingles, banter, visit-our-website messages and all.

So the problem with podcasts is a business model that goes counter to all good sense: the product actually has to be made worse in order to sell it.

And another problem with (some) podcasts

Now, not all podcasts fall into this trap, but there are several major podcasts who have made an interesting decision: subscribe and get full access to the back catalogue.  This really skews the sense of value.  JapanesePod101.com, for example, has been going for several years, and during May I downloaded seven thousand nine hundred and eighty three files covering approximately two thousand individual podcasts along with their supplementary materials on a trial offer that cost next to nothing ($1 IIRC).  Every subsequent month I would have had to pay the full subscription price, and I would have got less than twenty podcasts for that, and those 20 podcasts are over several different levels, so I'm not going to be able to use more than about 5 of them in that month.

Basically, there really is no need for anyone to subscribe for longer than a month or two, because the 17 continuous days of audio and video you get for that really isn't improved on by an extra hour or two.

This also splashes back with a secondary effect for the producers, Innovative Language Learning, because they are constantly increasing the range of --Pod101.com languages, in order to cash in on their brand.  But having got 17.2 days of podcasts for $1, where am I going to see the value in subscribing to something like PolishPod101.com, which only offers so far about 4-5 hours of phrases for absolute beginners (in 3 to 11 minute chunks, replete with the annoying jingles and banter I complained about last time) and 10 episodes of an advanced audio blog, none of which is over 5 minutes long.  There's nothing in the beginner or intermediate levels, and the advanced level hasn't had a new episode since September.  Basically, all they're offering right now is a talking phrasebook that gives you half a dozen phrase per week (if that!) and wants you to pay $10 a month for the priviledge.  This is not good value.

There is no link between cost and volume of material.  There is no guarantee of receiving any new material.  In fact, when you sign up for the "Free lifetime account", they immediately give you an "once in a lifetime" special offer on the full subscription price without giving you any opportunity to see exactly what content you're paying for.  You have to buy it "sight unseen".  You don't know how little they're offering.  You don't know whether they offer anything at your level, and they expect you to pay.  I'm sure in their heads the low level of content is justified by the low number of subscribers, but come on guys, your subscribers aren't a collective -- they're individuals, and your responsibility is to each one individually.  Don't treat them like sh*t, or it reflects on you.  It's up to the company to invest in the product.  Don't sell it until you've made it.


Mark said...

On a related note, I've been given some money by the Soillse small project fund to raise awareness of podcasting among the Glasgow Uni undergrads, and to encourage them to build a Gaelic podcasting scene. Have you come across any Gaelic-medium podcasts? Apart from the BBC ones?

Nìall Beag said...

Sorry Mark, I've not heard of any, and to be honest, I wouldn't expect to have.

Podcasting is a minority pursuit in any sphere, because it's not easy to plan, script and record all that material. General interest and news podcasts seem to mostly be professional things, anyway.

I'm guessing most of your money's going to go on hiring studio time and training through the student radio society and/or Celtic Music Radio.

But my biggest concern would be subject matter. As I say, most podcasting is a minority pursuit, and in particular, amateur podcasts tend to be on minority interest topics. I'm worried that the talk of "Gaelic podcasting" ignores the crucial issue of "topic" - what do people have to talk about that a lot of Gaelic-speakers will be interested in?

Mark said...

Thanks Niall. The kind of thing I have in mind is strictly amateur podcasting, recorded unscripted in small cupboards! To give an example, for the past five years I've kept up my German simply by listening (among others) to "Schlaflos in München" - a half-hour weekly podcast by a German woman who records it in her wardrobe without a script, just talking about what she is doing that particular week. For an intermediate to advanced language learner, having access to loads of spontaneous audio is a godsend, and I'm interested in seeing if we can get that for Gaelic. In other words, the subject matter is less important than the medium.

Nìall Beag said...

I've started a thread on Fòram na Gàidhlig to see if anyone there knows about anything. Gaelcast got a mention there, but I think it was done by learners, and hasn't been updated in a year.