Sunday, December 31, 2006

To Podcast or Not to Podcast: Part 1

Never in the history of Howard Stern have his fans had so much opportunity to enjoy, wallow in, and be obsessed with his show and universe.

We can listen to his show, repeats of his show, and discussion of his show on live radio 24 hours a day on 2 Sirius channels. We can read about and comment on his show 24 hours a day on the internet on forums such as the Stern Fan Network ( And we can watch videos of his show, and other wacky stuff, 24 hours a day on Howard TV from on-demand cable networks.

So what more do we want?

A lot. We want podcasting. We want to be able to download Howard's show every day, and any other Howard 100 or 101 show, and load it onto our gorgeous iPods.

But that will never happen. Or will it? As usual, it's all up to Howard.

Most indications are that Howard isn't interested in podcasting. Certainly, if he wanted to he could be doing it already. The technology is very simple. He could set up an RSS feed on his website in a heart beat. The iTunes store would welcome him instantly and charge 99 cents for each show. But instead Howard has said that the Stilleto is a better Christmas gift than the iPod because it comes with content attached as opposed to the iPod which comes empty. (Which is quite true and also applies to the cheaper S50.) So if the Stilleto is better, why would Howard support the iPod? Wouldn't that just hurt Stilleto sales and also Sirius subscription sales?

But podcasting is a technology, and a medium, that no one can just dismiss, even Mr. Howard Stern.

Sirius satellite broadcasting is also great technology, and a great medium, but it can't do everything. (Video for example.) And the Stilleto does some things better than the iPod, and other things worse.

What Sirius does great is broadcasting. What is does best is replace your car radio. Once you get one in your car, you'll never listen to regular radio again. The music is commercial free, the signal is digital and available anywhere in the country, and there is a ton of content instantly available including Howard Stern.

Also, get a Stilleto or a S50 and hook up a home system, and you also have a great replacement for radio listening. Sure, it's a little annoying you need to be connected by wire to an outside antenna, but once you get one hooked up you forget about it. And with the Stilleto you can also listen live over the internet without a wire.

But when it comes to truly portable listening, Sirius can't fully compete with the iPod. Apple's manufacturing and design are just going to be better for the immediate future. (The new iPod shuffle is the size of a match book.) And the fact that the iPod doesn't need an antenna, or the hardware for receiving broadcasting, is always going to mean it will be smaller, and lighter and it's batteries will last longer. Moreover, the iPod isn't simply a listening device. The larger models do video and are basically a small computer with dates, addresses and games. Before long it looks like the iPod will also be offered with phone features. It's unlikely Sirius will be able to catch up to it for years to come.

On top of that, Sirius hardware, at least now, isn't good at time shifting. Technically, you can program your Stilleto to record a program at a certain time and date, and even repeat that every week. But it's kind of a pain in the ass to do. Most people can't program their VCR's, so it's not likely that feature is going to be used much. Moreover, if you are moving your Stilleto back and forth from your car (which is it's best use) you have to remember to pull it out and put it back in it's receiver so it can record a show for you later. It's a pain and it's why I have never been able to record and listen to Reilly Martin's crazy show on Howard 101, despite the fact that I keep wanting to.

Podcasting is not broadcasting. It's entire strength is in time shifting, or more importantly, audio on demand. You get what you want when you want it very easily with no programming. You simply go to an internet site, copy the RSS feed, and iTune's takes it from there. Or if the podcast is on iTunes, you simply click and it is instantly sent to you, and you can instantly subscribe. Right now, Sirius simply can't compete with podcasting for that kind of convenience.

If Howard were to put his daily show up on iTunes, and charge 99 cents an episode, it would instantly be the hottest thing on the iTunes store. He would get millions of hits and since most of the money collected by Apple goes to the owner of the recording, it could mean millions in revenue a week.

But wouldn't that just cannibalize sales of Sirius hardware and subscriptions? I don't think so. In fact, I think there is an argument to be made that it might help increase Sirius sales and market share. That's because the iPod also has limitations. It does not receive broadcasting, Sirius's strength. And it doesn't work so well in a car, it's kind of a pain in the ass to hook it up. Also, when you're driving you time shifting isn't so much of an issue. It's like the difference between watching broadcast TV and playing a DVD. When you watch TV you expect something, anything to be on, and then you can surf around to see what you like. This is also a strong strength of Sirius. It's great for surfing because it offers so many channels. While driving your mood changes and sometimes you want to listen to music, sometimes to news, or to Howard. (Mostly Howard.) This is one of the reasons that Howard quickly found out that repeats of his show were more popular than putting on other shows that he produced that weren't up to the quality of his main broadcast. When you're broadcasting repeating your best stuff over and over works better than having a large variety of material of various quality.

Moreover, from a simply economic standpoint, Sirius is a much better value than buying content off iTunes. At 99 cents a show, a fan would be paying about 30 dollars a month for just a small part of the Howard content they get from Sirius at $12.95 a month (and it's even cheaper for longer subscriptions). Making the show available might actually increase the value of Sirius in the eyes of Howard's fans. The beauty of this is that fans who don't have a lot of money would quickly realize it is cheaper to subscribe to Sirius. Fans who do have money would probably pay twice. They would have a subscription for use in their car and also download shows onto their computers for portable use.

So if it makes so much sense, why doesn't Howard do it? We'll talk about that in Part Two of this article. (Hey! I'm trying to post more often and I'm long winded! Give me a fucking break!)

Mary DeSade

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