Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Big, But Not Yet Radio Big

Statistics have a way of bringing perspective to the new media conversation. The most notable item of late -- that 10 million NPR podcasts are downloaded each month.

That's a mighty impressive number in the Web 2.0 world. It's a tiny number in radio.

This has been covered before at radiosutton, but it is worth covering again. The average audience for an hour of Morning Edition is just over 2 million listeners. There are typically 10 content elements in each hour of Morning Edition including newscasts on the hour and half hour, top news stories, in-depth features, news analysis, and commentaries.

If each content element is the equivalent of 1 podcast download, then all of the listening during an hour of Morning Edition is the equivalent of 20 million podcast downloads.

That's 20 million downloads for one hour of radio versus 10 million downloads of podcasts in a month.

Of course, podcasting isn't the only new media outlet for public radio content. On-line streaming audiences, small by today's broadcasting standards, will grow, especially when listeners have inexpensive access to wireless streaming in their cars. Podcasting will reach cars wirelessly too.

The first-time I heard of such a thing was from NPR's Senior VP of Engineering Mike Starling. He was telling some folks at NPR that the day would come when listeners could bypass stations by having customized news, weather, traffic, sports, interviews, features, and music sent directly to their cars overnight. The listener would wake up in the morning to a personalized radio station for his commute.

Starling was saying these things back in 1996.

It's a good reminder that ideas and technology are well ahead of commercialization and ubiquitous use. Change is coming, but it is going to be a while before new media comes close usage to matcheing the sheer volume of radio listening.

Even that's not a zero sum game. There's no rule that says public radio has to trade an hour of broadcast listening for an hour of new media consumption.

So the next time someone points to a new trend in new media and uses as an example of how public radio is dying, help them with their math. What's big in new media is still tiny compared to the reach and volume of service public radio provides today.

Next up: Why predictions of the death of public radio's membership model are off base.

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