Talk Radio: Why This Last Old Media Frontier Is Finally Shifting Digital

When I was living in Australia in 1995, I got hooked on the sport of Formula One. Unfortunately, when I got back to the U.S., I realized that I might be the only person in the country interested in the sport. Races aired in the middle of the night on random TV channels, and no newspapers or radio stations covered the sport. Fast forward to the present: I watch the races on-demand, follow my favorite racers and news on Twitter, and listen to Formula One podcasts on Stitcher. Praise the almighty Internet!

In the last decade, we’ve seen the Internet dramatically impact the newspaper, television and music industries. Everything is delivered where and when we want it, and it’s personalized for each of us. But there’s one segment of media that hasn’t yet converted: talk radio. While many of us have favorite news, sports, and entertainment programs, we don’t listen to that content through the Internet in the same way and with the same frequency that we listen to music.

That’s all beginning to change, with services like Stitcher and, to some extent, with Pandora’s new comedy programming — and it’s with good reason. Talk radio represents 35 percent of all terrestrial radio listening. It’s a $5 billion piece of the $15 billion radio advertising market. So why is this part of the market the last holdout of the Internet revolution? Why are we only beginning to see the familiar digital shift in talk radio now? For this segment of the market, unlike news, television, and music, Internet access isn’t the key to adoption — mobile Internet access is.

All That’s Old is New Again…

Podcasting was the first embodiment of talk programming on the Internet, and its emergence in 2004 made it easy for tons of individual creators to produce hours upon hours of content and deliver it on-demand. But podcasting quickly hit a consumer adoption hurdle because most people simply were not willing to deal with the hassle of downloading and syncing their iPods or other devices every day to get fresh content or to sit in front of their computer for significant periods of time to consume the programming and discover new shows.

Like most new media trends that arrive slightly early in a growing economy, podcasting got a very hyped early reception, was then written off when the economy weakened (and it didn’t live up to the hype), and is just now rising from the ashes in a slightly different form, riding better technology. In this case, the better technology is a usable mobile Internet.

The Importance of the Mobile Internet

For companies like Apple, Pandora, and others who pioneered on-demand music listening, having either mobile capabilities or Internet access was important, but the combination of the two wasn’t necessary. You could download a large playlist from iTunes and listen to hours of content without an Internet connection, or you could receive fresh music from Internet radio stations while sitting at a desk doing work.

Talk is different. Talk programming requires continuous updating for fresh content; it needs to be delivered on-demand when we want to listen to a program; and it must follow us around during all those times that our bodies are occupied but our minds are free: in the car, making dinner, working out.

Today, every mobile phone or iPad that is connected to the Internet acts like a personal radio, and we carry these devices nearly 24 hours a day. That opens tremendous opportunities for both listeners and producers of talk programming who now have a viable platform for consuming and distributing this content. And with the advances car companies like Ford and GM are making, this mobile access will extend to the car where listening to your favorite audio content on-demand will be available with a simple voice command.

Where We Are Headed

As technology makes it easier for listeners to consume talk content, podcasting and the talk format are being reinvigorated. We are seeing content producers -– comedians, sportscasters, entertainers, and more -– finding new homes for their programming and extending their brands across the Internet. From WNYC’s hit podcast RadioLab, to Kevin Smith’s Smodcast Internet Radio, producers are reaching new audiences by giving their shows a wider distribution across multiple Internet platforms. Content producers already distribute more than 20,000 new episodes through Stitcher each week.

Whether you’re into Formula One or Nascar, or the thousands of other topics that are available through talk programming, you’ll be seeing even more ways to access this content, and more importantly, you’ll be seeing new ways to discover other great programming based on your listening preferences. Internet radio allows for so many more choices in audio programming than a random turn of the radio dial. It’s about time we’re seeing these benefits in the talk category.

Noah Shanok is the founder and CEO of Stitcher, which delivers on-demand talk programming to mobile phones and iPads.

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