Posted by: lrrp | May 8, 2007

Web 2.0 – The power shift

There is little wonder that public broadcasters are usually backed by big companies or governments because it’s a brutally expensive and complicated business. So is broadcasting over the Internet any different? Well, to begin with, streaming audio or video over the Internet requires enormous amounts of bandwidth, a lot of storage and super fast web servers to handle the requests for your content – all over and beyond the proper facilities and resources to produce your broadcast. The challenge for individuals like you and me is to find the capital, the technical and legal expertise and then run it profitably!

So what if you can’t afford it? That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for you. There are plenty of ways you can still make your voice heard and talent displayed – literally! One way to do it is podcasting. The term was coined by journalist Ben Hammersley and although originally derived from combining “broadcasting” and “iPod”, this has become something of a misnomer as podcasts can be listened to on any digital music player, including computers of course.

It was added to the online version of the Oxford dictionary in early 2006. Podcasting involves recording a complete audio file that’s made available for listeners to download and play at their leisure, either on their PC or, more commonly, an MP3 player. A podcast is cheap to create. You don’t need expensive streaming-capable web hosting; any web space big enough to hold your podcast file will do. Most podcasts are produced in front of a computer in their user’s bedroom or garage using simple microphones and free audio-editing software.

The first podcasters are generally accepted to have been former MTV presenter Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer, both of whom in 2001 began producing what we now know as “podcasts” – to a tiny audience. The inclusion of podcasts in the iTunes store a couple of years ago led to an overnight explosion in podcast production and downloads and brought the medium out from a geeky niche to a mass audience. The iTunes Store provided the simple means to both find podcasts and download the content and, if used in conjunction with an iPod, even downloading the content on to your device could be automated.

However, the mainstream access to podcasts brought with it interest from established media giants and a quick look through the iTunes Store will show amateur podcasters sitting side-by-side with content from broadcasting and publishing giants.

Like blogs, anyone can have a podcast. There are a lot of podcasts out there that air to only a handful of people, and a lot of poor-quality podcasts alongside the very good ones. However, despite being a new medium, podcasting has already started to evolve. Soon after audio podcasting became popular, video podcasting emerged. Mainstream broadcasters are making clips and shows available as video podcasts alongside hundreds of successful homebrew video podcasts which have their own faithful followers.

How can the amateur podcasters/video casters hope to compete with the big boys? A glance at the iTunes Store’s top 20 podcasts is enough to confirm that the well-known names are dominating. Yet, for the one-man bands, attracting a niche audience of like-minded listeners can have its own rewards, stealing eyeballs and listeners from traditional mediums. As television advertising executives are finding out, the days of the mass audience are slowly beginning to crumble.

Streaming audio and video was the exclusive medium of the wealthy and powerful broadcasters until Internet players such as YouTube or Google Videos came along allowing anyone to upload their home videos captured on a video camera or even a mobile phone. As we pointed out a few weeks ago, there are still many copyrights and IP issues to be resolved amid all the chaos of the Internet. The undeniable fact however is that technology is changing the way we express ourselves, in a subtle way that still may have cultural as well as political implications in the future.

Is it such a far-fetched idea that the democratisation of mass media may lead to a redefinition of the paradigm of democratic governance? Write in to technopage@gmail.com and share your thoughts.

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