Sunday, February 03, 2013

Those Who Engage Will Win!

Community Radio in La Plata, Argentina

Understanding community and the economics of thematic production.

If you use the term community broadcasting to most people engaged in professional radio and TV, you usually get a dismissive glance. I often get the retort: "Small stations don't have the resources to make a significant contribution. That's because their audiences are often so small as to be unmeasurable with the techniques used by the market research companies." Community to these people means alternative culture with low reach and restricted programming themes (social campaigning). They dismiss it out of hand as the work of amateurs.

And yet the web is empowering a new generation of niche-casters who are reaching very interesting people - those who influence society because they are engaged in the subject being discussed. Yes, there is rubbish out on the Internet video channels. But much less than the rubbish being pumped into my home through cable and satellite.

I search for programmes which engage me.

I've stopped watching mainstream TV channels in Europe. What they show is always at the wrong time, it's often peppered with commercials about products which don't interest me, and there is no way to influence what comes next on a particular channel. The only option is to switch channels or switch it off. I cancelled cable in 2008, relying on a satellite dish to gather channels that still want to target me as an English speaker. I analyse other channels as part of my work as a strategist. But I don't watch just to pass the time. The TV is never on in the background.

On Demand - Vital for niche

Personally, I've switched to on-demand and that means the majority of the content comes over the Internet, not over the air. My radio is inside my iPad, switching between a great streaming app called Radiotuner (for news and current affairs) and Downcast which is the way I consume features. Downcast goes out and gets radio and TV episodes and then alerts me when they have downloaded. If there's video it shows the video. If it's radio it shows the programme's show notes.




Leo Laporte gave an intriguing keynote at a blogging convention in Las Vegas in early January 2013. I am surprised the organisers didn't give him the award. Because his opening presentation explains exactly when mainstream media fails at retaining an engaged audience.

Laporte started podcasting in 2004. The idea came out of his radio show on KFI AM 640 kHz (The Tech Guy) which is still running. But Laporte could see that big media are only interested in big numbers. If you don't have numbers in the millions, you can never hope to get the attention of those who pay for the production (in Leo's case, advertisers). Big media is great at bringing in large. loosely engaged audiences.

Leo shared some interesting facts about his experiences with netcasting, his word for Podcasting:

The subscription model or paywall doesn't work for information based podcasts in the US. About 2% of the audience donated when Leo tried that in 2005.  It is about 4% for NPR, but they do "begathons" all the time. That meant an income of around US$10,000 that year, not enough to grow the company.

So they started putting ads into shows such as This Week in Tech. These ads are read by the host, clearly identified as a break, and are limited to about 1 every half hour. The ads for Ford Sync, Stamps.com, Citrix, Carbonite, Audible, Go-to-Meeting are usually quite extensive, where they explain the benefits of the service and there's usually an offer to try the service for free. In testing the ads, there is a much higher recall of these ads than on the mainstream networks. Unaided recall for these ads is over 90%.

Do you remember the ads you saw on TV or heard on the radio yesterday? I don't, even if they were amusing. That's because I wasn't engaged. But I can recall the brands that Leo talks about in his shows. 

Revenue figures in 2006 when they were making 4-5 shows a week was- US$300,000. That grew to US$750,000 in 2007, US$1 million in gross sales in 2008, US$3 million in 2009, US$4.5 million in 2010, US$5 million in 2011, US$5.75 million in 2012.

The TWIT network currently has 25 shows, 4 full time hosts, 20 contract hosts and a production/sales staff that totals around 25. They all work out of a studio complex which they hire in Petaluma, north of San Francisco.

The challenge is that the audience of engaged listeners in finite...probably around 200,000 for each genre. But although the numbers are not big by broadcast standards, they are huge for magazines. Programmes that have support of a mainstream media programme (like This American Life).

So where all is this going? 

Most current marketing used in mainstream media is based on techniques developed in the 1920's by Edward Bernays, considered the father of modern Western public relations. He got women to smoke, Americans to eat bacon for breakfast, and engineered the overthrow of the government of Belize! Interested in this? Watch the excellent BBC documentary below - but be warned that the documentary is nearly 4 hours in length!



The Bernays' Secret Commercial Sauce is failing

Modern nichecasters need to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and realise that these techniques don't work with an educated public, especially one that is engaged with the subject you're talking about. It's not for nothing that these successful podcasters make constant use of the chatroom. There around 1000 people in the TWIT chatroom at any one time. On average, for each show, 4000 people watch live and around 180,000 download. The use of video depends on the show. iPaD today is a visual programme. The chat you hear on This Week in Google can often be enjoyed without watching the video.

Other Stats 

In the studio they have 40 fixed consumer-HD cameras, 5 sets built into the same building. which is 10,000 sq ft. They decided to put the money into content production instead of  production technology. They have colleagues who have much bigger budgets. Revision3, which also does tech shows but then more TV-like in their production was recently sold to the Discovery Network for US$40 million. They have a production budget of around US$45,000 dollars an hour, whereas most shows on Discovery TV cost more like US$450,000 an hour.

Hand crafted - artisanal media - is smart media. But it still has challenges to solve. One of them is that it is often difficult to find great stuff that has been poddcast.  Discoverability of audio and video is still poor when compared to text. Leo is looking into bookmarks that might be generated by people tweeting or adding tags (Soundcloud is experimenting with this). This is the weakest part of the TWIT network offering - they make great stuff which you'll never find unless you know it went out.


Main Stream Broadcasters

Mainstream broadcasters will always have mass appeal. Which means the genres where they can continue to command advertising dollars are becoming limited to content with a limited shelf life - news, sports, weather and special events. Expect a lot of material that you consume on-demand to switch to iP-TV instead of ending up as channel 220 on your cable TV. If it can't be found, may be it was never made. Expect a lot of mediumsize cable networks and TV stations to either merge or disappear. When it comes to specialist programming, e.g. tech, science, start-ups, the mainstream media fail big time. I don't want fluff, I want detail.  Generalists at broadcasting stations can never keep up.

The closing remarks from Leo are worth remembering.  Podcast your passion. super serve your audence. In the end, it all comes back to the community. Everyone is a startup in this sector of the media. No-one's done this before.  

Little known fact. 

Media Network on Radio Netherlands and TWIT share a common voice.  Jim Cutler currently does promos for TWIT. I hear a similar sense of humour to the parody commercials and liners he did for Media Network. 
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