Previous columns in this series explored briefly the hows and whats of studioless podcasting. This final installment hopes to explain the “why”. Why is studioless podcasting important?
Podcasting represents a radical decentralization of the airwaves that can’t actually take place on the airwaves, for a few reasons.
Most people conceive of FM radio as being one giant mass of differently-formatted radio stations and content providers. In actuality, there are three tiers:
1. FM Commercial Radio Broadcast Stations
2. FM Noncommercial Educational Radio Broadcast Stations
3. Low Power FM (LPFM) Noncommercial Educational Radio Broadcast Stations
The first tier, commercial radio, is your average music, talk and sports programming; the FCC allows commercial radio to potentially take up every slot from 92.1 MHz to 107.9 MHz. The second tier is where “public radio” can be found, and the FCC generally allots 88.1 MHz to 91.9 MHz to public radio stations. This is the realm of NPR and its competitor-partners. The third tier, LPFM stations, are generally smaller community outfits that can cover neighborhoods with their broadcasting power, but little else. They have a smaller budget and don’t operate through NPR; they also tend to hire more amateur and independent producers on a volunteer basis. Due to the low transmission power, it’s rare that these producers can get their work heard by more than a few hundred people at any given moment.
Podcasting does for these producers what national syndication does for Talk of the Nation, Morning Edition and All Things Considered: it gets their work out there to potentially anyone. Of course, the latter shows aren’t exactly done by independent producers, which brings me to the second barrier to entry for radio decentralization: just about every production company operates in the realm of old media.
With one notable exception, the companies that operate and compete in public radio hire much in the same way that a newspaper or television station does; only producers that are credentialed (usually in the form of a college degree followed by so many years interning or working at low-power FM stations) can get even entry-level jobs at National Public Radio, Public Radio International, or American Public Media. This is not a good or bad thing – this is just something that they do. Unfortunately, there’s a side-effect: not everyone currently producing audio has a college degree, and not everyone who wants to be in radio can actually afford to go to college for it; therefore, the demographic of people who are actually working at one of the major content providers tends to be very… monochromatic.
That notable exception? The Public Radio Exchange, or PRX. Its slogan is “Making Public Radio More Public,” and its entire infrastructure is set up for exactly that task. Anyone can sign up as a producer for free, and the entry cost to actually make money with PRX is only $50 a year. Unfortunately, the free producer account has a data upload limit of two hours – not exactly conducive to doing a long-run podcast. Also, there are some technical barriers to using PRX as your main distribution tool – barriers that, if you’re not familiar with the inner workings of public radio, might be very difficult to overcome. Studioless podcasting comes with very few of those barriers; plus, it’s all-online.
This is really the crux of what makes podcasting special: its ability to open up new spaces for more voices in almost infinite capacity. You can podcast for fun or for a living; your success isn’t tied to which market you’re doing the best in and you don’t have to worry about broadcast clocks. You don’t have to worry about your show being canceled because the station lost money or didn’t raise enough in the periodic fundraiser to keep it going. Podcasting is made for everyone.