Thursday, February 28, 2008

Have podcast, will travel


On a wall in the Vancouver offices of CBC Radio 3 hangs a map of the world with pushpins sticking out of it. Each pin represents a person who has written to Grant Lawrence (pictured here), host of The CBC Radio 3 Podcast. When I interviewed Lawrence earlier this month, he proudly pointed out pins marking faraway places such as Iceland, Germany, India, and Easter Island.

One listener, Lawrence reflected while sitting on a couch in the Radio 3 lounge area, had downloaded the podcast to her iPod in an Internet café in Mongolia, and then listened to the show hundreds of feet underground while working in a uranium mine. When she’s on hiatus, she lives a few blocks from Lawrence in the West End. Canadians can be found everywhere in the world, and for many of them The CBC Radio 3 Podcast is a lifeline to their home country and its unique musical culture.

What's a podcast?

The term podcast comes from combining iPod (the Apple computer term that itself comes from “portable on demand”) and broadcast, and refers to the content and distribution. A podcast is a program—usually audio, but increasingly video—that can be automatically syndicated to an audience. The first podcasts appeared in 2004, but the format’s surge in popularity in 2005 led the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary to declare "podcast" the word of the year that year.

The CBC Radio 3 Podcast was a first for the public broadcaster. Steve Pratt, director of radio digital programming and CBC Radio 3, thought there was a good fit between the New Music Canada Web site, which is produced by Radio 3, and the newfangled distribution method. “We wanted more people to hear the music,” Pratt told me in a downtown coffee shop. The artists who were streaming music on New Music Canada owned the rights to their material, so Pratt and his team developed a waiver that asked for permission to podcast that same music.

“Steve Pratt is always thinking way ahead of the game,” Lawrence said. When Pratt suggested that he host a podcast, Lawrence’s response was, “What the hell is that?”

“When I first got here,” Lawrence reminisced, “you edited interviews on reel-to-reel tape and cut it with a razor blade and taped the tape together.” Despite his reluctance, Lawrence started hosting the new program. After a couple of weeks of shows had been produced and made available through a few podcast directories, iTunes came calling. Lawrence’s show was one of the only music podcasts that had legal rights to the music being played, Pratt explained, and the Apple initiative was doing everything it could to promote sales of the now-ubiquitous iPod. iTunes promoted the CBC Radio 3 Podcast by putting it on iTunes Stores’ front pages in territories around the world, and the downloads went from 400 to 20,000 overnight.

CBC Radio 3 Podcast appeals around the world

“The thing that blew us away,” Pratt admitted, “is that it’s all over the world. We realized half our downloads were coming from outside Canada. There are fans of indie music around the world who just like that music, and we’ve got a great reputation around the world for a killer music scene.”

“For whatever reason, it’s clicked with people,” Lawrence said. “Radio is a fairly intimate genre, and the podcast is even more intimate because generally people listen on their headphones, so it’s straight into their head.”

His podcast was the only CBC offering for about 18 months, but as the show’s popularity continued to grow, more Radio 3 podcasts were introduced: Sessions is an in-studio series with Canadian bands hosted by Tariq Hussain; New Music Canada Track of the Day is, well, a track of the day; and The R3-30, a weekly chart show hosted by Craig Norris and producer Pedro Mendes, has picked up steam in the past year. Each week, Pratt said, between 100,000 and 120,000 Radio 3 podcasts are downloaded.

CBC builds on podcast success

In the past year, there has been an explosion of CBC podcasts, from both radio and television. Most, like Definitely Not the Opera, Quirks and Quarks, the Hour, and the National, simply strip out elements that the CBC doesn’t have permission to podcast, and repurpose their broadcasts in podcast form. The CBC Radio 3 podcasts are different because they are produced specifically for that purpose.

“We are a world leader in podcasting,” said Pratt, who in addition to being the head of Radio 3 is also responsible for all CBC Radio podcasts. “There are about 50 podcasts that you can get from CBC, and they are all doing really well. There’s a growing audience every week that chooses to get their CBC programming that way. We feel like we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Although CBC programming decisions don’t rest on how “podcastable” a potential show is, Pratt said that from day one of program development, “We talk about the different platforms that a show can live on, and we talk about music rights, we talk about the way the show can be produced so that we can put it out as a podcast as well as a regular program.”

New CBC Radio shows like Search Engine and Spark typify this kind of thinking. These shows, Pratt said, were created with multiple platforms in mind: Web site, podcast, and radio show. “We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that they are shows, but they live in a lot of different places,” he said. Other shows, such as Between the Covers, only exist as podcasts.

The catch-22

The problem, Pratt said, is that government funding for CBC Radio doesn’t cover new-media initiatives. Ironically, the dramatic success of the podcasts has threatened their very existence, because the CBC found that it couldn’t afford to continue making them. This Catch-22 wasn’t about to stop Pratt, though. “For us, we feel like this is the future,” he explained. “This is how a whole new group of people are connecting and having their primary connection to the CBC. We need to be here.”

Surveys indicated that not only did audiences value the podcasts, they wanted more of them. However, they didn’t want to pay for the podcasts. They were fine, though, with the idea of sponsorship, so Pratt came up with a plan to fund the podcasts in this way. Listeners, he explained, have given feedback that they appreciate that the sponsor is helping the CBC to produce podcasts.

But you won’t hear sponsorship messages on the Radio 3 podcasts because there’s no system of paying royalties to artists. Pratt said that until the CBC can find a way to compensate artists, Radio 3 won’t be making money off the music podcasts. But his team is working at devising a way for the artists to benefit even more from exposure on the Radio 3 podcasts. “One of the things we’ve heard from the audience is that they want to buy the music easily,” said Pratt, “because there’s not a lot of places to buy this music, especially when you get outside Canada.”

Why podcasts matter to musicians

Despite not being compensated for their songs being podcasted, the Radio 3 shows have become an essential channel of exposure for Canadian musicians. “Every artist,” said Lawrence, “from Feist on down to AIDS Wolf, has seen the benefit of what the podcast can do for them.” The waiver, though, gave some artists pause. Lawrence admitted that it probably seemed like Radio 3 was asking for a lot, wanting to play the songs for free. “What helped,” Lawrence said, “was when the Arcade Fire said, ‘Yeah, you can. We see the benefit of that.’ As soon as we started playing bands like the Arcade Fire and the Weakerthans and the New Pornographers, it opened the floodgates.”

As a founding member of Vancouver band the Smugglers, Lawrence is no stranger to the Canadian independent music scene. He believes that because more people can hear Canadian-made music, the size of the audience for that music has grown.

“There are a lot of very successful independent Canadian bands,” he said, and the difference between now and when he was playing with the Smugglers is access to the music: “MySpace, podcasts, YouTube. Campus radio was limited, because if you drove as far as North Van you’d lose the signal. In this new age, a podcast you can take anywhere in the world. The Arcade Fire had tracks on MySpace about three months before their album came out. There’s just more accessibility, and people share it.”

Canadian albums going gold

The numbers support Lawrence’s claim. Certification of gold records in Canada is performed by the Canadian Recording Industry Association. Selling 50,000 units of a CD in Canada nets a gold award; a platinum comes with 100,000 units sold. In the last seven years, there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of gold or platinum albums by Canadian artists, but what has changed is the range of artists achieving gold status. In 2001, for example, Nickelback, Diana Krall, Our Lady Peace, and Sum 41 went gold. In 2007, gold albums went to the likes of Patrick Watson, Bedouin Soundclash, Feist, and the Arcade Fire.

The difference between CDs and digital albums is also interesting. According to Nielsen SoundScan figures for Canada, the top-selling CD in 2007 was Josh Groban’s Noël, while the top-selling digital album was Feist’s The Reminder. The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible was number four on the digital-album list. There is an obvious difference between what people are buying in bricks-and-mortar stores and what they’re purchasing on-line.

Lawrence said the biggest impact his podcast has had is that he no longer has to explain what Radio 3 is. “The podcast was our first real bona fide success that crossed over into mainstream,” he said. “We’d been waiting a long time for something to click.” According to Pratt, what helped was thinking of Radio 3 as a content group, rather than a division defined by any particular platform. “We’ve really focused on being experts in new Canadian music, and we want to be where it matters to our audience.” On the Web, on satellite radio, or on podcast, Radio 3 is there.

Despite his early reticence, Lawrence has become a believer in podcasts: “I really treasure the show. We have a fantastic audience.” He talks about the audience’s passion for the music and the show, their patriotism for Canada, the fact that podcast listeners are people who seek out new things and are on the go. He thinks the podcasts tap into a collective consciousness. That his podcast has clicked with people, to the point where there have been close to 10 million downloads, continues to surprise him.

“We had one girl walk across Spain while listening to the podcast,” Lawrence said. “They all send us pictures too, so we have all these pictures of all these people doing these amazing things all over the world, and we’re the soundtrack to their life.”

[originally published in the Georgia Straight]

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4 comments:

c.deluxx said...
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Blaine Kyllo said...
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c.deluxx said...
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rawbean said...

It's weird, just the other day I went for lunch with a friend and he asked me what a podcast was. I think I looked at him like he just got back from the moon.

Anyways, my guilty pleasure is quirks and quarks. It makes me feel smart.