I’ve been thinking about something my brother said in a comment earlier today. In part, he said:
Radio guys will always be amongst the most hungry for ratings. They are taught to be, it is how they make their money in radio.
I also think that part of the friction comes from podcasters naturally rejecting the imposition of the old system on this one. For the FTL guys, being number one isn’t a source of validation from the podcasting community, it’s a marketing ploy.
I think he is correct. The Podcast Alley fracas is mostly culture clash between the old methods and the new context. The more I think about this, the more I think the focus on the sheer size of listenership is taking the worst of the old situation and applying it to the new world. We don’t need to think in channel-limited scarcity mode any more. It made sense when you could only have so many FM or AM channels max in any market, but it doesn’t make sense when you have a nearly infinite variety of channels. The FTL crowd sees an ordered list and wants to be higher on it, because that’s all they understand. They say as much in another comment here:
As far as I’m concerned, since podcast alley is the only podcast site worth mentioning, us being #2 there does indeed make us the #2 podcast in the world. It really doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is what the media thinks.
These guys think that although no one knew about them in the podcast context a week or two ago, the fact that they have successfully manipulated weaknesses in Podcast Alley voting is the same as being good. That’s an awfully cynical interpretation of the situation and it comes from radio thinking. If you are ranked #4 in a market, you want to be ranked #3 and then #2 and #1. To them, Podcast Alley is nirvana. It’s just like an Arbitron rating, except you can tell visitors to your forum to fuck with it. Awesome! The problem is that in the radio world this class of metric has meaning and in the podcast world it does not. Podcasting has no scarcity in the transmission channel, but it does in that top ten list. It’s time to stop trying to reestablish scarcity points and start focussing on the natural abundance of the medium.
What I want to start thinking about is not Podcast Alley rankings or the size of the audience for any individual podcast, but the quality of that audience. It may not matter if you have 50,000 people listening. If you have 500 listeners, but they are 500 that are all movers and shakers, you could well be wielding wildly more influence than a show with 50,000 listeners. The Gillmor Gang has a fewer number of listeners than some of the general appeal podcasts, but because of who those listeners are and their position in the industry, things that are said on that show resonate in the IT world. I have been very gratified to find out that people who I respect and whose work I follow listen to this show. In fact, after I posted about Benjamen Walker the other day, I got email from him that he is a listener. Wow! One of the biggest kicks I get is when I see something quoted around the blogosphere or podosphere that I never wrote but only spoke inside the clambake. It’s weird and heady to see the ripples of your thoughts bouncing around other people’s brains, particularly the smart people you already pay attention to.
Another axis to think about is how much much listeners dig the show. The podcast infrastructure is very open to narrowcasting (I’d go as far as to say it is optimized for it). The popular podcasts in sheer volume of “units shifted” will always be the more general ones. However, a podcast that serves a small niche audience and serves it superbly well will always be lower in total downloads but could be very high in the axis of serving the needs of the listeners. People keep talking about how advertisers and sponsors want to see “big numbers.” I’m not so sure that is the best way. It is certainly not the only way. If a company has a product or service that is related to that niche interest, they might be getting a much better deal in sponsoring that podcast. The high affinity the listeners have for the show coupled with the focus of the interest may make it a great deal and a more efficient use of sponsor dollars that a general purpose show with a huge listenership. Rather than pandering to expectations of what you think sponsors want, try educating them in how high your listener affinity is. Point to the activity in your comments and community, point to your Technorati cosmos and any other way you can see the results of the enthusiasm of your audience.
This more complex kind of analysis is not something that can be readily plugged into a spreadsheet. There are no simple metrics to measure the relative affinity your audience has, or to determine the aggregate influence your listeners wield. In contrast, it is fairly easy to count concurent streams or determine download numbers so that will be what things are based on. This focus on volume, on popularity, on being the top in some ordered list – it all reflects vestigial thinking from the old way of doing things. I want to fight the simplistic thinking and try to keep people digging in and looking for newer better ways to think about and measure.
Until then, I resist the people who are willing to slash and burn in the sake of manipulating ordinal lists. I reject the notion that being #2 in Podcast Alley or in any ranking makes you “the #2 podcast in the world”. There is no such thing. What matters is being the #2 podcast or the #1 podcast for those individuals you care about. In other words it all comes back to what I keep saying – do your best work, put it out there, serve the audience you care about well and then let it ride. Worry about your audience, not your ranking. Eventually everyone will realize the bogosity of the latter and if you burn your karma with the former in pursuit of those rankings, you are screwed.