Thursday, June 30, 2005

Apologies if you heard a "Your license has expired" message yesterday

If you listened to audio from Talkr yesterday, you may have heard an audio file that began with the message "Your license has expired". This was caused by a mixup with our speech synthesis vendor, and is not an attempt to nag our listeners into becoming paid subscribers.

Our previous license expires on June 30th, and so earlier in the week we requested a new license from our vendor. However, our vendor misspelled the name of the license file, and we did not catch this when we removed the old license and installed the new one. We ran our suite of unit tests which saw that audio files were created, and we patted ourselves on the back for an easy upgrade.

Our mistake. Our speech synthesis software adds a nag message to the beginning of each audio file if you don't have a valid license -- but it still creates the file. So all of our tests passed, but the audio files were wrong. We have now added a step to our QA process to generate an audio file and actually listen to it -- rather than simply validating that it is binary, has a non-zero size, and has the correct file extension.

Our apologies -- we should have caught this.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Does podcasting threaten radio?

Think back, if you will, to 1993, when the first web browser was released. Imagine that a very wise friend had pulled you aside and told you that the internet would create a vast amount of wealth over the next decade. And then imagine that this friend had asked you to speculate on which companies were likely to benefit. You might well have concluded that newspapers were extraordinarily well-placed to capitalize on this new medium. Newspapers had earned the trust of their local (and often national and international) readers; they owned the rights to volumes of engaging and thoughtful text content; and they had developed an enviable content-creation process. In addition, they had essentially cornered the market on classified ads for job, rental, real estate and yard-sale style ads. This gave them both method and motive to become major players in the coming internet boom.

Yet, while the newspaper industry averaged profit margins of around 20% in 2004, the internet boom largely passed them by. Newspaper circulation is in decline, and readers are as likely to get their news from an internet portal as from their hometown paper. Furthermore, several of the best-known internet brands (such as eBay, Craigslist and Monster) have largely supplanted newspaper classifieds.

At least two of the trends that explain newspapers' inability to capitalize on the internet (1. readers' preference for niche-content; and 2. the development of extremely fine-grained advertising metrics) will wreak havoc on the radio industry's attempts to take advantage of podcasting.

One of the most consistent trends over the last decade has been the explosion in the number of news and information sources. Television networks expanded from 3 to a few tens to hundreds (and if Google has their way, perhaps to millions) of channels. Text news sources expanded from a handful of major papers to millions of blogs. The underlying trend is a consistent and voracious appetite for niche-content. Radio, however, has been insulated from this trend, because until recently there has been no distribution channel for niche-content audio. The first cracks in this foundation were the satellite radio companies, which offer hundreds of channels. Yet if the rise of the internet is a reasonable analogy, once the enabling technology is widely available, listeners will demand thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of audio channels.

A second trend is the rise of extremely fine-grained classified ad reporting metrics. Companies that enable online advertisements (such as Google and Overture) provide advertisers with extremely detailed advertising metrics on click thru rates, costs per click and costs per conversion. Online advertisers can use these tools to quickly and cheaply iterate through a series of advertisements, improving them on each cycle. Newspapers had no way to match these statistics, and advertisers have shifted online in droves. Radio, of course, has never had to face this threat, because there has been no competition. And, to be fair, the advertisers that are currently underwriting podcasts are doing so on metrics which are almost certainly less credible than those offered by the radio industry. However, as mp3 players are integrated into more powerful palmtop devices, fine-grained tracking will inevitably follow. (I would go so far as to speculate that users will soon accept fine-grained (if somewhat anonymous) tracking of their phone usage in exchange for free phone calls. Phone companies, in turn, will turn that tracking into a powerful mechanism for improving advertising metrics.) Advertisers will not hesitate to convert from broad demographic ad buys to niche-content based ad buys with good conversion statistics.

Where does that leave radio? At worst it leaves them with few listeners and fewer advertisers. While other scenarios are certainly possible, radio execs have to deal with two basic facts: over the next few years users will demand unlimited options when it comes to content and advertisers will demand perfect information.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Audible introduces its new podcasting features

I have written elsewhere about dipping its toes into podcasting. Audible has released an introduction to its soon-to-be-released podcasting functionality:

Audible now offers content producers the infrastructure for circulation control, paid subscriptions and advertising management needed to effortlessly produce and manage podcasting - and turn that audio content into predictable, incremental revenue.

Full announcement to follow next week at Gnomedex. (In fact between announcements from Apple, Audible and who knows else, Gnomedex is shaping up to be a watershed event in the popularization of podcasting.)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Recent changes at Talkr

One of the pleasures of a startup is that you can invent and implement in quick release cycles. Here are a few of the updates that we have released to Talkr in the last week.

Perhaps most noticeable is a new look and feel on the homepage and secondary pages. We moved several of the feeds from the free audio page to the homepage so that people can get a sense of Talkr's functionality without having to click deeper into the site.

We have also changed our subscription policy -- in addition to the free audio feeds, you can now listen to any three feeds for free. So if you want to hear how your own blog will sound, submit it on our Search for Feeds page, create a free membership, and get out your iPod.

Finally, we have been getting lots of requests from people that are interested in having Talkr host a podcast of their blog. You can now submit your blog for inclusion in Talkr Partners -- our free program to podcast text-only blogs.

If you have other feature requests, please don't hesitate to contact us, or leave your requests as comments to this post.