Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is the future of radio and podcasting in video?

Howard Stern recently signed a five-year deal to continue his radio career with Sirius XM. The deal, Stern has said, happened because the company will make significant investment into video capability for his show. Stern envisions a “virtual world” for his listeners and watchers.

Sirius XM’s overall programming offerings may also morph into video, company executives have hinted. It’s unclear what an expanded entertainment service from Sirius XM – for Stern or any other programs – may actually look like, and whether it will be fed through an app. There also has not been any indication so far about whether the cost of Sirius XM service may increase, and by how much.

Meanwhile, Anthony Cumia, who was fired from the “Opie & Anthony” show on Sirius XM in summer 2014, has since begun his own paid video podcast network, available online, as a smartphone app, and also on Roku video boxes, for $6.95 a month, or less for six-month commitments.

These changes raise a big question for radio or podcast format entertainers and hosts. Is the addition of video worthwhile both artistically and financially? In Cumia’s case, is making his show primarily video format enough of an incentive to get subscribers at his asking price? Especially when Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and others, with wide ranges of programs (including a lot of talk shows, in Hulu’s case) and large content libraries, are at a monthly price point that is close to $7, or not much more than that.

Stern has a bigger fan base and higher profile than Cumia, but faces a similar issue if the cost of an expanded video and virtual content offering drives up the asking price of Sirius XM service. In the case of Stern and Sirius, this is mitigated by the presence of other content as part of the service, including content that presumably will be similarly upgraded. The other question with Sirius and Stern, however, is that at about $14.99 a month, its programming offering is still rooted in audio-only fare, such as music channels and talk and interview shows, and its distribution channel (specialized car radios and an app) is more limited than that of Netflix – if the result is that Sirius XM really does become a Netflix competitor in the process of the planned changes.

The paid model now being used by former broadcasters such as Stern and Cumia differs from what most popular podcasters use, a sponsorship-based model that is closer to traditional terrestrial radio. The most popular podcasts are split between those by former broadcasters such as Adam Carolla – or current broadcasters providing expanded versions of their shows on podcasts – like Jesse Thorn or Ira Glass – and comedians turned hosts, like Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick. The free, sponsor-supported podcast model seems even less likely to support video or virtual expansion – but the audio-only nature of its programming may be what makes its appeal so strong.