Yesterday I tweeted a nugget from our upcoming study of digital audio platforms (The Infinite Dial 2010) that revealed one in four Americans had ever hooked their iPod/MP3 player up to their car stereo. This number, to use the technical language of our industry, is frickin' huge. It's huge because one in four cars are not equipped with simple iPod interfaces or docks. Instead, nearly 25% of Americans 12+ (or, more than half of Americans who own an MP3 player) have weathered considerable friction to listen to their devices in their cars. Tens of millions of us have used cassette adapters, crappy FM transmitters and other Rube Goldberg-ian contraptions to hear our own music on our car radios.
What this means, of course, is that far more than one in four of us want to listen to iPods in our cars, and when that process is frictionless and seamless for all of us, that number will explode. If nearly a quarter of all Americans are willing to put up with a jungle of wires coming out of our dashboards just to have more control of our audio content, then the battle for the car speaker is truly on, baby, and it's a whole new ballgame. You can't count terrestrial radio out of this battle, at least as long as the industry continues to lurch its way to some kind of digital future, but the number one online streaming radio provider in the U.S. is currently Pandora, not one of the terrestrial radio giants.
Still, the classic "morning show" is the king of the legendary American exurban commute, and those companies that invest in creating entertainment will find their way onto iPods and mobile phones in vehicles everywhere. Curation is important, but the hits are still the hits. The "morning show" of tomorrow, however, will be less about Duluth or Des Moines and more about World of Warcraft, or Knitting, or a thousand other passionate subject areas that new communities can be aggregated around to form the audience of tomorrow. What in-car access allows those communities is the chance for a shared experience--for those communities to consume that content roughly simultaneously (driving to work) and then to interact online with other people online in a slightly more synchronous fashion than previous podcast audiences. As I've said numerous times in this space and others, if a podcast can be consumed any old time, then there is no particular urgency to do it ever. With in-car iPod listening far higher than previously supposed (and providing a glimpse of even larger latent demand), there may be no better time to rethink podcasting not merely as an adjunct platform to a digital portfolio, but as the centerpiece of a content strategy.
As someone who has chronicled podcasting's growth and usage in this country for the past five years, I've never been more bullish on the potential for podcasted "shows" and other discrete on-demand forms of programming--but continue to be saddened by the demise of so many of podcasting's pioneering companies. Indeed, podcasting's star has waned considerably over the past five years--as social networking has occupied center stage and on-demand streaming has eclipsed subscription downloading, events for enthusiasts like PodCamp have become more about social media than about podcasting per se, while other specialist events like the Podcast and New Media Expo or the Corporate Podcasting Summit are long gone. Yet the consumer demand for podcasts continues to rise, and smart broadcasters like ESPN and NPR continue to see their audiences rise even as the chattering classes abandon podcasts for tweets. Now would be a great time for an enterprising content creator to overtly emphasize the linkage between car stereo and iPod, and start to work building the morning show of tomorrow. There's no better "captive audience" than someone in the car--and no better time for those of you willing to put in the work to seize that audience.
I'm pulling for you.
By the way, for a complete look at our latest study of digital platforms and the future of audio, please register for our free web presentation of The Infinite Dial 2010, which takes place April 8th at 2 PM EST. I'll be co-presenting (along with Arbitron's Bill Rose) and we'll be providing a look at our latest survey of American media and technology usage. If you are at all interested in the future of audio online, I hope you'll be there.