It’s one of the great questions of our time (or at least this past weekend): Is a podcast a podcast if it isn’t an MP3? Internet audio pioneer Audible set off the debate on Friday when it announced it would enable podcasters to distribute their work in its proprietary, and trackable, .aa format, facilitating advertising and paid subscriptions. Dave Winer declared that “if you’re not using MP3, you’re probably trying to make podcasting into a replay of previous media.” Om Malik accused Audible of “trying to hijack a popular trend.” Mitch Ratcliffe, who helped Audible develop the service, shot back, arguing that the denunciation of “any departure from the basic technology of MP3 and the business model of ‘no commerce has its claws in us’ is like trying to freeze broadcasting in the era of amplitude modulated low-power broadcasts.”
I find it hard to see Audible’s move as a horrible thing. If its Wordcast service (as it calls it) or the associated pricing model is flawed, then it will flop. If it succeeds, then it, by definition, has value – for content creators or consumers or both. You can’t hijack a trend without the market’s blessing. In any event, it’s hard to see how, as Winer fears, the Audible service threatens the ability of regular folks to continue to distribute podcasts as MP3s, free and without advertising. I, like most people, can play both MP3 files and .aa files on my computer and my portable player, and that’s not going to change.
Amateurs should, and will, be able to disseminate their creations, whether podcasts or songs or blogs or films, over the Internet. But those who hope to make a career of writing or talking or making music or shooting video should be able to protect their work and try to earn a living from it. If we don’t encourage experimentation with profit-making business models (beyond just search-based advertising) – and with rights-management schemes – we’ll end up restricting the creation of web media to amateurs, particularly amateurs of means. And we’ll end up with mediocrity. The greatest content is not created by those who do it just for love; it’s created by those who are so dedicated to their craft that they have no choice but to do it for both love and money.