They say that the advent of the blogosphere marked a critical turning point when the little guy, with some moxie and smarts, could start credibly competing against the major newspapers. (Goodbye CNN.com, hello Daily Kos.) Now, with iPods becoming ubiquitous, the corporate media establishment is suddenly finding its position being threatened on a new front. The big television and radio players have to compete today with thousands of podcasters, and while, sure, many sound no better than Wayne & Garth, some podcasters do an expert job and they're winning over new listeners.
Here is a good little case in point. If you look at the 30 most popular podcasts on iTunes, you have many recognizable media brands on the list. HBO, VH1, ESPN, The Economist, NBC, ABC, etc. But sitting in the #3 position is nothing other Coffee Break Spanish (web site), a podcast put together by Mark and Kara (no last names are provided) that helps listeners learn useful bits of Spanish over a daily cup of coffee. And, in two short months, they've had 500,000 downloads. What conclusions can we draw? A very obvious one is that there's an appetite out there to learn foreign languages, particularly Spanish. This is something we figured out when we posted our collection of foreign language lesson podcasts several weeks ago. Then there is the less obvious fact that the digital era has enabled small content providers, with little to no capital, to serve niche markets, which if taken together, can turn out to be quite large. (Chris Andersen has made this general point quite well in his influential article, The Long Tail.) The big media players have long made their living in a utilitarian fashion, producing content that brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number. They couldn't afford to bother with the niches, and this has created the space for the Marks and Karas of the world to do their thing. We're now increasingly living a world of niche markets, fragmented audiences, and small content producers. And the number of small players will only get bigger, and the big players, smaller. Watch out CNN. It's only going to get tougher.