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You could call it the Headline Conundrum. Or maybe Sound-Bite Logic. Whatever the term, there’s a regular problem with journalism related to the brevity of space to explain a complex issue or finding. A recent survey by Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 12% of Internet users have downloaded a podcast, up from 7% who said they did the same thing in a similar survey six months before. But as for people who download podcasts on a daily basis, the number was a tiny 1%.

In summation, you could say that a large number of people have now downloaded a podcast — about 17 million people as of August 2006 — but that only about 1.4 million people download as a regular habit. It’s a classic case of good news and bad news, but how do you convey that in a headline that can only have a limited number of words? A quick glance at Google News shows the wide range of conclusions drawn by stories covering the survey results. Here are some headlines culled from that search, listed in order of positivity to negativity:

34 Million Ears Perked for Podcasts from eMarketer

Pew: Podcast Audience Doubles from MediaPost

What Podcasting Revolution? from BusinessWeek

Podcasting’s 15 Minutes Almost Up from MarketingShift blog

Podcasting Falls on Deaf Ears from PC Authority

My attempt at a headline on the topic isn’t exactly stellar either: “Podcast Audience Small But Growing…Enough?” But you can’t make this a headline: “Pew Survey Shows that More People Download Podcasts But Not Many Do It Regularly and We Don’t Even Know If They’re Listening To Them.” This survey is as deficient as most other surveys on the subject of podcasting, leaving us with more questions than answers.

OK, millions of people are downloading podcasts, but do they eventually listen to or watch them? How often? And do they listen to podcasts online with streaming audio instead of downloading them? And do they listen to the whole thing or just bits and pieces? It seems like every piece of data we get about podcast usage spawns more questions.

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I emailed Mary Madden (pictured here), the Pew researcher who put together the podcast report, and she said one of the problems is that the survey sample size is so small that they couldn’t delve down into more detailed questions, though that will change in the future.

“One of the challenges in this particular research area is that much of the work that’s being done is not publicly available to your average aspiring podcaster,” she said. “And while individual podcasters often have a pretty good sense of how many users subscribe to and receive their podcasts regularly, it’s more difficult to know how many of their users actually follow through and listen to or watch the shows they are subscribing to.

“There’s also more interesting research to be done that would identify how often people are listening to podcasts at their PC versus moving them to portable players. I would personally also like to know more about the afterlife of podcasted files. Do users view the shows as ephemeral content that should be deleted once it’s viewed, or are users saving most of what they acquire? Are some users wary of subscribing to podcasts because it feels like just another onslaught of digital information for them to manage in their daily life?”

As for the wide range of interpretations the media has made of the Pew numbers, Madden notes that the audience for podcast downloads is still relatively small compared to other online activies such as getting news (68% of Net users do this) or downloading computer programs (39%). So there’s some truth to the negative viewpoints. But, the podcast audience is certainly growing, and Madden attributes that to the growth in the number of portable audio players — from 11% of adults in January 2005 to 20% in April 2006.

Part of the problem with Sound-Bite Logic is that the media has a tendency to latch on to tech trends as the Next Big Thing, and breathlessly report that the radio world will be transformed overnight by podcasting. Just like the hype that accompanied the dot-com boom — “the Internet will make all old media obsolete!” — this new round of hype around podcasting did not come to pass right away, though things could change over a period of years.

My gut feeling is that podcasting still has a lot of potential, but that the entire process for subscribing, uploading and managing podcast content needs to be streamlined and simplified to gain more mainstream usage. Madden also brings up the possibility that podcasting has many other media to compete with, and that there’s some confusion among the public about podcasting being tied exclusively to iPods (something Apple probably doesn’t mind).

“Even though finding, sampling and subscribing to podcasts has become much easier for the average user in recent years, and there’s much more content being offered via podcasts, podcasters are competing with a wide array of other compelling ways to time-shift media consumption,” she told me. “TiVo, YouTube, and satellite radio recorders are all, on the one hand, contributing to consumer demand for flexibility, but they’re also taking some time and attention away from consumers that might otherwise be interested in seeking out podcasted material.

“I also suspect that there’s still some hesitancy on the part of consumers who might assume that having an iPod is a prerequisite to listening to or viewing podcasts. With so many DRM restrictions on digital content today, and so many interoperability problems with audio files in particular, some potential podcast consumers may not yet realize just how much content is available to them for free.”

What do you think? Do you see a glass half full or half empty in the realm of podcasts? Have they failed to live up to their promise, or will podcasts catch on more broadly in the long term? Are you a loyal podcast downloader, or do you think it’s all a waste of time? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Thanks to Howard Owens’ comment below, I’ve updated my headline to question whether the podcast audience is really growing enough. I think that’s the key question, and worth putting up top. It could well be a long slow road to something else, perhaps something easier than what exists today…

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