Interview: Neville Hobson;

Podcaster

Podcaster

The emerging new media landscape has produced its share of celebrities in all industries, including public relations.

Its latest ascendant stars are Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz, two PR consultants and bloggers who team up for a bi-weekly podcast called "For Immediate Release." The podcasts can be found at www.forimmediaterelease.biz. Hobson's Amsterdam-based blog, NevOn, can be found at www.nevon.net. Hobson responded via e-mail to a number of PRWeek.com's questions about podcasts, his enthusiasm for the medium, and how Europe differs from the US in adopting new trends.

Q: How did you meet Shel Holtz, and what was the basis for starting up "For Immediate Release?" How do you guys plan a particular show?

A: I've known Shel for about 15 years. We first got to know each other via our mutual membership in the International Association of Business Communicators, and our common interest in communication technology. I was in the UK; Shel was in the US. We were also very active in the PR forum on CompuServe in the early 1990s. Although we've known each other all this time, we actually met for the very first time in 2001, at the IABC international conference in New York City.

The idea for starting our podcast emerged in November 2004. Since podcasting burst onto the scene last August, we'd both been talking about this new communication medium on our blogs and thinking what it might mean for public relations and corporate communications. We both had a lot of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We were both avid users of the Skype internet phone service and knew we could do a podcast together using that free service, even with a nine-hour time zone difference. So starting a podcast together to have a weekly discussion, a conversation about PR, communication, business, and technology was a natural thing for us to do. Our first show was on January 3, and we went bi-weekly in early February.

In planning a show, we both keep our eyes and ears open on what we read in our RSS feeds, on blogs, and on websites, as well as what we're exposed to in our day-to-day activities. Now, we also get emails from listeners with topic suggestions. We share our thinking by e-mail and get together on Skype the day before each show to talk through what we plan to talk about. The dedicated prep time for each show is about an hour.

Q: Have you noticed whether Europe has caught up to the US, in terms of adopting new communications strategies?

A: The US remains, by far, the leader in terms of broad business take-up of new communication technologies like blogs, RSS, and podcasting. But interest in Europe is growing fast. The country where we're seeing the most explosive growth is France.

Q: It seems you have a real passion for blogging and podcasting. What exactly is it about these new mediums that you find interesting beyond it being good for your career? What specifically do you enjoy about podcasting?

A: For me, the great appeal with media such as these is how you can employ them as a highly effective way to create and build relationships with people that otherwise would not happen. With a blog, you write commentary and opinion, which, over time, adds up to a broad portrait of you -- the blogger - so that other people get to know quite a bit about you, what your interests are, and how you think. It stimulates conversation that can lead to a meeting of minds. It's the same with podcasting where people get to hear what you sound like and form additional opinions about you. So when you finally get to meet the blogger or podcaster, it's as if you know them already. That's certainly been my experience with the many people I've now met as a result of blogging and podcasting. In many ways, podcasting is just like hosting a radio show, and perhaps that's its appeal for me - I'm fulfilling a secret desire to be a radio talk show host.

Q: Companies like Nintendo, Sun, and GM, among others, are podcasting. Do you envision any companies or industries that might not be conducive towards the medium?

A: Remember that podcasting is a communication channel or tool, just like press releases, marketing websites, or brochures. So the same principles apply here as with any form of organizational communication. You look at your audience and at what you want to achieve by communicating. Then decide the appropriate way to carry out that communication. If you believe podcasting is an effective tool to help you achieve those objectives, then that's what you would use. But I also believe that just trying something out to see what happens can be a valid way to use a communication tool, especially one that's new, where the instruction manual is still being written. Look at General Motors' experience. GM started their marketing podcasts in February. They tried it out and sought feedback. They got plenty, both positive and negative, all of which helped them in planning how to best use the medium in future as part of their overall marketing communication.

Q: I like the fact that people can record their own commentary and send it in. Do you currently only get a few, so you can include them all, or do you have to make editorial decisions on what does and does not get included in the program?

A: We also love getting audio commentaries. They're the authentic voices of our listeners. Now we're receiving, on average, two per show, and we play them all as part of our show. There's no editorial decision to exercise - so far. How would that be if we started receiving so many? I think we'll cross that bridge if and when we come to it.

Q: Have you been able to get any demographic information on who is downloading the podcasts? Do you envision this as a show more for PR people or anyone who is interested in emerging communications techniques?

A: Currently we can get accurate statistical information on how many downloads there are of each show, how it's downloaded (whether directly or via the RSS feed), where the downloaders come from, and what program they use to get the MP3 file, etc. What we still can't do is accurately determine who actually listens to each show. Downloading is one thing, but how many people actually listen to it? Other than some listeners telling us they do, it's hard to really know. For instance, we currently average between 500-600 downloads per show. Does that mean we have that many listeners per show? More? Less? We don't know. However, you can make intelligent estimates by using the same monitoring tools that you use in tracking who talks about you in the blogosphere.

Going forward, I believe that knowing who your listeners are will be increasingly important as podcasting becomes commercialized (as it undoubtedly will) and the need to provide more accurate demographic information about your audience becomes more important. I'm talking about quality not quantity. This is not about how many listeners you have; it's about how influential those listeners are. As for who our show is aimed at, it's primarily those in the communication profession - from PR and marketing to investor relations to employee communication - whether on the agency side or working for an organization, and in literally any country. But we also address non-communicators, ranging from accountants to software developers to venture capitalists (to name just three of the professions some listeners have told us about). Indeed, if you have an interest in that place where business, communication, and technology intersect (and often collide), then our show is for you.

Q: How do you envision both the growth of the podcast industry and your program? Do you expect -- if more entrenched broadcast players get involved in the medium -- there will be room for everyone?

A: I think podcasting is poised to take off like a rocket. Look at the primary drivers that will make this happen: 1. It's easy: To create a podcast, all you need is a PC, a microphone, a network connection, some free recording software, a place to deliver your podcast from and a bit of imagination. 2. It's inexpensive: Podcasting enables you to create and publish audio material that, before, would have needed to be done in a recording studio with professional equipment and often-complex production processes. 3. It's portable: The explosive adoption of digital music players, notably Apple's iPod, means you can listen to podcasts when and wherever you want. We're now seeing mainstream print media getting in on the act, with newspapers offering podcasts that summarize news stories. Broadcasters are also diving in as the technology gets even easier and the means to listen - the digital players - get better and cheaper. Some radio stations, notably in the US and the UK, are already beginning to offer some of their programming as podcasts. In the US, Sirius Satellite Radio began a daily show in May with podcasting pioneer Adam Curry. You can certainly expect to see more of that.

Q: What advice would you give to others who want to podcast?

A: I say - go for it. If you have an idea or opinion, if you want to articulate that idea or opinion, do it. That's how Shel and I started our podcast. If you're toying with the idea of podcasting, give it a shot and learn from the experience. That's what GM did. I'd like to see more communicators with ideas and opinions to share this way.

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