Local News, Now 'Showing’ On Your iPod

With Americans spending less time at home, a handful of stations nationwide have begun offering news to go with “podcasts,” audio versions of newscasts that can be downloaded for free to an iPod, MP3 player or computer.

“We are looking for ways to reach audiences that may not be available for traditional newscasts,” says Frank Whittaker, VP of news for NBC-owned WMAQ Chicago.

The high-tech feature is another stab at developing new business as local broadcasters hunt furiously for new revenue streams. To that end, stations are launching secondary digital channels that provide continuous news, weather and traffic. A few dozen offer their local news on-demand with cable operators to reach more viewers and, eventually, to attract more advertising dollars.

Podcasting is an outgrowth of stations’ emphasis on their Web sites, where many archive video and stream newscasts. With podcasts, TV stations are even willing to abandon their most distinguishing feature—video—to offer portable, but just audio, content.

The major target for stations’ podcasting is the hordes of young Americans devoted to Apple’s iPods. The digital device is still a relatively new product, but sales are brisk. Through fourth quarter 2004, Apple had sold more than 10 million.

As sales multiply, content providers are dreaming of ways to get their programming on the trendy white gadget.

In the past several years, podcasts of music and opinion have sprouted up. It is only recently, however, that mainstream, old- media companies started hopping on the trend. NBC News and ABC News, for example, unveiled plans last week to podcast segments from their news.

Surprisingly, KFVS, in the not very media-centric Paducah, Ky.-Cape Girardeau, Mo., market, was the nation’s first station to podcast. Late last year, the CBS affiliate in the nation’s 79th-largest market a began making its 5 p.m. news available for downloading. Now big-market stations are jumping in. WMAQ offers 22 different podcasts each week, including a custom five-minute newscast hosted by two of its Web-site editors, its morning newscast, health reports and entertainment news from NBC-produced Access Hollywood.

The content menu varies by market. WCVB Boston doesn’t offer any newscasts for downloading. Instead, it sticks to features, including The Click, technology reporter Jamy Pombo’s daily dish on interesting Web sites, as well as medical news and consumer reports. “We’re trying to observe how people will use the feature,” says Assistant News Director Neil Ungerleider. “Right now, we’re concentrating on content that has a shelf life.”

WCVB sister Hearst-Argyle station WBAL Baltimore, however, is pushing its newscasts. It makes the morning, 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news available for downloading, as well as health and consumer reports. Scripps Howard-owned WCPO Cincinnati similarly repurposes its newscasts.

“If the demand is high enough, then maybe we’ll do some original programming in the future,” says WCPO Internet Director Liz Foreman. She says she will be pleased with several thousand downloads a week.

These pioneering stations are just beginning to promote their podcasts. And they need sponsors. “Advertisers see it as groundbreaking. It is something new and hip,” says Whittaker, whose podcasts still run without commercials.

So far, stations say they haven’t had to invest much in the new feature. They use existing staff and technology to create and maintain the podcasts.