From Rabble-Rousers to the Mormon Church: Everyone is Podcasting
Last May, The Walt Disney Company announced that it would "podcast" three days of festivities leading up to the 50th anniversary of the company's first theme park. The host would be Michael W. Geoghegan, co-author of the forthcoming book, Podcasting Solutions, and co-proprietor of the website of the same name. An associated website, http://
Almost as an afterthought was a linked page, also from Disney: a three paragraph-explanation of podcasting, the equipment needed, and how to get started. But mostly, Disney's publicity machine figured that the people interested in receiving the podcasts already knew what they were. For a medium, if you can call it that, that has been around less than two years, it doesn't get any more mainstream than this.
The surprise about podcasts is not just the rapid adoption, but the variety of forms they have taken. The early, and some would argue, pure form of podcasting-personal audio blogs-now share Internet bandwidth with straight-laced media holding companies, newspapers, and blatantly commercial interests. Every combination seems to have been attempted: audio blogs are being broadcast over the air, broadcast radio programs are being podcast, print reporters are picking up microphones, and independent recording artists are looking at the medium as an extension of the radio dial. Podcast's early adaptors view it as a way to break the stranglehold of the big media companies. Meanwhile, the very same media companies are looking at podcasting as a way to reach their audiences beyond the radio broadcast spectrum.
How popular is it? A survey conducted on behalf of the Pew Internet & American Life project concluded that more than 22 million American adults now own MP3 players, with 29 percent of them saying they had downloaded an Internet broadcast for later listening. That number at first seems inflated, until you realize that MP3 player owners are the leading cusp of the technology, familiar with peer-to-peer networks, iTunes, and CD ripping-the same people that Disney figured were already up to speed.
Whatever the number, it is bound to grow, particularly as podcasts become more numerous and easy to locate. As with RSS readers, which will eventually become an expected feature in every browser, podcast indexing will move from a separate product to a built in function. Currently, podcast download software is a specialized niche, but inevitably, the capability will be built into mainstream applications, just as FireFox already supports RSS. Last May, Steve Jobs demonstrated a new version of iPod featuring a podcast directory that will let subscribers locate and download podcasts. Jobs said he expected the feature to send podcasting "into orbit," and there's some truth to that. Expect a comparable move by Microsoft with Internet Explorer. While podcasting will never be as easy as turning on a radio, the more available the subscription and download software, the more prevalent it will become.
Podcasts began as audio blogs in which audio files substitute for text. The idea is simple enough: put audio files, generally MP3, on the Web and let people subscribe to it, TiVo-like, for later listening on your PC your mobile player. Or-and this is where term blurs a bit-just link the MP3 files on a webpage for downloading. The Disney page does both, as do many other sites. Subscription is made possible through a sub-element of the RSS 2.
Downloads under broadband are reasonably quick: some podcasting software will do it in the middle of the night. Once the audio files are on your PC, you can synchronize them with an MP3 player using iTunes, Windows Media Player, or a comparable program, then listen on the go, when you please. This "radio on demand" fits neatly into the time-shifting expectations of an emerging audience that expects programming delivered at their convenience, not the broadcasters'.
The first podcast took place in July 2003 between broadcast journalist Chris Lydon and David Winer, creator of the RSS 2.
Adam Curry, former VJ ("video jockey") on MTV is the grand visionary of podcasting. His audio blog, "Daily Source Code," has been a crossroads for the media. Curry also put together the basic components of what became the first podcasting software. Asked about his favorite podcasts in a Wired News interview, Curry cited "The Dawn and Drew Show" created by a married couple who live in a Wisconsin farmhouse, as well as podcast from a priest "podcasting from the Vatican, a week before the pope fell ill. He was walking through places you could not go, deep inside that complex, and it totally blew me away. There hasn't been any place on the radio dial where you'll hear those kinds of shows."
That diversity helps explain the rapid growth of podcasting. In the United States, radio stations once reflected the regional tastes of the areas they served. But after deregulation enabled media companies like Clear Channel Communications to own more stations in a region, the American radio spectrum has become homogenized-resembling a faceless indoor mall of mega-retailers, rather than an eclectic street of home-grown shops. Just as blogging has allowed anyone with an Internet connection to be a commentator or reporter, podcasting has begun to redefine the possibilities of broadcast. That's true internationally, as well. Countries that censor their broadcasts, may come to look at podcasters as an invasion force. Iranians, for example, can now listen to podcasts by satirist Abdolqader Baluch, as well as Haftegi Radio, which originates from California and covers life in the United States.
Technology options growing
For podcasters, some technological savvy is required. Anyone can produce a blog-all you need is an Internet connection. Podcasts require more: recording devices, the creation of audio files, the ability to embed those files in an RSS feed, and, if you are serious, the kinds of audio editing software any radio broadcaster might use.
Some tools have already emerged, such as Podifier, created by Red Square, an Australian website design company, using Macromedia's Flash MX 2004. The application is free for downloading. Podifier automates the creation of an RSS feed: enclosing one or more MP3 files within an RSS file. The application also includes the means to upload the files via ftp to a server, as well as some error checking options to ensure that the feed is capable of delivering the MP3 files accurately. The company says that future versions will include automatic file conversion on the fly during uploads, the capability to listen to the MP3 file before upload and pre-scheduled uploads.
In 2004, Adam Curry and Ron Bloom launched BoKu Communications, whose websites include Podshow.
Andy Carvin, the globetrotting program director of the EDC Center for Media & Community in Massachusetts, figured out a way to podcast using a "smart" mobile phone, which he calls "mobcasts". The technique as first conceived involves setting up an account with Audlink.
"I originally envisioned mobcasting as a way of any socially active group of people to post interrelated podcasts on the same blog from their phones," Carvin wrote in an email exchange. He had been interested in Howard Rheingold's idea of the "smart mob," in which demonstrators use technology to coordinate their activities. After posting some podcasts from last year's Democratic presidential convention in Boston, he wondered about the technology's potential for people to assume the role of "citizen journalist," covering the event without assistance from the mainstream media.
"In February, I got the idea of connecting a mobcast with Christo's Central Park art project, The Gates. So I created a website called The Gates @ Central Park (http://
Carvin would like to see mobcasting tools that allow people to listen to mobcasts from a phone, as well as post them. He imagines an activist setting up a public affairs mobcast about local political issues in West Africa. "Most West Africans don't have Internet access, but many have mobile phones." He says. He imagines the cellphone as becoming a combination telephone and radio, with participants both podcasting stories of interest and becoming an audience for those stories. "Meanwhile, it's all stored online, allowing people all over the world to participate virtually."
The energy surrounding podcasting has brought some unexpected cross-pollination from some unexpected sources. For example, Infinity Broadcasting, one of the large media companies the traditional podcasters tend to loath, has converted its KYCY-AM station in San Francisco from talk show format to an on-the-air podcaster, with listeners invited to upload their own programming. At this writing, the station claimed to have received 888 podcasts. The broadcast schedule for one spring weekday was as diverse as any American commercial radio station gets. It included Celtic music, Israeli rap, a show on time travel, a discussion of Netscape 8.
If podcasting began as a way for amateurs to have a broadcasting voice, it has also become an alternative way for conventional broadcasters to deliver their shows. Some of the early adopters are not exactly known for their cutting-edge programming. In Salt Lake City Utah, radio station KSL has begun offering what it calls "extended podcasts" primarily of news programming that doesn't run into the thorny complications of licensing music. " I think it's interesting, and I'm proud of the fact that stations that gear their product at a 17- year-old or a 12-year-old or a 22-year-old aren't the first to go out and launch programming for iPod players and MP3 players," said the station's news director, Russ Hill, in an interview with the Deseret News. "It's this 83-year-old beast, your grandfather's station, that is embracing the youth of today." Both KSL and Deseret are owned by a holding company affiliated with the Mormon church.
Another professional broadcaster turning podcaster is Rush Limbaugh, a conservative American talk show host who already commands a massive audience. He plans to offer a for-pay, advertising-free version of his show, which is already available on the Web through streaming media. And then there's Clear Channel, which is expected to begin podcasting non-music excerpts from it shows as part of a broader move to attract listeners to its stations' websites.
In the United States where newspaper readership is shrinking, some print reporters have turned into semi-amateur broadcasters. The results have been a cross between the freewheeling audio blog-style of the podcast pioneers and the more polished, but conventional approach of the broadcasters. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a lengthy interview with Larry Ellison, the jet-flying, competitive sailing, billionaire CEO of Oracle. The sound quality was marginal: recorded on a micro-cassette, it almost sounded as if the reporters had secretly bugged Ellison's office. And the interview was seemingly unedited. But for anyone interested in hearing Ellison unfiltered and at length, the podcast worked-highlighting a big difference between print and broadcast journalism in the U.
The handful of newspapers experimenting with podcasts have taken different approaches. Some have turned their print reporters into part time news broadcasters. The Denver Post has enlisted some journalism students from the Metropolitan State College of Denver to produce podcasts based on the next day's newspapers, putting the programs together in the middle of the night. Other newspapers have featured reporters interviewing reporters as a way to highlight articles and get in aspects of a story that might not have made it to print. Some reporter-produced podcasts are comparable to reporter-produced blogs: to provide a more informal back-channel between writers and their audiences. In time, the quality of these podcasts is likely to go up. The Philadelphia Daily News has invested in the basics of a professional studio: microphones, audio mixer and recording software. Food editor Hsiao-Ching Chou of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer uses a high-end Sony digital recorder.
"The expansion into podcasts and other distribution models (RSS is another) is so encouraging because progressive publishers are listening to the young, creative and energetic people in the online department who want to create something new," wrote Rob Runette, director of electronic media communications for the Newspaper Association of America, in an email exchange. " Publishers are eyeing all kinds of products in an attempt to serve the needs of people who normally wouldn't read a newspaper, or who want news but in a digital format, not ink on fiber. I see podcasting as one piece of a larger embrace of digital media, which includes 'citizen journalism' efforts that gives readers a voice and respects them as content creators.
"By delivering news and entertainment programming in the form of a podcast, these early adaptor publishers begin to position themselves to learn how mobile customers consume media. We'll see more efforts to create services for wireless customers, especially in the areas of jobs, cars and real estate - the traditional strongholds of newspapers.
Sidebar: Chris Lydon's Open Source
The sheer volume of podcasts is already far greater than anyone could consume in 24 hours, leading to the audio version of "blog clog." The answer, ironically, is for moderators to pick and choose among the best and present it in some context that works for people who want to live part of their lives offline.
One notable attempt is by pioneer podcaster Chris Lydon, who has teamed up with his longtime producer, Mary McGrath, to host an experimental public radio program called Open Source-an eclectic talk show that combines live interviews and new media. Lydon, who is also a fellow at The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, had already noticed how the Web was extending radio broadcast signals. While doing a show from Kingston, Jamaica, he began getting calls from Jamaican expatriates in New York City, more than 1500 miles to the north.
Lydon is a fierce critic of mainstream American media and a believer in what he calls "the redemptive energy" of the new media. "American institutional journalism looks to me broken beyond repair," he writes on the show's website. "And when that neural network of the American mind goes down, our democracy is on the danger list, too. Terminal symptoms are everywhere: the willful ignorance of and isolation from world opinion, the persistence of mis- and disinformation, the consensus that far the best coverage of our times is to be seen in the 'fake news' of John Stewart's Daily Show."
His proposed cure: a hosted radio program that interweaves blogs, podcasts, IMing, and email. Podcasters, like bloggers, sometimes talk about the beauty of "unmediated" communication, which is unfiltered by editors, producers or advertising considerations: a direct feed from content creator to you. Open Source is a mediated radio program that taps the rich mother lode of unmediated content while still maintaining a mostly conventional talk show format.
"It's definitely a hybrid: sometimes it feels like we're riding two horses at once," Lydon said in a telephone interview. Lydon is unabashedly the show's host and moderator, and Open Source is a far more polite venue than many of its commercial counterparts. But the Internet, including podcasts, is never far away. "Every night, one of our producers is scanning the world for good podcasted audio on almost anything," Lydon says. "We had a singing gondolier the other night. We had someone reading off train stations in Spain. There's a lot of exquisite audio on the Internet if you are shopping for it-and we are.
"For us, the Internet is a means to get off the 'island' of American media conversation, which in the last few years has gotten terribly bunkered. It always runs in one direction. If the pope is dying, there are seemingly thousands of satellite trucks on the ground in Rome. When Watergate's Deep Throat was revealed, everyone had to talk about it. But the real world is much more complicated and interesting than that. Our aim is to get off the talking points of the American big media."
Lydon implies that conventional news producers are nearly illiterate when it comes to taking full advantage of the Internet. It's as if the revolution has blown through everywhere but the mainstream media. As an example, Lydon points to an early show on India, that featured novelist and journalist Amitav Ghosh. Enter Ghosh's name on the Technorati Website, which tracks more than 11 billion blogs, and you get 345 posts, many by Indian bloggers. "You can learn so fast on the Web," Lydon says. " You learn about Ghosh's history and East Indian constituency. You learn that people know him and love his work. You learn that people are wondering why is it that the most famous Indian writers, including Ghosh, are living in the diaspora? What's going on? Are these really the people who should be speaking for India?"
The upshot, says Lydon, is that the Web is so packed with information, punditry, and counter-reactions that "it produces a conversation for you. By the time we go on the air-and we hope this will develop more and more-we've already alerted our constituency to the conversation and they've alerted some of their constituents. The result, and we've just begun, is a deeper conversation with deeper roots in the audience, both on the Open Source blog and in the broadcast."