in web audio
has pubcasters buzzing
Jacking in to podcasts
Originally published in Current, Jan. 31, 2005
By Mike Janssen
Like many revelations, Tony Kahn's interrupted his sleep. The veteran public radio producer and admitted gadget geek dozed off one night last fall while listening to a podcast.
He had recently learned about podcasts, which are in essence radio shows without radios, downloaded through the Internet to a computer and then to an iPod or other portable audio player. At 5 a.m. he awoke with a goal: to become public radio's first podcaster.
Kahn's Morning Stories on WGBH and a handful of public radio shows are now available as podcasts, marking public radio's first significant foray into offering free, on-demand, downloadable content.
So far, podcasting is mostly the province of tech-savvy early adopters. But pubcasters believe that it could in time raise their profile among listeners and draw younger web surfers who are letting their radios gather dust.
Grabbing and listening to podcasts requires any of several software programs available free on the Web, in addition to an Internet-connected computer. The software grabs audio files in MP3 or other formats from the ether and dumps them on the computer. Transfer the audio to the portable digital player and you can tune in while you wait for the bus or in line at the Division of Motor Vehicles.
It's not difficult, and neither is creating a podcast, which is why most are produced by amateurs talking about everything from sex to sports to — in the insular spirit of the Web — other podcasts. Pubcasters believe that with their budgets, brands and production values, their shows can sound a cut above the competition.
"When a content provider like us or NPR comes along, there's an immediate credibility that doesn't exist when Fred starts his technology whining from his bedroom," says Phil Redo, v.p. for station operations at WNYC in New York. The station began podcasting its On the Media Jan. 7. Since that first podcast of a national pubradio show, the program has been downloaded more than 3,000 times each week.
Public radio also caters to loyal listeners who hate missing favorite shows. With podcasting, they don't have to.
"Where we've got it wrong as programmers is we've tried to put the listeners on our schedule," says Tod Maffin, a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. who has written about podcasting. "Now we can free them to be on theirs."
Podcasting's birth: colliding trends
Public radio programs are already available online through sites such as Audible.com and AudioFeast.com, but for a fee. Podcasts are free, and because they're cheap to produce, pubcasters can give it a spin with minimal investment. Their main concern is staying clear of copyright violations, which makes news and public affairs programs such as On the Media and Morning Stories ideal candidates for podcasting.
American Public Media, Northwest Public Radio in Washington state and Public Radio Exchange, among others, have joined WNYC and WGBH in starting podcasts. NPR listeners "frequently write us to ask for portability of content," says Maria Thomas, v.p. of NPR Online, and the network "is eager to explore and begin to experiment near-term with podcasting," involving stations in working out strategies.
The technology sprouted last fall at the nexus of several trends: MP3 players, on-demand content and RSS feeds.
RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a means of coding stripped-down content from blogs and news sites. RSS readers called aggregators can check RSS feeds regularly and organize the content for users.
Pioneering blogger Dave Winer and Adam Curry, a radio host and former MTV veejay, devised the idea of an RSS feed that could include audio files. Curry's program for mining such feeds, iPodder, is a popular aggregator.
Meanwhile, sales of portable audio players have soared. In the three months before Christmas, Apple sold 4.5 million of its iconic iPods, six times as many as in the same period a year before. The Consumer Electronics Association expects 10 million players of all brands will sell this year.
Finally, time-pressed consumers are increasingly seeking out on-demand audio and video. "People are dealing with this time poverty, and it is especially impacting their use of media," says Redo.
In a market like New York, where many commuters don't drive, WNYC feels the pinch acutely. Podcasting On the Media gave WNYC an ideal way to meet them on their own time. The station might also podcast local talk shows hosted by Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate and arts pieces reported by Sara Fishko.
Podcasts vs. streaming: "No contest"
Pubcasters say podcasting extends their service to new listeners. "There's a whole cohort who don't use radio at all ... [and] this is exactly in line with their media habits," says Bob Lyons, WGBH's director of radio and new media initiatives.
Lyons teaches college students and knows from experience how avidly the younger set has taken to streaming media. When he guided students to a documentary on WGBH's website about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, they were "stunned" by the experience.
"That was with streaming," Lyons says. "It could have been a hundred times better if they could have downloaded it."
Indeed, early evidence suggests podcasts will rival or exceed stations' online streams in popularity. Like tracking website visitors, counting podcast listeners is an imperfect science. But Lyons estimates that Morning Stories was downloaded roughly 14,000 times a week in December, without on-air or online promotion. The show's RealAudio stream drew no more than 50 listeners a week. "What a difference when you give it to folks in a format that you can own and control and make portable," Lyons says. "It's just no contest."
In Pullman, Wash., Northwest Public Radio's podcast of regional news reports drew almost as many listeners as the station's live stream in recent months and will probably outperform the stream before long, says Dennis Haarsager, g.m. Radio is often called an intimate medium, but Lyons suggests that podcasting trumps traditional radio. "Here, you're taking ear buds and shoving them into your ear canal," he says.
Morning Stories, which features personal vignettes from Bostonians, was a natural for podcasting, Kahn says. He packages the vignettes with podcast exclusives: tales of his own, chats with 'GBH staffers and behind-the-scenes peeks at the podcasts' production.
Still in its early stages, podcasting could evolve in complex and unpredictable ways. Maffin of the CBC foresees what he calls "vertical listening." Stations could sort and deliver podcasts by category, allowing a commuter to hear pieces from magazine-style shows, for example, or making a custom programming playlist about any subject from Iraq to hammered dulcimers.
"What a great way of using the existing content we have and providing a lot more value to listeners," says Maffin, who suggests that stations could charge for downloads.
Will pubcasting let its podcasts remain free? Some say that because podcasting is so inexpensive and easy, there's little need to milk it for money. But proponents outside of public radio already glimpse potential revenue, Lyons says, and pubcasters see on-demand media as a way to attract online donations. It could also help sell underwriting. Earlier this month, WGBH landed a podcast-only underwriter, Ipswitch Inc., a software company.
"There's so much about podcasting that we don't know," Lyons says. "The only way to learn what questions to ask is by doing it — and we should be prepared for some surprises."
posted Feb. 15, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee