Back in the dark ages of May 2004, most people could only dream of having a personal radio show and beaming their thoughts out to thousands of people across the globe. Now, if you want to tell the world how you feel, all you need is a little piece of software, a microphone and something to say and you're an instant international DJ.
Thanks to the hot medium called "podcasting," thousands of budding radio personalities are spouting off on everything from music and movies to technology, pagan spells, food, fishing, art, beer and the local farm report. Podcasting — a term coined by podcasting.net's Dannie J. Gregoire as a blend of "broadcasting" and "iPod" — is the latest wrinkle in the blogging phenomenon, allowing tech-savvy bloggers to record their own radio programs and beam them out as MP3s.
"Ninety percent of it has an amateurish vibe, which is a big part of the appeal," said former MTV VJ Adam Curry, one of the founders of the phenomenon and mastermind behind podcasting hub iPodder.org. Curry, who hosts the podcasting show "Daily Source Code" from his home in the U.K., said he originally dreamed up podcasting four years ago when he was trying to figure out an easier way to download high-quality streaming video.
"My theory at the time was why not have the computer do things while you're not surfing the Web and have the media trickle in through whatever connection you have," Curry said. "The high-quality stuff could come in overnight, which would let you avoid clicking and waiting to download something, which is irritating."
Nothing came of the idea until two years later, when Curry met software designer Dave Winer at a blogging conference in Boston. The two hit it off and Curry got so addicted to a series of MP3 interviews Winer had posted on his popular blog, scripting.com, that he vowed to find an application that would automatically seek out Winer's latest "audio blog" and download it to his iPod.
Early in 2004, Curry created a crude application that did just that, then launched iPodder.org and asked other geeks to help him refine it. "Then something beautiful happened," he said. "They corrected the script and made it better and better."
Winer calls the rapid evolution of the podcasting software the blogging equivalent of "the first mammal taking a step out of the ocean onto land."
Now, in just a few minutes, you can download the iPodder software and start signing up for shows immediately. Whether you want to hear a couple from Wisconsin chatting about their day or a family of four reviewing the movie they just saw, there's probably a podcast out there for you. And, because the shows (most of which feature talking and/or original music) are downloaded to your desktop, even if you don't have an iPod, you can listen to them anytime you want.
The key to podcasting's allure lies in its TiVo-like setup. Instead of spending minutes, or sometimes hours, waiting for the podcasts to download, users subscribe to a program and never have to seek out their show again. Your computer searches for new episodes and whether you're at your computer or not, the show downloads automatically and is ready to dump onto your iPod or other device. Unlike traditional broadcasting, the listener controls when he or she will listen to the program. Plus, the iPodder software works not just for broadcasts, but for video, pictures and even software updates.
"You can hear all these shows that are completely free and open with no FCC restrictions and they don't have to sound the way radio traditionally has," Curry said. The medium also provides an untapped avenue of exposure for new acts. When Curry started playing tracks by the all-girl New York vocal band the Lascivious Biddies, the indie group quickly saw an increase in online album sales. "Now they're being played on other podcasts and there's definitely more people at their shows who've learned about them on podcasts," said the group's production manager, Ben Struck.
New Yorker Jeremy Frindel, 26, has seized on the medium to create what he believes is the first mock-rock podcast. Frindel, a movie sound-effects editor, posted the first 26-minute RadioVince episode on January 14, in which his character, Vince, an earnest songwriter with girl problems, narrates a program that features such locker-room worthy satirical originals as "Wash Yourself, You Smell."
In less than six months, more than 2,000 podcasters have sprung up, and though Winer said it's hard to measure how many listeners are out there, he thinks the technology is limitless. "Eventually an iPod-like device will have a subscription capability built in so you won't even need to be tethered to a computer," he said. "It's not hard to imagine an iPod with WiFi capabilities that could become a radio with no geographic limits."
In other words, picture the day when you can subscribe to the Air America show "Morning Sedition," or RadioVince to hear a new batch of original tunes anywhere you are, without the aid of your laptop or home computer.
Because the medium is so new, a spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America had no comment on what the organization's official stance is on podcasters spinning copyrighted music, but some bands are not waiting to hear the RIAA's view. The alt-rock band Manda & the Marbles recently claimed to be the first signed band to offer a track to podcasters for free. The group's label, Addison Records, sent 100 copies of the song "Ode to Rock" to hundreds of podcasters.