Your grandmother's guide to Podcasting

Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on August 4th, 2005.

Podcasting is being hailed as the next big thing in media and everyone from major media companies like Disney and celebrities like Paris Hilton to an unknown married couple in a Wisconsin farmhouse like Dawn and Drew are getting into it.  The question of course is aside from being the buzzword of the moment, what is Podcasting.

Though Podcasting might sound like a fishing term, or something you need to have removed with surgery, it is in fact simply a new term for internet radio which has been around in various forms for the last several years.  Initially internet radio required a listener to stream the programs to their computer, meaning rather than saving the program to a computer the program came through the internet connection as it played similar to regular radio.  This technique meant that the programs had to be recorded in a lower quality to avoid losing the audio, and even then internet radio regularly had to deal with freezing and disconnecting.  Further it required the listener to actually sit in front of their computer to listen to a program.  With all these limitations internet radio failed to catch on in any significant way, until the iPod came along.

Apple’s iPod music player changed the way that people were listening to music.  Less people listened to the radio as someone could program hours of their own personal selection of music tracks on a device the size of a deck of cards.  Yet a few people in the music business saw the iPod as a chance to start something new in internet radio.  Adam Curry, a former VJ on the American music video channel MTV, found a way to attach a small bit of code to an MP3 music file to allow it to be loaded onto the internet and downloaded by a program called an RSS agitator.  All a listen now had to do was input a show’s RSS feed, and the RSS agitator would automatically download the show’s audio file and load it onto a user’s computer to be transferred to an MP3 player like the iPod., hence the name Podcasting.

Early shows, including Adam Curry’s own show, were referred to by Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs as being the “Wayne’s world of radio”.  Though not free like blogging, the relatively inexpensive Podcasting format gave rise to a wave of independent radio broadcasters using the internet for the first time. 

One of the most popular of the early shows, and one of those that has continued to retain its popularity, is the Dawn and Drew Show.  Unimaginable in any other broadcast format, the Dawn and Drew Show demonstrates the new freedom that Podcasting has brought both to podcasters and their listeners.  Podcasting from their Wisconsin farmhouse Dawn and Drew are a married couple that broadcast their lives to the world, much in the way bloggers write about their own lives.  The show contains language that would never be allowed onto the normal airwaves yet it is never cruel or mean, it is simply a reflection of the way people speak.  With thousands of listeners around the world the Dawn and Drew show remains one of the most popular Podcasts.

Public radio was another early convert to the Podcasting world.  In the United States National Public Radio (NPR) stations across the country were quick to make avaible their best programming including KCRW’s Left, Right and Center a political chat program and NPR’s excellent On The Media.  The BBC made available its sports program Fighting Talk and the CBC made its science program Quirks and Quarks available for download.  Both the BBC and the CBC are looking to expand their Podcasting offerings soon.

Local freelance journalist couple Hanson Hosein and Heather Hughes recently used Podcasting as part of their project Independent America.  Combining a blog (www.independentamerica.net), with online video and a Podcast the couple traveled through the US examining the role of Mom and Pop style shops in an increasingly corporate America.

According to Hosein they adopted Podcasting for two reasons, “One there's a new type of news consumer out there.  They don't need everything in bite-size portions.  They want full context.  So Podcasting an entire interview allowed us to share what we heard with our audience, as we heard it.  It also allowed our interview subject to relax, knowing that we were having a casual conversation that wouldn't be edited to pieces immediately.”

The second reason Hosein says was that, “Podcasting was just coming into fashion for those in the know, and we thought that this would be one more element to our project that would help build our audience.”

Despite his earlier dismissal of Podcasting, Apple’s Steve Jobs saw an opportunity in the new medium and as of Apple’s latest version of its audio program iTunes, users can easily download Podcasts and have them load directly onto their iPod with no problem.  Using his pull in Hollywood as the head of Pixar studios Jobs was also able to secure some big names to provide Apple with Podcasts.  Now users can listen to ABC’s Nightline program the day after its broadcast on television.

Yet despite its growing mainstream content Podcasting still remains an open medium, allowing anyone with a microphone and cheap audio editing software the ability to broadcast to the internet.  The continued success of shows like the Dawn and Drew Show, NPR programming and independent movie reviews like Cinecast mean that far more than any traditional broadcast medium like radio or television Podcasting is an open market.

In a way that ties into the Independent America project that Hosein and Hughes embarked on.  As more radio stations are corporately controlled by a narrow range of media conglomerates Podcasting is an independent alternative.

Asked if he would consider Podcasting for another project Hosein answered, “Absolutely.  It's a liberating way of doing business as a journalist.  Our very own cheap and easy talk show.”