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Media Revolution: Podcasting

1 Dec , 2005  

Written by David Tames | Posted by:

In part one of a two-part article, learn about the who, what, why and how behind the newest form of media information and entertainment -- podcasting.

NOTE: Links to web sites and podcasts in boldface can be found at the end of this article.

Invasion of the pod people

The white ear buds are everywhere. No matter where you go today, one thing’s for sure, you’re bound to run into people who are listening to music on their iPods when they’re not talking on their mobile phones. But music is not the only content people are listening to — podcasts are part of the mix. A podcast is audio and/or video content that is delivered via the web in episodic form on a subscription basis. It has evolved in two short years into a dynamic force in the media landscape. Blogs and web sites have already completely transformed newspapers and print media, and now radio and television are next on the docket. The wild success of the iPod has fueled consumer demand for a wide range of content. The word podcasting has its origins in Apple’s iPod and broadcasting.

Podcasting is neither broadcasting in the traditional sense nor does it require the use of Apple’s iPod, however, the ubiquity of Apple’s iconic device has earned it a special place in the public imagination. You can listen to podcasts on any portable media player, and a variety of "Podcatchers" enable podcasts to be downloaded to a personal computer and transferred to portable media players. You can also listen to podcasts directly on a personal computer, for example, as I write this paragraph, I’m listening to Morning Stories, a delightful podcast produced by Tony Kahn and available from WGBH-FM.

Not just audio anymore

A majority of podcasting so far has involved audio content. Part of the appeal of podcasts is you can listen to them at a time, place, and in a manner of your choosing. It’s easy to multi-task while listening to audio, unlike video. A podcast, however, is not limited to audio and may contain video (called a vodcast or video podcast) and there are a growing number of video blogs on the web, for example Rocket Boom and Steve Garfield’s Video Blog, reputed to be the first. On October 12th Apple introduced the video iPod featuring a 2.5-inch color screen that displays album artwork, photos, and video. It may not be the ideal medium for feature length films, nor can it compete with the home theater experience, however, it promises to expand the market for short pieces and bring new meaning to the term "handheld film."

The reaction from consumers has been incredible: on October 31st Apple announced that the iTunes Music Store had downloads of more than a million videos since the debut of the video iPod. You can choose from over 2,000 music videos, short films and selected TV shows for $1.99 each. Top downloads include episodes of ABC’s hit TV shows "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives."

Finding needles in digital haystacks

Given that there are thousands and thousands of podcasts out there, how do you find one that’s right for you? The Apple iTunes podcast directory and Podcast Alley are two of the many directories available that list podcasts. Apple added podcast subscriptions to iTunes with the release of version 4.9 earlier this year and iTunes is credited for pushing podcasting into the mainstream with an extensive podcast directory and tens of thousands of podcasts available through its elegant interface.

Both the iTunes podcast directory and Podcast Alley provide a starting point for finding podcasts. However, the best approach remains word of mouth. Podcast Alley was founded by Chris McIntyre and is now part of the Podshow Network. It claims to have over 5,000 forum members, lists over 7,000 podcast programs, and has tracked over 100,000 podcast episodes. Podcast Alley includes podcast reviews, a Top 10 Podcast list, tips from leading podcasters, reviews of podcast production tools, and member-contributed articles.

Another excellent resource for both listeners and producers of podcasts is podCast411 offering how-tos on podcasting, a directory of podcasts, a directory of podcast directories, and a podcast in which they talk with other podcasters. If you want to get into podcasting or simply learn more, this site is a good place to start.

A brief tour of the podsphere

If you’re not familiar with podcasts, check them out. The range is incredible; you’ll find everything from rants and raves to sound tours to indie music shows to high end productions akin to what you’re used to hearing on public radio. I can’t even list all of the good ones I’ve come across in the space of this article, but here’s a handful to get you started.

The raunchy and obscene Dawn and Drew Show has gained a wide audience and has been hovering in the Podcast Alley top ten list for months, generating lots of talk and several imitations. You’ll be exposed to lots of interesting new music on C.C. Chapman’s Accident Hash and for the mellower crowd he has started producing U-Turn Cafe. From the producers of NPR’s "All Things Considered" comes All Songs Considered featuring a wide range of new music. Two traditional radio programs available as podcasts include Pulse of the Planet and On The Media, as are many other public radio shows.

For cineastes, P.O.V. has added a podcast of interviews with filmmakers, writers, experts, and viewers about topics relevant to the films aired on P.O.V. Filmmakers Arin Crumley and Susan Buice have made a notable use of video podcasting. They sank a small fortune of their own and their parent’s money into making their uber-modern romance "Four Eyed Monster" which screened at festivals. Like too many independent filmmakers, they put their heart and soul into the project and have yet to find distribution. You can share in their anguish through the Four Eyed Monster Video Podcast. On the lighter side is Tiki Bar TV where the art of mixology meets an amusing range of movie parodies. Both audio and video podcasts offer filmmakers a viable new platform for distributing short films and ancillary content and these examples only scratch the surface.

New England podcasts related to filmmaking and the creative arts include: FilmmakersPod, by Jennifer Cobb and Michael Kuell, provides filmmakers at all levels with a source of tips, techniques and inspiration they can bring to their own work; Art Film Design, by Colin Owens and me, presents a weekly interview with an artist, filmmaker, designer, or a person working in a related field; and Media Artist Secrets, by Franklin McMahon, is dedicated to providing creative professionals with techniques for advancing their careers. The New England Podcasting group provides a place for New England based podcasters and people interested in podcasting to network.

Technical details

Podcasting is a mechanism by which audio or video files are automatically transferred from a web server to your personal computer. The file is commonly referred to as an episode of a podcast. The episode is simply a media file enclosed (via a URL to the actual location of the audio or video file) within an RSS feed. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is an XML file standard developed by Dave Winer for syndicating Web content. Think of it as an internet age version of those noisy old news wire teletypes. An RSS feed is a computer-readable list of the URLs that point to the individual episodes of the show and usually contains additional information, such as posting date, titles, descriptions, etc. about the series and each of its episodes. Some feeds may contain entries for every episode in the series, but typically they are limited to a list of the most recent.

In order to subscribe to a podcast, you enter the URL of a feed into a news "aggregator" or more specifically a "podcatcher" that will retrieve episodes of the podcast on a regular basis. Podcatchers like Juice and iTunes can automatically download new episodes to your portable media player. If you’ve got an up-to-date browser and podcatcher installed on your computer, the "1-click subscribe" button found on many web sites will allow you to subscribe to the podcast with a minimum of fuss, otherwise, you might end up having to copy the RSS feed link and pasting it into your podcatcher. This is life on the bleeding edge, after all.

Podcasting has ridden the wave fueled not only by portable media players, but the trend among content-rich web sites and blogs to make their content available as RSS feeds, for example, news, events listings, headlines, project updates, press releases, etc. This is changing the nature of web surfing, as RSS content from many different web sites can be read through a single news reader, or aggregator. Today most of the major news sites including the BBC and New York Times make their news available via RSS feeds. This makes it possible for you to scan the headlines of dozens of sites through a single interface in a few minutes rather than surfing to many web sites. NetNewsWire is a popular news reader among Macintosh users while FeedDeamon is popular among the Windows crowd. Both can deal with podcasts and provide an alternative means to listen to them.

Different from streaming

Podcasting differs from streaming media in several important ways. Podcasting does not provide real-time data transfer like audio and video streaming, which is similar to the broadcast radio and television model. On the other hand, podcasting is more akin to digital equivalent of a subscription such as a magazine, Netflix, or book club. Compared to streaming, podcasting makes more efficient use of low-bandwidth connections. Your podcatcher downloads content in the background, and later you listen (or watch) without the stutters and stops typical of streaming media caused by high-latency internet connections. Podcasts, on average, provide higher sound and/or image quality than streaming media since real-time playback over an internet connection is not an issue. While broadcast and streaming are transient and ephemeral, podcasts are delivered in a form that can be archived by the end user. Of course, this also creates some legal issues for content providers who want to avoid file sharing among end-users.

The Audience is listening

Podcasting is having a democratizing effect on radio the same way that blogs have had a democratizing effect on journalism. The barriers that prevent people from becoming producers have been lowered. Podcasting may lead to a media landscape in which many people are simultaneously producing and consuming entertainment for each other, yet listeners are limited to the amount of time they have. However, part of the success and appeal of audio podcasts is that, like radio, it’s easy to multitask while listening to audio content, making it a popular choice while working, jogging, and commuting.

Who is today — and who will be in the future — the audience for podcasting? Early adopters have been mostly tech-saavy computer and digital media player owners, but that’s quickly changing as the number of portable media players in use continues to rise and word spreads about podcasting. Given the sad state of commercial radio, podcasting provides the diversity and creativity that’s missing from the mix. The wide-open nature of podcasting provides independent podcasters an opportunity to find an audience. Public radio stations, in particular, are certain to draw new listeners.

iPod killed the radio star

Some executives working in mainstream media, especially those in the major radio groups, are running scared. Portable media players used in the car during commuting and the office during work threaten the two spaces in our day in which most people listen to the radio. In the largest cooperative effort in radio industry history, local radio stations across the country banded together earlier this year and launched an integrated marketing campaign to "celebrate radio’s power as the primary source for new music and compelling audio entertainment" according to a National Association of Broadcasters press release. The campaign involves a series of radio commercials titled "Radio. You Hear It Here First" featuring superstars whom acknowledge radio’s role in kicking-off their careers. In each, the artist recites a series of accomplishments and milestones that were achieved only after the artist was initially discovered on the radio. This $28 million campaign sends a retro-reactionary message to an audience that has already moved on. MTV stole the new music career making role from radio in the 1980s and today file sharing, online communities like MySpace, and independent music podcasts have become the way a new generation of music listeners are discovering new music. Given the dominance of commercial radio ownership by companies like Clear Channel and their ilk offering bland risk-free programming, the "Radio. You Hear It Here First" campaign puts in sharp relief the fear that reigns in the radio industry. New media start-ups, on the other hand, are listening to the audience and embracing new business opportunities.

Radio reloaded

Will podcasting become an industry? It already has. The most significant indicator this year was the creation of the PodShow Network, founded by Ron Bloom and former MTV VJ and podcasting evangelist Adam Curry. The company is backed by heavy hitting Silicon Valley venture capitalists and they are building a network that will bring together popular podcasters with advertisers and sponsors working with companies like Apple, Warner Brothers, and Sirius Satellite Radio. Many of the most popular podcasters are already working under their aegis.

A related project is the Podshow Music Network providing music licensed in a manner that is compatible with podcasting. Current ASCAP and BMI licensing is incompatible with media delivery via MP3 files that users can easily share with each other, which is basically every single podcast in existence.

Other companies, including Odeo, are working to extend podcasting and provide a more seamless experience, developing better directories and tools for both listeners and creators of podcasts. With most major advertisers planning to invest more in alternative media next year, the stakes are high and this field is sure to grow.

Some podcasters are already pulling in hundreds of thousands of listeners a month, and advertisers are swimming around like hungry piranhas. Almost overnight, podcasts have become a marketing channel for a new generation of media consumers who spend much more time online than watching television or listening to the radio. Advertisers are already starting to diversify their media buys to include alternative media. Several self-supporting podcasts have emerged, for example, this WEEK in TECH, a podcast with an estimated 200,000 listeners, brings in an estimated $10,000/month in donations that people make on its web site via PayPal $2/month donations. Grape Radio is currently supported through sponsorships by The Office of Champagne, the United States representative of the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). Popular shows need to pay for bandwidth, so like their radio and television counterparts, podcasters with popular shows must seek donations, subscriptions, sponsorships, and ad placements.

Portrait of the medium as a young pod

What’s most fascinating about the podcast phenomena is that the demand is driven almost exclusively by listeners and viewers, not the media and entertainment industry. In addition, podcasting extends the experience of internet media beyond the desktop and into the hands and ears of millions of people. We still have a ways to go before podcasting becomes as ubiquitous as contemporary radio and television, but it’s simply a matter of time. People need to become more comfortable downloading and exchanging MP3s and video files. The software in use still needs to evolve to make it easier to navigate podcasts. I expect media players will evolve in interesting ways, for example, eventually an iPod may be able to subscribe directly to podcasts and get updates whenever it’s within range of an open WiFi hotspot.

To be continued…

With podcasting, filmmakers have an opportunity for visibility that’s not restricted to distributors, film festivals and the mainstream press. You can connect directly with your viewers. For example, many musicians and filmmakers have found it productive to promote their work on MySpace, a sprawling online community that has surpassed Google in terms of daily hits. We’ve yet to see the full potential of this medium in the hands of filmmakers. What can you do with it?

Next month in Part 2, I will discuss video podcasting in more detail and provide some suggestions on how you can harness the technology as a filmmaker, either to promote your film, or as a new medium for expression.

Podcasts and web sites mentioned in this article:

Accident Hash 
All Songs Considered 
Art Film Design 
BBC News Feeds 
The Dawn and Drew Show 
Filmmakers Pod 
Four Eyed Monster Video Podcast 
Grape Radio 
Media Artist Secrets 
Morning Stories
New York Times News Feeds 
On The Media 
Pulse of the Planet
Rocket Boom
Steve Garfield’s Video Blog
this WEEK in TECH (TWiT)
Tiki Bar TV
U-Turn Cafe 

Directories and Resources:

New England Podcasting 
Podcast Alley
Podcasting News
Podshow Network
Podsafe Music Network 

Podcatchers and RSS Aggregators:

Juice (formerly iPodder Lemon)

Portable Media Players:

Apple iPod