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Feed your head (continued)

Public podding

FOR COMMERCIAL RADIO, podcasting is mainly a threat: if you offer Rush Limbaugh’s show as a free download, you’re inviting listeners to skip the advertising. In public radio, the calculation is rather different. The idea is to get the programming into the ears of as many folks as possible. A person who writes a check because he heard it on his iPod is just as valuable as one who was listening on her car radio while driving to work.

Boston’s two public-radio powerhouses — WGBH (89.7 FM) and WBUR (90.9 FM) — are both dipping their toes into the waters of podcasting. WGBH is actually something of a pioneer: its weekly Morning Stories, a seven-or-so-minute slice of life produced by Tony Kahn, was one of the first public radio programs offered for podcast. Kahn is currently recovering from emergency coronary-bypass surgery, and was unavailable for comment. But his associate producer, Gary Mott, is convinced that podcasting, or something like it, is the future of radio. "I think the next generation of media consumers — i.e., our children — are going to grow up in an environment where they’re not going to be making appointments to watch television shows and listen to radio programs. They’re going to want content on demand," he says. Bob Lyons, the station’s director of radio and new-media initiatives, adds that he believes podcasting is "different enough from radio" that it will actually lead to changes in content, and become more personal and intimate.

The Boston University–owned WBUR has been slower to embrace podcasting, but that day is coming. Sometime soon — probably in late January — the station will begin offering the local stories that it reports as part of Morning Edition as a daily podcast, says Jon Marston, who is WBUR’s Web developer. But Marston is worried that providing free downloads may encourage people to set up their software to grab them automatically, whether they listen to them or not — a considerable expense for the station. Noting that downloads of the public radio program This American Life are available — for a fee — through the commercial service Audible.com, Marston says WBUR is exploring ways to sell downloads as well.

Robin Lubbock, WBUR’s director of new media, believes that the chief disadvantage of podcasting is that it disconnects listeners from local radio — from the up-to-the-minute news and other information they’re missing by jacking into prerecorded content. Lubbock foresees a time when one device — perhaps a combination cell phone/digital organizer/wireless Internet device — will provide ready access to live radio and archived content simultaneously.

"Maybe podcasting," he says, "is one step on the way to something even more immediate."

— DK

Of course, as is often the case with new technology, the reality of podcasting may turn out to be fairly quotidian. Public-access channels on local cable systems, once hailed as the cutting edge of community-based media, now consist mostly of such fare as middle-school Christmas concerts, the occasional awkward interview program, and text announcements reminding viewers about the date of the next recycling day. There are more than five million bloggers online, according to Technorati.com, but only a handful are worth reading, although that handful is very good indeed. Podcasting promises to be more like blogging than like public-access cable. Whether it will — or should — amount to more than that is, at this point, an open question.

Among the truest of the true believers is Chris McIntyre, who hosts a Web site called PodcastAlley.com. McIntyre’s aim is to track down as many podcasts as he can, offer a description, and let users rank them on a scale of one to five. McIntyre, a 26-year-old graphic designer, first heard about podcasting during the fall, and wasted no time in making it the center of his life: he registered the domain name on October 28 and designed the site while he was moving from Chicago to Nashville, where he now lives. PodcastAlley.com now attracts about 35,000 to 40,000 hits a day, he says.

"I’m all about new forms of receiving information and the ways to get information easier," he told me last week when I reached him in snowbound Indiana, where he was visiting his family. "I’ve always been interested in radio, but I’ve never liked the way they force programs that you don’t want to listen to down your throat."

Like Brian Ibbott, McIntyre wouldn’t mind finding a way to make an income from the world of podcasting — he’s starting his own podcast soon, explaining it will be a podcast about podcasts (so we’ve come to that) — but he’s not sure how to monetize his bliss. At this point, podcasting is still in the hobbyist stage. And it’s clear that as workable as the technology is now, it’s going to have to get a whole lot better for podcasting to appeal to anyone outside a relatively small cult.

Jonathan Zittrain, the Harvard Law professor, talks about a wireless, always-on Internet that’s available wherever you go, combined with such innovations as ’Net-enabled car radios. Mark Glaser, a columnist for the Online Journalism Review, recently wrote a piece about podcasting in which he noted that four million iPods have been sold — but that 650 million cell phones would be purchased in 2004 alone. If the Internet were everywhere, and if every cell phone were equipped to tap into the ’Net, then, overnight, podcasts would have a vastly greater potential reach than they do today.

Last week Glaser, who’s based in San Francisco, told me that he thinks the next step is for manufacturers to equip MP3 players with built-in Internet access — "a no-brainer," as he put it, since it would eliminate the need for a computer to download shows. To Glaser, podcasting, like satellite radio, is drawing people away from traditional broadcast radio because it gives them choices they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Still, Glaser observes that the alternatives remain tiny: he recently wrote that, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, there are some 247 million listeners of broadcast radio, three million satellite-radio subscribers, and a bit more than four million listeners of the top three Internet radio networks. So far, at least, podcast listeners would add up to quite a bit less even than that — a subset of a subset. The difference is that the alternatives are growing — and over-the-air radio is not.

THEN, TOO, maybe the small numbers of satellite- and Internet-radio users are irrelevant. We live in an increasingly fragmented media universe. The 20 million to 30 million people who still watch one of the three evening newscasts are old and getting older. The buzz is with Fox News, even though it reaches only a fraction of that number, and with Web sites, blogs, radio talk shows, and other media outlets that cater to niche audiences, confirming their beliefs and prejudices rather than challenging them by exposing them to a wide range of viewpoints.

"The Massless Media" is the title of an essay on this phenomenon by National Journal media columnist William Powers that appears in the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Powers isn’t particularly troubled by the emergence of a greater number of media outlets serving ever-smaller slices of the public, comparing it to the partisan press of the 19th century. He writes that "even though the media of this period were profuse, partisan, and scandalously downmarket, they were at the same time a powerful amalgamator that encouraged participatory democracy and forged a sense of national identity." But Brooke Gladstone — co-host of NPR’s On the Media — isn’t so sure. "I’m concerned because in that really roiling, raucous time in the beginning of our country, you would hear what everyone else had to say. Even if you didn’t agree with it, there was cross-pollination," says Gladstone. "Powers says it happens now. But I don’t know if I’m totally convinced of that."

I had called Gladstone to talk about the On the Media podcast, which is in the process of being rolled out. But the question she raised is worth pondering. I remember attending a lecture some years ago by the late New York University media philosopher Neil Postman, best known for his 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, on the entertainment media’s role in crafting and warping public discourse. Postman talked about the importance of the New York Times front page as a social document — whether you agreed with what the editors chose to put on page one or not, there was nothing more essential in terms of shaping our national conversation. Is that even true any longer? Walter Cronkite didn’t really tell us the way it was, as he would be the first to concede. But there are certain cultural signposts that help provide us all with a shared experience — the nightly news, the front page of the Times. In that sense, it’s a good thing that conservatives devote so much time and energy to criticizing the likes of Dan Rather and the Times rather than ignoring them. At least we all still agree on what matters.

Documentary filmmaker Danny Schechter, who’s the executive editor of MediaChannel.org and a former radio news broadcaster, is a fan of all sorts of DIY media, including podcasting. But he, like Gladstone, wonders whether the cost of targeting ever-smaller niches is the diminution of our shared consciousness.

"Clearly we’re moving toward more-interactive media. People want to participate. The reaction against media concentration, or big media, is the emergence of micromedia on every level. Having instant access to the music you like can also lead to instant access to the information you like," says Schechter. "Some of it can be very liberatory, introduce you to other worlds, other ways of thinking, and at the same time be very reinforcing of what you already think you know. You’re programming your own head."

In a society in which the overwhelming majority of Bush voters think US forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and in which a persistent minority of Kerry voters believe Ohio, and thus the election, was stolen, that’s no small concern. Arguments over ideas are one thing; arguments over the underlying facts are quite another, and they are fed by ever-increasing numbers of us reading, hearing, and seeing only what we want to read, hear, and see.

As promising as podcasting may be as a way of liberating us from the likes of Clear Channel and FCC chair Michael Powell, there’s a danger that too many of us will be withdrawing from the national conversation still further. You can program your own head. But you’ve got to know what your head needs.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: December 31, 2004 - January 6, 2005
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