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Feed your head
Podcasting is DIY radio for programmers and listeners alike. Will it save us from corporate radio? Or further isolate us inside our own miniature media worlds?

ADAM CURRY, the fortysomething former MTV VJ whoís reinvented himself as the godfather of podcasting ó that is, downloadable audio programming for MP3 players ó is shooting the breeze with writer Annalee Newitz, whoís flown to Curryís home outside London to interview him for Wired magazine. Itís mid December, and Curry is recording the latest edition of his podcast, The Daily Source Code, at a local Starbucks, the only place he can get a broadband connection. He and Newitz opened the show with some random chitchat. Now heís showing her a computerized map of Berlin ó not exactly great audio. "You see how easy it is to fill up 10 minutes of MP3 space?" he says. "We just did 10 minutes. Itís easy. Itís easy. And people eat this shit up."

Well, thatís debatable. The Daily Source Code ó an eclectic, 40-minute-long mix of tech talk, music (the Lascivious Biddies are a current Curry favorite), and freeform patter ó can be somewhat less compelling than its host might wish. But the merits of his own program aside, there is little doubt that Curry may be on to something big. Barely five months ago, he released the first version of iPodder, software he developed that makes it easy for your computer to locate audio files, organize them by subject, and download the ones you like to your portable player. (The term "podcasting" comes from Appleís iPod, the most popular such player.) By December, more than 2000 podcasts were already online, with the number growing every day.

Curry has quickly established himself as a chirpy evangelist for this new technology, talking about RSS feeds and coding trivia with the same enthusiasm he once reserved for, say, Duran Duran. I couldnít reach Curry for comment; one e-mail I sent to him bounced, and he didnít respond to another. (No surprise: heís been spending quite a bit of time in the Netherlands tending to his mother, who recently underwent surgery there.) But in a recent profile on The World, a radio show co-produced by Bostonís WGBH, the BBC, and Public Radio International, Curry said he would be happy to be known as "the Ed Sullivan of podcasting," adding, "You donít need a hell of a lot of talent. You just gotta be nice, and have your ears open, and let people shine."

For technology that has been around only since August, podcasting has already attracted a lot of notice; the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Londonís Guardian, Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweekís Web site have all run stories on it. Thereís something about the idea of an alternative to getting stuck in your car with Rush Limbaugh or sports radio that has captured peopleís imagination, even if the reality of podcasting right now falls considerably short of the promise. "In a sense, the meta-story is that something this cool can happen that fast. Itís a sign of the overall health of innovation," says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, whose popular InstaPundit.com weblog often touts such advances as audio and video blogging.

Podcasting could be a passing fad ó or it could evolve into the most serious challenge to commercial radio since television. Radioís descent into bottom-line-oriented irrelevance, sped by the 1996 repeal of any meaningful controls on corporate ownership, has been well-documented. Other than public radio, which is thriving, the best-known alternative to the commercial AM and FM bands is satellite radio, which got a big boost in visibility in 2004 thanks to former NPR host Bob Edwardsís move to the XM network and Howard Sternís $500 million deal with Sirius.

But satellite requires a new radio receiver and costs around $10 a month. Podcasting, by contrast, is free, at least for the moment, and assuming youíve already got a broadband connection, a reasonably new computer, and an MP3 player. Moreover, with podcasting there is little or no barrier to entry. Many podcasts are simply MP3 versions of existing radio programs that may not be carried on a station you can receive, or that may not be broadcast at a convenient time ó hence the oft-repeated phrase that podcasting is "TiVo for radio." Among these are most of Air America Radioís shows, the left-leaning daily news program Democracy Now!, and, closer to home, WGBHís Morning Stories series.

Nevertheless, the heart and soul of podcasting are shows put together by dedicated DIY amateurs, such as The Dawn and Drew Show, a rambling, R-rated dialogue between a young married couple in rural Wisconsin. (As with satellite radio, podcasts are not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The agencyís indecency rules apply only to broadcast radio and television, on the theory that broadcasters use a scarce, publicly owned resource: the airwaves.) Or Two Rights, a not-ready-for-prime-time gabfest hosted by two conservative men. Or The Super Smart Radio Whore Sex Show, which, alas, isnít even smart, never mind super smart. Or The iPodlounge Podcast, dedicated to every podcast listenerís favorite toy.

"Programming has been taken over by Clear Channel, and Iíve been kind of wondering what people were going to do," says John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead who writes frequently about the online world. "The possibility of ending this monopolistic situation on the part of the government is minimal. Somebody had to do something, and I guess this is kind of a natural, organic response. Thatís cool."

Itís the combination of being able to time-shift radio shows that youíd like to listen to but canít, along with the ability of almost anyone to become a do-it-yourself radio host, that imbues podcasting with such potential, and that promises to turn it into as big a phenomenon in 2005 as text blogging has been for much of this decade. "If you imagine an Internet that is as ubiquitous as the air through which the radio waves go, then two and two is four. You suddenly are pushing information from a source to an interested party without having to go through the [broadcast] tower and also through the [FCC] license," says Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, who is faculty co-director of the schoolís Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Itís a liberating prospect. But at a time when our national conversation is already breaking down along ideological, cultural, and religious lines, the notion that one more aspect of our social consciousness may atomize into a million bits of niche-oriented narrowcasts offers reason to pause. Any potential alternative to right-wing talk, profit-pumping sleaze, and the millionth or so spin of Whoís Next is welcome news. But new technology rarely works out the way that optimists expect.

WHEN BRIAN Ibbott arrives home from his day job at a software company near Denver, Colorado, he often as not heads for his basement. Three evenings a week, he fires up his home studio ó a laptop computer, a professional-quality microphone, and a wall full of CDs ó to record Coverville, a half-hour audio program featuring cover songs. The fare is eclectic, ranging from the Ramones slamming their way through Bob Dylanís "My Back Pages" to Norah Jonesís breathy rendition of the Hank Williams standard "Cold, Cold Heart."

Coverville is slick and entertaining enough for radio, but you canít hear it on a broadcast station. Ibbott, you see, is a pioneering podcaster, launching Coverville in late September. Already, between 3000 and 4000 people subscribe, automatically downloading new shows as soon he places them online. "The format and the technology are just the perfect combination to make this work. Potentially this thing could grow into a really huge industry," says the 36-year-old Ibbott, who pays a modest licensing fee to ASCAP and BMI to keep the copyright cops at bay.

In a sense, podcasting is just the latest example of how the dot-com crash of 2000 liberated the Internet from the unrealistic expectation of instant wealth, fostering a new climate of grassroots innovation. Google, the paradigmatic post-crash Internet company, started small and kept its focus modest for several years before finally cashing in. And podcasters such as Ibbott, like the text bloggers before them, have no idea whether theyíll ever be able to make any money. Ibbott has a modest advertising arrangement with a company that sells podcasting software. Iíve heard ads on a few other podcasts as well. But Ibbott says the deal heís got barely covers his expenses, and heís not certain that will ever change. "Thereís not really a business model yet for how people can start making money with this," he says. "Iíd love to do this as a business, absolutely. Iím not sure how."

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