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Rise of the Pod People 

Podcasting: What it is, how to get it, and what it means for a radio dial near you

Wednesday, Jun 29 2005
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The Shenida Weave No-Lye Mixshow sounds like nothing on mainstream radio. Weave, the over-the-top radio persona of a "queer Georgia boy" in San Francisco, spins hot dance mixes from Gwen Stefani to Kaskade, and between cuts he recounts last weekend's drunken escapades: "We went out all over the Castro, raisin' hell, raisin' noise, Jesus Lord -- at least the parts that I can remember." Then he delivers the news from the European Union. "The euro is a very wonderful thing. It allows you to buy your hash in the Netherlands as well as buy your big fat dildos in Germany, all on the same dollar, honey! It's just amazing! I just love that little euro thing!"

That goes on for 100 minutes -- too long and too irregularly paced for a radio show, even at a free-form or pirate station. But Weave doesn't have to worry about schedules, station managers, or censoring what he says. He produces his show as a podcast.

A podcast is basically defined as a radiolike audio program that you listen to not on a radio, but by downloading it from the Internet and playing it on an MP3 player. ("Pod" = iPod, "cast" = broadcasting.) You may wonder what the fuss is about: Your iPod is probably crammed with files you don't have time to play, so why add more? But the attraction of podcasts lies in making them. Anyone can record one and put it on the Web, and there are now 8,000-plus individual shows piling up at sites like Podcast.net and PodcastAlley.com. While the biggest fans of podcasting right now are, well, other podcasters, its proponents believe its messy democracy will deliver a badly needed kick in the ass to corporate radio.

Compare a podcasting setup to a professional broadcast studio, and the obvious difference is that it's cheap: A podcaster just needs a home computer, legal or stolen software to record the show, a Web site to host it, and a mike -- and even a $10 computer mike is acceptable. Podcasters can record from home, or a cafe, or the middle of the woods, and they score points for being authentic and uncensored; just like blogs, to which podcasts are frequently compared, there's almost no pressure to polish the work. Some of the biggest podcasters ramble freely into their microphones, and you'll even hear people go through a sneezing fit, answer their phone, or walk out to go to the bathroom.

That said, music podcasts usually follow a stricter format than the talk and variety shows. Take Brian Ibbott's Coverville (www.coverville.com), a program that only plays cover songs. Having just marked his 100th episode, Ibbott started podcasting after he heard about it last August on Tech TV.

"When I was a kid, we had a couple of great AM stations here in Colorado that I used to listen to constantly," he says. "This is probably a clichéd term, but I always wanted to be a DJ, because it sounded like it was so much fun." He tested the waters for a year as a wedding DJ, but playing the same cake-cutting music night after night bored him. Then he discovered podcasting. "I thought, 'Jeez, this is something I could totally do. I've got a laptop, I've got a fairly decent microphone -- I'll just do the radio show that I've always wanted to hear,' which was a show based on covers. And then the rest is history."

The show took off through word-of-mouth and name-checks from prominent podcasts, and today it's one of the most popular music podcasts. Ibbott estimates that he pulls between 10,000 and 15,000 listeners per show, and the majority aren't podcasters, or at least "they were not podcasters when they started listening to my show."

Many podcasts cover the same broad swath of independent and imported music you normally hear on college radio. Englishman William B. Swygart, one of the rotating podcasters on a roster created by Stylus magazine (www.stylusmagazine.com/stycast), is a genuine college DJ at the University of Leeds. For his podcast, Home Taping Is Killing Music, Swygart airs U.K. chart hits by people like Art Brut and Rachel Stevens, dissecting or eulogizing the artists in a soft voice that makes him sound like he's trying not to wake up a roommate.

"The best part is just getting music that people wouldn't listen to out there and into their ears," says Swygart, via e-mail. "I do want to work in 'proper radio' one day, but the opportunities for that are quite obviously limited given the nature of the medium (limited frequencies, stations, adverts, broadcasting restrictions, lack of ways to get yourself started and so on). The podcasts give you a greater amount of creative freedom, but you have to try and make sure that doesn't spill over into becoming, for want of a better word, wank."

If Swygart's show resembles college radio, Candace Corrigan's The Nashville Nobody Knows (http://candacecorrigan.com/v-web/b2/) would fit right into a weekend slot at a public radio station. Corrigan, who has experience in public radio and television, produces a polished half-hour program in which she interviews, and plays music by, Nashville's less celebrated greats, from the eclectic young band the Duhks to the legendary Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. "When the average person thinks of Nashville, they're thinking cowboy hats," says Corrigan. "I just felt like somebody needed to say something, and show people that there was something different."

Corrigan has considered taking the show to public radio, but the freedom to podcast as she pleases, combined with the difficulty of breaking into schedules clogged by tired warhorses like Thistle and Shamrock, makes it a long shot. She's also considered the niche-friendly satellite radio networks, XM and Sirius, but "I'm a bit of a revolutionary from way back, and so I'm just more interested in the podcasting world."

Maintaining a show week after week demands effort and patience: It takes work to stay at the top of the "most popular" lists, and to handle the mail, paperwork, and hosting issues. Podcasters also have to license -- or get away with not licensing -- the music they play. Some podcasts get permission directly from the artists, and others work with the traditional agencies. For Coverville, Ibbott has meticulously stayed in the clear by shelling out $600 a year to ASCAP and BMI, but even then, he says, "it's still a huge gray area as far as what kind of licenses are required and how much of what I'm doing is legal."

With the hassles and the pressures of running a show -- plus the fact that no matter how many of the podcasters' friends say they're listening, their grandmothers still don't understand what the hell podcasting is -- one has to wonder: Don't all music podcasters secretly hope to land DJ slots? Would they jump at the right offer, and will the stars of podcasting get those offers before podcasting takes off on its own?

Or is podcasting already a better deal? Instead of hanging around the radio at a certain time every week to hear a show, listeners can download it -- from anywhere in the world -- and play it whenever they want. The podcaster gets the creative freedom of acting as boss, producer, talent, and editor, and the market can sort the geniuses from the "wankers." But beyond the practical upside, podcasting offers a different and special experience for the listener. Radio was already an intimate medium -- a lone voice coming from an imagined face, whispering in your ear -- but with a homemade podcast, that voice sounds truly alone, as removed from the world as you are in your earbud headphones.

But the airwaves are still tempting, and when radio comes knocking, it'll come on its own terms. Naturally, the established radio networks have taken stabs at distributing their shows as podcasts, like The Rush Limbaugh Show (which charges $50 a year for the downloads), or NPR's On the Media. But one station has reached out to actual podcasters and put them on the air. This May, KYOU-AM (1550) here in San Francisco ditched its struggling talk format to become the first station in America dedicated to podcasts. The station solicits the shows, sticks them in a rotation, and broadcasts them over the air. Coverville is giving it a try, and The Nashville Nobody Knows just joined the mix.

"On the one hand, you're giving people the freedom that they deserve, [which is] the very concept of what broadcasting was supposed to be about," says Rob Barnett, president of programming for Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which owns the station. "On the other hand, and quite selfishly, we may find some great talent out of this thing. Radio is constantly looking for new people to become the next Howard Stern, and you never know where or when you're going to find someone."

Infinity doesn't have the ratings yet for the new format, so it's too early to tell if this will fly. For the podcasters, the only thing that matters is exposure: While podcasters can mention sponsorships in their shows and keep that revenue themselves, KYOU isn't sharing any of the money it makes from booking ads around their content. "The idea here was really all about access, and giving people an opportunity to reach the largest audience that we can find," says Barnett. That may be a raw deal or a great opportunity for the podcaster -- and for Infinity. After all, if podcasts catch on strongly enough to launch the next Howard Stern, John Peel, or Terry Gross, then why bother listening to the radio? Soon there will be an MP3 player in every car and kitchen in America -- and perhaps a podcast out of every home.

About The Author

Chris Dahlen

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