The Playlist: Podcasting--Behind the Hype

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Anyone who believed that the late-1990s MP3 revolution would overthrow the music industry might be a little skeptical of the same rhetoric being used about podcasting today. So, in this month's column, I set out to find out just what podcasting could do.

Believe the Hype--A Little

My mass e-mail to more than 50 friends and coworkers soliciting their favorite podcasts yielded only three responses, including one that read, "I don't even know what a 'podcast' is!"

Okay, so most people aren't spending their free time scouring the Internet for podcasts. That said, the number of podcasts is growing rapidly. FeedBurner says that it has seen the growth of podcast feeds triple in the past six months. The number of podcast listeners is growing, too. Bridge Ratings, which does radio-audience market research, reports that 5 million radio listeners downloaded at least one podcast in 2005. It expects that figure to nearly double in 2006. Another survey conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres says that 78 percent of those who have ever listened to a podcast are male. (C'mon, ladies.)

Search Tools Don't Find

These numbers might be a lot higher if people could actually find what they're looking for. Right now, searching for podcasts is difficult, and Apple iTunes has become the de facto way that people do it. But there's a problem with that. Go to iTunes Music Store, click on Podcasts, and click on the Public Radio category link. Three of the top five podcasts are marked "explicit"--that's a no-no on public radio.

That bothers Maria Thomas, vice president and general manager of NPR Digital Media. Thomas suggests that public-radio listeners go to the NPR Podcast Directory to look for and download podcasts from NPR and its affiliate stations. "We are controlling this directory," says Thomas. "There isn't [stuff] in here that's labeled explicit."

Incidentally, National Public Radio is a frontrunner in news and music podcasting. After six months of podcasting, NPR and affiliate stations have more than 250 podcasts, including 22 music podcasts. Downloads have hit the 13 million mark. The most popular music podcast is "All Songs Considered," a Web-only show inspired by people who are curious about the eclectic music interludes on NPR radio.

BBN Technologies, with its 30-year history in speech recognition, is in a good position to improve podcast searches. (Trivia alert: In 1971 BBN employee Ray Tomlinson sent the first person-to-person e-mail using the @ sign.) The company launched Podzinger, which uses speech technology to convert to text the contents of 60,000-plus podcasts. Since it can search through the text of podcasts, it can better determine the relevance of search results to help you find what you're looking for. Narrow searches work best, as I discovered when I tried the site. Searching for "electronic music" pulled up 2010 results. Searching for "house music" pulled up 93 results. Searching for "drum and bass" (a type of electronic music), sorted by relevancy, pulled up 48 pretty good options.

A Hope for the Unknown

One of those Podzinger options was "The Trance Lab With Lord Bass," a pretty rocking electronic music podcast. (Warning: Download times are long; the whole 2-hour broadcast is one download.)

I contacted Lord Bass, aka 31-year-old Chris DeVries. He records his Monday-night radio show on WUNH 91.3 in Durham, New Hampshire and makes it available as a podcast. He's been doing the show for 10 years and started podcasting in 2005. Traffic to his Web site rose quickly: "Twice in one month last summer I had to upgrade my hosting plan because I kept running out of bandwidth," he says.

He's subscribed to various podcast directories and has seen his listeners expand geographically as far as England, Australia, and Dubai. Right now, this is a pretty typical grassroots success story for podcasting, but for podcasting to live up to its hype, something deeper has to happen.

A Promising Business Model

As luck would have it, I found that something a block away from PC World's San Francisco headquarters. A company called PodShow, cofounded by ex-MTV VJ and podcast icon Adam Curry, runs two podcast directories: Podcast Alley and Indie Podder. PodShow's goal is to use podcasting to connect artists (music, video, and radio) and broadcasters in a way that's commercially viable yet independent of today's commercial music and radio industries. The company gives artists exposure to podcasters who might play their music on their shows, and it helps bands sell CDs through CDBaby. PodShow has plans to start selling digital downloads soon.

"A band can be a little home business," says PodShow CEO Ron Bloom.

On the broadcast side, PodShow's sites gives podcasters exposure to listeners like you and me. Of course, sometimes the artist and the podcaster are the same. This is the case for BiddyCast, produced by the cocktail pop band The Lascivious Biddies.

I think that companies like PodShow are building a model for podcasting that goes beyond the current buzz. First, there's a decent chance for material gain: PodShow says it has a licensing contract that could potentially make artists, podcasters, and the company a good chunk of money. Second, podcasting sites are reaping the rewards paved by the various MP3 battles; people now readily accept digital music and are willing to pay for it. Third, desktop tools are so good that anyone can make low-cost, high-quality podcasts.

Podcasting is still fairly nascent, and for most people it's still somewhat of a novelty; but I think it has the potential to change the way people listen to and discover music and radio programs. While my jaded heart doesn't fully believe that podcasting will truly stick it to the big four in the music industry, I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong.

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