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Podfishin': Castin' The Net

By Dave Davis · September 6th, 2006 · Distribution Revolution
Oliver Meinerding

By now even grandma knows what an iPod is. Apple's tiny players changed the shape of music -- the antithesis to the challenge of Napster, the iPod created a way to sell music at a lower cost to fans, with higher margins for artists.

Beyond that, it spawned a new medium, the "podcast." A podcast can be any kind of media, from radio and TV shows to home video or audio postcards. While "webcasting" is nothing new, the best content has historically been "tethered" to a computer. Most shows could be streamed, but not saved. We could play them whenever we wished, but not wherever, since a connection to the Internet was needed.

Podcasting started as Apple's response to broadcasting. The iPod's market potential was limited because it lacked topical content found over the air, like news, sports and talk. By creating a simple, affordable and open mechanism with millions of users, broadcasters, social groups/organizations, companies and individuals were attracted to participate. Given iPod's success, participation was a no-brainer. So producers, drawn like moths to the flame, have filled the iTunes store with shows. The market's quickly grown beyond Apple, and so we've reached an unusual juncture: a flood of content, relatively accessible and typically free, has outpaced our ability to locate and consume it! Podcasting's turned the whole Napster frenzy on its head: We have more high quality, legal programs than anyone has time to hear or watch!

The iTunes store isn't the only place to find podcasts. Podcasting has bred a generation of enthusiasts, amateur and professional.

There are many aggregators (lists of podcasts on a Web site, the way Yahoo used to be, before Google) like iTunes, but most of The Usual Suspects (networks, radio stations, etc.) offer them on their own Web sites. And why not? What better way to get the message out to interested parties! RSS (Really Simple Syndication) works much like the old newswires of the 20th century (always-on connections to a ticker service). The key difference is that individuals don't merely subscribe; they can publish these feeds. These streams can carry all kinds of data. Podcasts can be carried via RSS to any Web browser, expanding the possibilities far beyond Apple's original vision. Today iTunes is just one podcast outlet among many. From familiar names like Yahoo! Podcasts, AOL, Odeo and MSN to the upstarts with a twist, like Podzinger, Podscope, Podnova and Feedster, it's easy to google up something new and different to hear.

I discovered podcasts the usual way -- looking for free fuel for my iPod. I quickly found more stuff than I could possibly listen to! Fortunately, the iTunes store has a good search engine to match their great selection. And they're clearly happy to give away other people's intellectual property. Touch the "Podcasts" tab in the Apple store, and you're presented with the same attractive, well-edited tableau of the most accessible podcasts, neatly categorized by interests and genre. For instance in Sports, there are two Bengals podcasts and a Major League Baseball-sponsored Reds show. The music podcasts, like the iTunes radio options, are quite rich, varied and in every way better than terrestrial radio. There are good shows being produced in every genre, playing mixes that rival the heyday of radio.

Depending on whom you ask, digital delivery is the destroyer or the salvation of Music As We Know It. Since iTunes and Napster are hit-driven, searching for one's favorite songs discovers few new artists. Programmed music -- sequencing songs like radio -- is the answer to this problem. Copyright laws make it difficult for producers to introduce fans to artists, but podcasters have come up with novel solutions to that problem. By focusing on individual artists and adding interviews or working entirely with indies, podcasters have been able to produce some amazing mixes and shows.

Podcasting is irresistible to a music geek. The Beach Boys Pet Sounds 40th Anniversary 'casts are worth a listen. Via podcast, KCRW's famous "Morning Becomes Eclectic" out of California makes I-75 feel like the Hollywood Freeway.

Smithsonian Folkways offers 24 one-hour programs exploring the world's most famous Folk music collection, with music and interviews from Lead Belly to Ani DiFranco. Jann Wenner's historic 1970 interview with John Lennon is an easy find (and three hours long!). World Café featured local heroes The Hiders via iTunes' store, and there's a fun interview with Greg Dulli on a Twilight Singers podcast. And of course, if you're a Deadhead, there's no shortage of Deadcasts.

Here's my guilty pleasure: I confess I subscribe to Daniel Liss' often written-about video blog "Pouring Down," which has an eclectic mix of text, graphics, words and sounds. It's impossible to describe the wide vision (it's unclear whether Daniel himself can!), but it's broadly about interactions with this mediated world. His podcasts are often inter-related -- currently he's working "seven maps," where he responds directly to input from viewers, who are collaborators on many levels, including funding.

There's not enough space in CityBeat to cater to every reader's tastes, so we'll tackle this as an ongoing feature in Distribution Revolution. Consider this the introduction. Every few months we'll take a look at the state of podcasting in general, and highlight the most interesting things going on. And maybe, if the editor lets me, we'll take it to the Web with a podcast of our own!

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.


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