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Attack of the Pod People


Okay, pop quiz: Podcasting is a) the next big thing; b) the current big thing; c) no big thing; or d) How the heck should I know?

The correct answer is “d.” Podcasting is an intriguing new use of some not-so-new technology, and in the first year or so of its existence, it has taken on as many forms as a Ridley Scott space creature. But where podcasting is going to end up and how it fits into the business of audio distribution of the future is anybody’s guess.

The world these days, as the cliché goes, comprises two kinds of people: those who “get it,” who are not only listening to podcasts daily but are also thinking about — if they haven’t already done so — creating their own; and those who don’t see the point of it. But everyone’s heard of podcasting. Even my mother, age 82 (although remarkably hip and perceptive), recently asked me, after reading about it in The New York Times, whether it’s something she should be interested in.

For those who’ve been off the grid for a while, podcasting is making audio files available online so that people can download them into their computers and transfer them to portable music players like Apple iPods — hence, the name. That’s all there is to it.

What makes it different from downloading music from or iTunes is that the content is made to be given away for free — almost no one charges for a podcast, and no one violates anyone’s copyright by listening to one. It’s also, by and large, not music. Most podcasts are spoken word — oriented like the early days of radio, when people actually listened to it.

What makes it different from getting radio programs off of a streaming server like the BBC’s or NPR’s is that you can get the file at any time, not just when the originator sends it. Even more importantly, you don’t have to record the program in real time the way you do with a stream: A 10-minute program encoded as an MP3 will take only as long as it takes your broadband connection to download a 10MB file.

What kind of new technology do you need to get podcasts? Well, if you’re up to date with your Web browsing tools, the answer is none. Veteran radio producer Tony Kahn calls podcasting “the love child of blogging.” It uses the same technology that bloggers use: RSS, or Real Simple Syndication. An addition to the RSS protocol allows “enclosures” that, like e-mail attachments, can be files of any type, including audio.

Podcasting was born a little more than a year ago when ex-MTV veejay Adam Curry wrote an Applescript that downloaded an MP3 file onto his Mac and copied it over USB to his iPod. Now, there are literally dozens of applications on all platforms to do the same thing. To podcast, all you need is access to a Web host with RSS capability. And if your existing host isn’t set up for it, there are companies cropping up that will handle your feeds and your file storage.

Kahn has been in radio for more than 30 years and jumped on the podcasting bandwagon as soon as it started rolling. Kahn’s pretty well-known in the world of public radio. He’s a contributor and sometime host of The World, the daily news program co-produced by the BBC World Service and Boston’s public-broadcasting behemoth WGBH, as well as one of the panelists on NPR’s hysterical weekly quiz show, Says You. (He’s also a friend, and he and I have done a number of radio and film projects together.) But for the past year or so, Kahn’s primary job has been producer and creator of a weekly series of short spoken-word broadcasts called Morning Stories. These tightly edited personal stories from a wide variety of contributors, accompanied by sound effects and music, are broadcast over WGBH-FM during its Morning Edition slot. Over the airwaves, they don’t go any farther than the Boston area.

“When I first heard about podcasting,” Kahn says, “the term was about three days old. I contacted Adam Curry, the godfather, who was in Brussels at the time, and sent him a clip of one of our broadcasts and asked if he thought it would work as a podcast. About a half-hour later, and this was around 5:30 a.m. my time, he got back to me and told me all I needed was an RSS feed. I had no idea what it was, so that morning, I spoke to our head of Web development and new programming ideas and asked if we had one. He said, ‘Not yet, but let’s get one.’ A couple of days later, we were doing the first public radio podcast.”

While the on-air broadcast of Morning Stories has to fit the Morning Edition slot, the podcast version doesn’t. “We have two different production lines,” Kahn says. “We can run them at any length, but we limit them to the time a person would take a jog or have a quick commute in the car. I comment on the story with my right-hand man, Gary Mott, and we can go into the archives to find other things that might be relevant. We’re dropping new life forms into the pot and seeing what evolves.”

What’s also evolving is a huge audience. About 50,000 people listen to the Morning Stories FM broadcast, but downloads of the podcasts have numbered in the millions by listeners all over the world. “We get e-mail from people who are listening on the Tube in London or tending their sheep in Scotland or riding on their gondola,” Kahn says with a laugh. “There’s a high degree of communication between the podcaster and the listener. It’s much more of a conversation than a radio show, where you generally just hear back from listeners on what they like and what they don’t like. These listeners tell you something about their lives and experiences and why they appreciate what you do, and they expect to hear back from you. Broadcasting is more speaking down, but podcasting is more speaking with peers at the same level.

“It’s as much a movement as it is a developing marketplace or new medium. Between 5,000 and 7,000 podcasts are now available that have been created by amateurs. They’re all from people who are enthusiastic about something, and the audience can be 10 or 50 or 1 million. This is a really early phase in which things are fascinating. When you’re having fun innovating, it’s often because you can implement what you’re thinking about right away.”

One of podcasting’s most intriguing aspects is that ownership of the material is far more fluid than in other media. “We’ve been introducing our listeners to some podcasts and podcasters we enjoy listening,” Kahn says. “We’ll take pieces of other podcasts or clips that people send us and incorporate them into our podcast, and there’s nothing to stop anyone from taking my podcast and editing and including it in theirs.

“As a broadcaster, we’re always aware of rights. Many things we have at WGBH we have broadcast rights to, but not Web distribution rights. There has to be a new agreement for using intellectual property on podcasts. We’ve watched the evolution of the Creative Commons concept. The Berkman Center at Harvard Law School is doing a lot of work on this. Everything we produce and use is cleared through Creative Commons.”

Indeed, looking at the rapid growth of podcasting, one can’t help but think that radical change might be around the corner. Like the Internet, the commercialization of podcasting could take it in another direction. Forbes Magazine recently ran an article on four ways to monetize podcasting, and some independent broadcasters are trying to get paid subscribers to sign on. Apple recently added links to some 15,000 podcasts through its iTunes store. They’re all free for now, but that may not last.

“Frankly, I was a little scared that when Apple started offering them, 500 million people would start getting podcasts, a flood of big money and consolidation would follow and it would put an end to the experimental period,” Kahn says. “But it didn’t happen. They did a significant thing to move it forward: They got about 2 million new people the first two days, but they’re still offering them for free.

“There are people who are interested in making investments in podcasting, but they are those who have already made investments and had success in previous Internet and broadcast media,” he adds. “Hardware people are looking to make devices that can do it all when it comes to receiving and producing podcasts — something people can carry with them so they don’t need a computer to edit, download and upload files.

What happens when you get 1 million podcasts that no one listens to? Kahn isn’t worried. “As long as there are enough real enthusiasts who are passionate about what they’re doing,” he says, “there will be enough quality content and original material around to attract an audience willing to support it.”

From a technical standpoint, it isn’t difficult to produce a podcast. At WGBH, the same tools are used to create the Morning Stories broadcasts as the podcasts — although there’s an interesting twist. “Morning Stories is on the air when WGBH is broadcasting in mono,” Kahn explains. “But since most people are listening to the podcasts on earbuds and that’s an ideal way to hear stereo, sometimes we’ll recut it and add stereo imaging and effects.”

People have been listening to music on headphones for many years, but very little audio material has been produced for binaural listening. Podcasting may be the medium that changes that. “One of our engineers, Antonio Oliart, came up with a gadget that puts a pair of tiny mics on eyeglasses,” says Kahn. “That allows you to walk around and record what’s out there around you, as well as your voice. I used it to record an interview with a podcasting singing group called the Lascivious Biddies at their rehearsal, looking at each singer as I was talking to them. I also did an intro for a story about driving, in which I left the studio, got into my car and started up into traffic.”

Does this mean that podcasting will create a market for binaural production tools? Bill Gardner, the maker of one of those tools, hopes so. An MIT Media Lab graduate, Gardner is the founder of WaveArts, which produces a range of high-end multiformat audio plug-ins. WaveArts’ Panorama 4 plug-in is an impressive set of tools for 3-D spatialization, room definition and source movement that works spectacularly well on headphones.

“I always wanted to put together a general-purpose, 3-D processing plug-in that would incorporate room acoustics, head-related transfer functions and doppler shift,” says Gardner. “I thought it would appeal to high-end audio geeks, researchers and people doing headphone programs like audio guides in museums. When I listen to these things, I never hear binaural techniques, they’re just straight stereo. I think they’re missing out on a big opportunity. About the same time, we started hearing about podcasting and we started advertising on the podcasting Websites as a tool for them.

“We found that converting files to MP3 or AAC or most of the popular codecs doesn’t really affect the 3-D effect. People are sensitive to low-frequency phase differences between the ears, even more so than amplitude differences, so that’s very important.”

While Kahn thinks that most of his listeners are using earbuds or headphones, Gardner isn’t so sure. “I don’t know if podcasting engineers think their audiences are listening over headphones,” he says. “A lot of them seem to be listening in the car,” using a gadget that was popular years ago and has made a bit of a comeback: a little FM transmitter that plugs into an MP3 player’s audio output and sends the signal to the car radio.

“One of the problems with 3-D techniques is that there is no compatibility mode that handles speakers and headphones,” Gardner explains. “If you listen to crosstalk-canceled audio [i.e., optimized for speakers] over headphones, the low frequencies are out of phase and it sounds like your head’s being sucked out. The current plug-in has a switch for one or the other.”

So where’s all this going? Only time will tell. According to Kahn, “Like most complex phenomena, it’s totally unpredictable. A factor that will be huge two weeks from now will be something that isn’t on the screen yet. Technology doesn’t mature until it has a relationship with the user.”

Kahn sees two factors that will define podcasting’s role in the future. One, it will have to become easier for people to listen to the programs. As a baby boomer, Kahn says, “A lot of people our age are still not getting the experience — the technology is still complex enough to turn many people off. The tools need to be there to get people to podcasts in a simple, straightforward way. Somebody needs to sit them down and have them listen to a podcast, and then the light goes on and they say, ‘Oh, I like this. How can I get more?’”

The other factor is video podcasts. “Video bloggers are looking at podcasting,” Kahn says. “iTunes is on the verge of including video on their podcasts, if they haven’t already.” Many industry folks are predicting that Apple will soon announce a video iPod, maybe even by the time you read this, and video-equipped cell phones are a ready market for potential podcasters.

On the content side, making a quick video and getting it online couldn’t be easier. “People are using Final Cut Pro in ways they wouldn’t think of five years ago,” says Kahn. “I was doing an interview with a video blogger at a conference, and he whipped out a tiny camera, shot the interview, edited it on Final Cut on his laptop right in front of me and uploaded it using WiFi in the hall. Within a half-hour, this interview, which looked as good as any interview on the evening news, was now available to download anywhere in the world.”

Paul D. Lehrman is just beginning to get it.