Thursday, January 13, 2005

Podcasting, the trouser-optional medium

In the same way bloggers have taken publishing into their own hands, a small, equally determined band of latter-day Merv Griffins has begun filling the Net with home-brewed broadcasts.

Though these grassroots shows are known as podcasts, you don't have to own an iPod or even an MP3 player to hear them. All you have to do is drop by a podcaster's site and click a link to hear what just popped into his head. But the true joy of podcasting is downloading the show to your portable audio player and listening to it whenever and wherever you like. So long, yadda-yadda radio.

With the exception of several shows featuring hopeful garage bands, most podcasts are informal, chatty monologues covering technology, movies, politics, sports and such additional riveting topics as whether the host has taken a shower that day. For the theologically inclined, there's at least one Christian program cleverly called Psalmcast.

The conventions of good taste are strictly optional, as I learned the other day when I tuned into the top-rated Dawn and Drew Show. Drew, who is Dawn's husband, was irritating her by loudly scratching his knee through his corduroy trousers. To appease Dawn as they nattered in the living room of their 1895 farmhouse in Wisconsin, Drew took off the audibly offensive pants. Considerable sophomoric hilarity ensued, but you get the drift.

Not all podcasts are produced by pantless amateurs. The BBC and American public radio are producing podcast versions of some programs. It also looks like most of the Air America repertoire is offered in podcast, thus ensuring everyone equal access to Al Franken as the nascent network pursues additional affiliates.

Because podcasting is so new, it's hard to quantify. Podcast Alley, a directory started by entrepreneur Chris McIntyre, today lists more than 700 casts vs. 500 last month. Chris looks to be getting more than a dozen new submissions per day. Site visitors are encouraged to evaluate the feeds, and several hundred ratings have been published to date.

There are no reliable numbers on how many people listen to a given podcast. Steve Rubel, a New York publicist and self-described blogging evangelist, reported that the Engadget technology blog, which ranks No. 2 to Dawn and Drew at Podcast Alley, gets 50,000 hits on each of its podcasts. The No. 3 podcast reputedly draws 10,000 hits a day.

Although no podcast is going to deliver boxcar numbers any time soon, it is clear that podcasters have the capability of building the sort of loyal audiences that advertisers will love. Podcastvertising, if I may coin a phrase, will not take off, however, until merchants can identify appropriate programs and validate the size of the target audience.

Another hurdle facing podcast advertising is the largely non-commercial nature of the blogosphere. "We're really not going to sell out -- yet," said Dawn, attempting to reassure her listeners in a recent Firefox-side chat. "But we'll get there eventually."


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