The people's radio

Sick of bland DJs and annoying ad breaks? A new breed of 'audiobloggers' is hoping to give audiences exactly what they want. Andy Goldberg reports

Wednesday 08 December 2004 01:00

A new kind of radio format is blazing a trail across the internet. Called "podcasting" (because it's a bit like broadcasting and it's aimed at machines like the iPod), it uses open source software, MP3 players and the rambling efforts of audio webloggers ("audiobloggers") to redefine the role of radio in the mobile digital world, and offers hope to the millions who pray for the demise of inane DJs and obnoxious radio advertisements.

A new kind of radio format is blazing a trail across the internet. Called "podcasting" (because it's a bit like broadcasting and it's aimed at machines like the iPod), it uses open source software, MP3 players and the rambling efforts of audio webloggers ("audiobloggers") to redefine the role of radio in the mobile digital world, and offers hope to the millions who pray for the demise of inane DJs and obnoxious radio advertisements.

Podcasting delivers radio-like sound files via RSS (the "web syndication" system that many websites now offer) for downloading onto MP3 players like Apple's iPod that have plenty of room for audio files. The sheer simplicity and potential of the idea have created quite a buzz.

"Podcasting will shift much of our time away from an old medium where we wait for what we might want to hear to a new medium where we choose what we want to hear, when we want to hear it," noted Linux guru Doc Searls when he discovered the format in September. Searls believes that podcasting is currently at the same embryonic stage at which blogging found itself in 1999, when he was just one of a few dozen people writing an online journal. Five years later there are now four million such scribes.

The early signs are that podcasting's growth has been just as viral as blogging, partly because the huge weblog community can spread the word. Yet the speed at which podcasting has developed from an idea to the latest wrinkle in online media is unprecedented. When Searls did a Google search for "podcast" on 28 September, he got 28 results. At the end of October the figure was over 73,000.

The seeds for this new medium were only planted in August, when Adam Curry, a 40-year-old former MTV "VJ" (video jockey) and inveterate tech-tinkerer became intrigued with the idea of liberating internet radio and audio blogs from his computer and putting them on the capacious drive of his iPod. He envisaged the cross-fertilisation of some of the hottest trends on the internet: iPods, peer-to-peer content sharing and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds that automatically update with fresh content from specified weblogs.

Curry asked software programmers to translate his vision into workable code. What he needed, he explained, was a program that would identify MP3 files pointed to by RSS feeds, download them to his computer and place them in his iTunes folder so they would be delivered to his iPod for his listening convenience.

But this, Curry says, was like asking somebody to do his homework for him. The results were abysmal, so he taught himself how to write Applescript, Apple's built-in scripting language for the Macintosh operating system. After about a month the first primitive iPodder program was ready.

Curry admits that it "really sucked" because he wasn't a developer. But in these days of open source cooperation it didn't really matter. Curry had set the podcast ball rolling.

He released the code, and soon geeks around the world were improving his inspired but clumsy efforts, even porting the system to PCs and less-trendy music players than the iPod. As the rudimentary technology was being cobbled together, Curry was also working on the other prerequisite for any successful medium: the content. He began posting a daily show on the internet to test the technology in real-time and under real conditions. It was called the Daily Source Code - a name chosen chiefly to attract developers who might hone Curry's project - and mixed chat about Curry's family and pets with big news and developments from the podcasting world. Occasionally he would throw in a song or two, or record a show on the road while "war-driving" in his car to find an accessible wi-fi spot from which to upload the large file.

Other web-heads and audiobloggers have begun to host and record their own shows. Inevitably one of the favourite topics is podcasting itself, but every day new shows spring up that are devoted to such under-rated musical genres such as football songs ("Soccertunes"), board games ("Geekspeak") and even singing, tap-dancing news bulletins (this one hasn't got a name yet). There are numerous music feeds and such esoteric offerings as The Nature of Systems, ("not quite pure philosophy, not quite pure technology. But it's about systems, and it's all true") and Where We're Bound ("a confused human wondering about the future"). There are cinematic podcasts like Cinema Minima, a daily news digest for movie-makers, and Reel Review, a movie review show.

You get the idea: podcasts are so cheap to produce and so easy to distribute that they can reach any interested audience, however small and divergent. And because they are made by enthusiasts rather than corporate executives, the talk can be as real, strange and surprising as people are.

Of course the quality of the shows varies as much as the quality of blogs. But in podcasting's case the medium really is the message. "Podcasters embrace the new, while much of radio is based on the same tried-and-tested magazine format: show theme, host intro, a sting or bumper, first item, extro, another sting, second item, etc," says Canadian broadcaster Tod Maffin, who recently started his own podcast. "Every art form has its moment of revolution. The podcasters may indeed provide that moment for radio."

Established radio players like National Public Radio (the body that produces and distributes radio shows for broadcast by stations across the US) are experimenting with podcasts, while entrepreneurs are also pricking up their ears and starting to plan advertising models reminiscent of Google's adsense, which automatically places targeted ads on niche websites too small to attract advertisers, then pays the site owner every time someone clicks on one of them. "Do you fantasise about reaching the trend-setters, the early adopters, the cool-hunters?" PodcastAds said in its recent pitch to advertisers. "Podcasting is exploding, and you can't afford not to get in on this hot new medium. PodcastAds gives you an easy way to reach the most popular podcasters, make informed media buys and track your campaigns."

But there are significant challenges that may hamper podcasting's growth. Various legal points need to be clarified to prevent the music industry setting its lawyers on the homebrew radio jocks. Podcast review sites will hopefully help users sort the decent stuff from the drivel, and it surely won't be long before sites like Google or Yahoo! trawl through podcast feeds to find the stuff that's relevant to you, right there in a little box on your home page. But in this age of information overload, will podcasting emerge as a tool that gets you the information you want, when you want it? Or will it be just another neat gadget, like Microsoft's SPOT watch, which delivers content you have no time for?

The likeliest scenario will mix both these elements and could lead to some strange situations - like enjoying airport delays. "Everything is packed, especially my hard disk," wrote Italian weblogger Paolo Valdemarin as he was about to leave for a trip to London. "I have downloaded a whole bunch of podcasts that I have not been able to listen to (this is a big issue with podcasts) and I'm looking forward to be stuck at the airport or on the aeroplane in order to be finally able to listen to all this stuff."

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