Scanning the radio dial this morning, my mind numbed as Justin Timberlake pop dribble flowed into hoochie bling bling, which flowed into monotonous talk, spanning the public radio left to the Christian right. I slammed the radio off and reached with a sharpie marker towards a "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker on my desk, altering it to read, "Kill Your RADIO!"
I am not alone in my disappointment with radio programming. As Clear Channel and other corporate giants continue to squash diversity and creative programming, some people have responded with pirate radio, broadcasting music and news to their liking. Others have subscribed to satellite radio. And others are traveling with their entire record collection (and then some) on portable MP3 players. Since Fall 2004, however, a growing number of people have been excited about a new technology: podcasting.
What is a Podcast?
A podcast is simply an MP3 file that is delivered to your computer when you subscribe to a podcast show. To do this, you need podcast receiving software.
Then you need to find the URL for the podcast you are interested in. This isn't the same URL as the podcast's website, but rather the URL for the podcast feed, which you can usually find by clicking on the website's "subscribe" or "rss" link.
Paste this URL into the podcast receiver to subscribe. The software will then check to see if a new show has been posted and will download the MP3 to your computer. You can then transfer the show onto your MP3 player (the most popular is the Apple iPod, hence the term "podcasting") and listen to the podcast away from your computer whenever you want.
Of course, MP3s have been around for years and had their own meteoric rise in popularity as audio could be compressed small enough to transfer songs over the Internet. What's new with podcasting is the expansion of who creates the content, the diversity of the content, and the ease of their delivery and portability.
While Morrissey may have wanted to "hang the DJ" as early as 1986 in the Smiths' song, "Panic," media consolidation in the 1990s and the loss of local radio programming turned the lights off for the personality that once guided listeners through the broadcast. Stations transitioned to centralized nation-wide feeds, diminishing the role of DJs and their expertise in niche interests and local events.
To combat the drone of homogenous radio, podcasts introduce listeners to a refreshing variety of voices from all around the world. And rather than a professional host or centralized computer driving the discussion or dictating the music play list, podcasts are made primarily by hobbyists/amateurs/your every day Joe (yes, there's an over representation of men) Schmo with a niche interest.
Technological advances with desktop publishing led to the explosion of self-published paper zines in the 90s. And blogging software like Blogger and Typepad digitized this trend through the Internet. With the popularity of portable MP3 listening devices and tools available to support making your own show, podcasting expands self-publishing to the next level: sound.
And the importance of the DJ has returned! With personality and expertise, there are a new crop of podcast DJs to host and guide you through your aural journey. Some shows resemble traditional radio shows with music geeks, rivaling the likes of John Cusack in the movie "High Fidelity," broadcasting DJ-driven music sets. Cory Brown, the founder of independent record label Absolutely Kosher, uses his podcast to promote the label's records. With the enthusiasm of a fan, Brown reveals the personal side of the music, sharing details about the band along with sneak peaks to new releases.
Other shows resemble talk shows with recorded journal entries. But almost all podcasts invite the listener into the intimate world of another person, whether it's someone's personal thoughts on technology (Shai in 60 seconds), a lead singer who podcasts while the band is on tour (Kevin Seconds of 7 Seconds), or a native New Yorker's guide to music in the Big City (New York Minute -- which is much longer than a minute).
From Agriculture to Yippies and Everything In Between
While podcasts are much like terrestrial radio and Internet radio with heavy representation in the music and talk show format, podcast directories list an impressive and expanding list of podcast categories. Topics span politics, entertainment, hobbies, and advice.
What really excites me is how some shows break from the traditional radio model and experiment with short audio ideas. Japanese electronic artist, Tomoyuki Sugimoto, shares tracks he creates via his podcast, Modulation. Even though I'm not typically a fan of electronic music, I love this podcast for its creative use of the medium. He introduces his work, requests feedback, and involves his listeners by asking them to send a recording of them saying "Modulation," which he then mixes into the short tracks he podcasts.
Sound of the Day is another sound idea departing from the traditional radio format. This minute-long podcast is simply a sound nugget sandwiched between a 20 second intro and a 20 second outro. Sounds are as mundane as scissors cutting paper, a quarter rolling on a table, or buzz from a poor audio connection. But listening to these podcasts calls attention to the rich aural world around us.
Delivery and Portability
Subscribing to a podcast is like programming a radio preset button. You're telling your podcast software that you like the show and to tell you when more are available.
Best of all, you become the DJ with control over what to play and in which order. KCRW, a public radio station in Los Angeles, makes their locally produced talk shows available as podcasts, which means you no longer have to tune in to the show when it's scheduled to air. Instead, you can download the podcast and listen to it whenever it's convenient for you.
With podcasting, you're also no longer tied to your computer to hear independent sounds distributed over the Internet. You can listen on an airplane, at the gym, in the park while walking your dog, or on the bus during your morning commute.
I still play my car radio, but about 50% of the time, it's broadcasting podcasts off my iPod via a wireless FM transmitter from Radio Shack.
With the iPod set to play MP3s in a random order, I may hear a mashup song from Mashup of the Week, then a lesson on how to pour and drink the perfect Guiness from How to Do Stuff, and then a history lesson on 1960s boogaloo from Soul Sides. And the content stays fresh because I delete the podcasts after I hear them and add the new ones to my iPod as they are posted.
With the ease of use podcasts offer both the broadcaster and the receiver, the biggest obstacle currently facing this medium is filtering. It is too easy for podcast shows to go on for too long. Even former MTV VJ Adam Curry, a key player in podcast development and promotion, could practice a more stringent self-editing process as a recent show of his popular podcast, Daily Source Code, featured Curry trying to catch a cab for over five minutes!
And wading through the vast amounts of podcasts may seem daunting, but I'm sure more directory services will develop (like Podcast Pickle) that will feature podcasts ranked by listeners while still providing recognition for the more obscure topics and styles.
So what are you waiting for? Go forth and podcast!