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For someone used to getting their politics from newspapers or TV, it's probably somewhat jarring to listen to a podcast from former Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole while the psychedelic graphics of Windows Media Player dance across your computer screen to the rhythm of his voice.
Dole's podcast (available on the official Republican Party Web site, rnc.org) is formatted like a traditional radio interview. The former Senate Majority Leader is promoting his book, One Soldier's Story, with the Republican National Committee's Kevin McLaughlin sitting in as interviewer.
Dole, who called in over a special high-quality ISDN line the party set up for podcasting, gives a frank account of his wounds in Italy in World War II and his long road to recovery. And perhaps too candidly, Dole admits that he didn't exactly write the entire tome: "I, of course helped write it, and read it, reread it," he says.
PAYING FOR RUSH. Podcasting has hit the political mainstream. Former Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards has already recorded his second podcast. (His inaugural program was Mar. 23.) And on June 3, Rush Limbaugh, king of conservative talk radio, will launch his first podcast.
"I've been getting thousands of requests for this in recent weeks," Limbaugh said recently on his radio show, which reaches 20 million listeners every day. Most podcasts are free, but Limbaugh's will be available only to subscribers to his Rush 24/7 online service, which costs $49.95 per year.
While many politicians were slow to catch on to the Net's fund-raising capabilities and later to the political-spin possibilities of blogs, they're determined not to miss out on whatever benefits podcasting has to offer. "We're operating under the theory that there's no better messenger for the [Republican] party than an individual activist," says Michael Turk, who runs the eCampaigns effort for the RNC.
UNKNOWN NUMBERS. That's why the RNC is providing Turk with so much content -- including a recent interview with former Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia on his new book, A Deficit of Decency. Republican Party faithful love Miller, who addressed the GOP convention in 2004 and denounced his own party's nominee for President, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.). "The people who are interested in politics, the news junkies, are trying to consume as much information as they can," says Turk.
It's too early to get a fix on the size of the audience for political podcasting. Turk says even he doesn't know how many people are 'casting, or how many are listening. The RNC is still working on a system to track its audience. "Podcasts are a relatively new phenomenon," he says. "It was only about two months ago that we started doing this."
Direct-to-listener podcasts have some advantages for a political party. They keep loyalists engaged in this fallow year between elections, and they avoid the media "filter" by putting party officials in the place of journalistic interviewers. For example, McLaughlin tosses Dole this political softball: "Do you think the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot by using their obstructionist tactics?"
"A HUGE IMPACT." Edwards goes Dole one step better in his recent podcast: He dispensed with an interviewer altogether. The Edwards podcasts (available on oneamericacommittee.com) feature the former Senator and his wife, Elizabeth, chatting and reading the answers to questions sent in by visitors to the Web site. The talk ranges from John Edwards' attempt to cut his Diet Coke intake to both Edwards' search for new solutions to poverty. The Edwards podcasts are just short of a half-hour, while Dole's clocks in at just over 11 minutes.
Political professionals have high expectations for the new format. "There will be a time when everybody is talking about podcasting the way they're all talking about blogs now," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who as Howard Dean's Presidential campaign manager was largely credited with an Internet strategy that revolutionized online fund-raising and political outreach. "Podcasting is growing even faster than blogging was at this stage. I think podcasting is going to have a huge impact on the next election cycle."
Some podcasts mix polished political rhetoric with man-on-the street grittiness. A podcast called Audio Activism (audioactivism.org) was recorded at an antiwar rally in San Francisco and features comments from protestors directed toward soldiers serving in Iraq. "Yo, my name's Brandon," says one. "And I just want to say, like, I really, really think that what ya'll are doing is not really cool, you know?" But Brandon adds that he supports the troops and wants them home.
A few minutes later Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) takes the mic with a more nuanced take: "I am against the war, not against the warriors we sent there," she says.
ROAD TO RUIN? Political podcasts themselves will get more nuanced as politicians of every stripe jump into the new technology. And that's part of the danger for the nascent format -- if the product becomes as staid as a political stump speech, listeners will go somewhere else. Speaking of the founders of podcasting technology, Trippi says they "would probably be worried the politicians are going to bastardize it."
The lesson for politicians is this: Keep Bob Dole as psychedelic as possible. By Eamon Javers in Washington, D.C.