By Olga Kharif
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A pleasant voice laced with humor recounts how he once concocted a Christmas story in which Star Wars robots C-3PO and R2-D2 visit Baby Jesus. Later in that same podcast -- a seven-minute audio snippet designed for listening on iPods and other digital music players -- Father Roderick Vonhogen compares hearing from a fellow Star Wars junkie to "getting a personal e-mail from the Pope himself." Although he ends his monologue with "God Bless," it's the Star Wars theme song that triumphantly wraps up the program.
Clearly, Father Roderick, of the Archdiocese of Utrecht in the Netherlands, is not your typical Catholic priest, and his broadcast is no ordinary sermon. Even Vonhogen's podcast home page eschews the ecclesiastical. It's a play on the hip Apple (APPL) ad, the one with a silhouette of a figure dancing to the music of an iPod, shown in contrasting white. Only, Vonhogen's dancer also wears a priest's white collar.
FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLYING. Welcome to the world of "Godcasting," where religious and inspirational podcasts come from Presbyterians, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists and, yes, even pagans. Depending on your point of view, these programs may strike you as fun, convenient, or blasphemous. But they're rarely boring.
Godcasts have multiplied faster than most other types of podcast programming and have emerged as one of the genre's most popular. Vonhogen's Catholic Insider program ranks as No. 3 -- ahead of programs with streaming jazz, rock songs, or general news -- on portal PodcastAlley.com, which lists 2,884 podcasts. And Catholic Insider keeps on moving up in the charts.
So are many of the other 171 religious and inspirational podcasts out there that bear such names as Wired Jesus Podcast (a program for tech-savvy Christians) and Outchurched. The latter features Ryan King and Dan Tripp, both of whom once aspired to the ministry but became disillusioned with the church. They created a blog and podcast aimed at one of the largest Christian demographics: people who have left the church. In one podcast, King and Tripp discuss why they stopped attending services. "Both of us wouldn't care if the church died," says Tripp.
And the Pagan Power Hour podcast includes information about casting magic spells and proper foods to cook for pagan holidays.
INTERNATIONAL REACH. Most religious organizations have no official position on Godcasting. "The church encourages the use of all forms of media to spread the Gospel message," says Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. (A call to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada elicited, "I have no idea what you're talking about.")
Most Godcasts are more mainstream than the Pagan Power Hour. They're typically produced by preachers looking to spread the word beyond their small congregations. About 1,900 people from as far as Belgium and Vietnam tune in to hear the Reverend Tim Hohm, whose Central Assembly of God in El Sobrante, Calif., has only 100 parishioners.
How does Holm explain his global appeal? "I am upbeat and inspirational," he says. Each 15-minute RevTim show offers advice, such as how to keep one's temper in the workplace or how to carve out more time to spend with the kids. The latter has turned into a challenge for Hohm now that he does podcasts in addition to performing his regular duties.
ASSEMBLING A NETWORK. The programming isn't all talk. The Reverend John Butler, pastor at Beal Heights Presbyterian Church in Lawton, Okla., has channeled his lifelong passion for psalms (he has collected more than 5,000 of them) into his Psalmcast. Using a home-built PC and a headset from his son's PlayStation 2 video-game console, Butler spins church music from choirs and bands from as far away as Ukraine and Australia -- and he does it like a pro. Before the seminary, he worked as a DJ at a radio station, playing everything from country to gospel.
For those looking for a younger voice, 8-year-old Rachel Patchett, still not quite able to pronounce all of her R's, plays a Christian song she selects then reads a Bible verse in her weekly podcast, Rachel's Choice. Up to 1,500 fans tune in to each show, produced by her father and fellow Godcaster, Craig Patchett.
The elder Patchett is a powerhouse in the Godcasting world. A few months ago, he began assembling The GodCast Network, a portal offering 14 different religious podcasts, including RevTim and Rachel's Choice. Patchett hopes his network will turn others on to Christianity, though he has scored no converts so far.
DOWNLOADABLE MEDITATION. While the converts may be hard to come by, money isn't. Like a lot of religious programs, these podcasts often rely on the charity of listeners. Roy Harvey, who lives in Orlando, Fla., and runs the LamRim podcast for Buddhists, says he has received checks for as much as $500. So far, he has collected $750 -- more than enough to keep his podcast going.
Once every few months, Harvey, a video-game producer, takes time off to travel and record important Buddhist religious leaders giving speeches, which account for most of his programming. Interested listeners also can download meditations but, Harvey admits, "they are just a lot of dead air." Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore.