It's an early May day in Burlington, Vt. Flameape and Bill are sitting in a local caf?, talking with Matty the Greek, the program director at RadioFreeSatan.com. After much meandering, the discussion turns to podcasting, the latest craze on the Internet. Thousands of citizens, including the gang in Burlington, are creating their own radio shows -- podcasts -- and beaming them as MP3 files onto the Net.
No, it's not quite as easy as it sounds -- not yet, anyway. The Vermonters agree that the details of creating a podcast are technically challenging for the general public. But that sure doesn't stop these tech-savvy talkers. You can listen to their weekly half-hour gabfest, and even carry it around on an iPod or any MP3 player, by downloading it from Friday Coffeeblogging (candleboy.com/fridaycoffeeblogging). If listening to the guy from Radio Free Satan doesn't sound quite right for your morning commute, there are scads of other programs. You can check out a broad selection on PodcastAlley.com.
What does podcasting mean to you? For one, it's a new convenience. Listeners who miss favorite radio shows, such as National Public Radio's On the Media, can download the programs and catch up with them on their weekend jog. At this basic level, podcasting gives you what you want when you're ready to listen: It's TiVo for radio -- and it's free. But for the more adventuresome, podcasting offers a wild new world of citizens' programming. This audio world is unshackled, so you hear plenty of burps, giggles, and, occasionally, language that might make Howard Stern blush. It can be tiresome, too, but great if you find the right shows.
It's not hard to come across podcasts. Politicians such as John Edwards, the former North Carolina Senator and Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, are reaching out to voters with podcasts, and ministers are podcasting sermons. Mainstream publications are joining the trend. BusinessWeek's first podcast -- on podcasting, what else -- hit BusinessWeek Online on May 23.
But the heart of the podcasting movement is in the world of blogs, those millions of personal Web pages that have become a global sensation. In a blogosphere that has grown largely on the written word, podcasts add a soundtrack. It's not like the traditional Internet sound, which usually involves visiting a Web site. What's special about podcasts is that they're dispatched directly to users who ask for them. In this, they're like the written content on blogs. But podcasts go a step further. They can be delivered not just to your home page but to the music program on your computer, whether it's Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, Windows Media Player (MSFT), or another. From there, it can go straight to your MP3 player.
Sound easy? It's not easy enough, not yet anyway. For newbies, finding the right podcasts is daunting, a bit like digging through a Blockbuster (BBI) after an earthquake. And the technology is packed with confusing jargon. Since we're new to it at BusinessWeek, we decided to try a novel reporting approach: asking the public for help. We put out a call on the blogspotting.net blog, and plenty of useful advice, from great podcasts to production tips, came pouring in.
Beginners should forget, at least for the moment, about podcasting software. Confront that later if you like what you hear in the podcasting world. The easiest thing to do is visit a site such as PodcastAlley.com or iPodder.org. Click on something that looks interesting. It might be Catholic Insider (catholicinsider.com/scripts/index.php), or perhaps the Feel Good Girl's Guide to Good Living (feelgoodgirl.libsyn.com), the creation of an American hypnotherapist and energy healer. Download the file to your desktop, drop it into your audio player, and listen.
First thing you're likely to notice: Listening to podcasting can take a lot of time. You can skim 15 blogs in five minutes. In those same minutes you can hear the preliminary musings of one podcaster. Most of them lack the technical expertise of radio vets, and they have no pressure to race along.
Some, though, are quite good. Following a blog reader's advice, I logged on to Insomnia Radio (hardcoreinsomniaradio.blogspot.com) expecting an eardrum battering or worse. What I found instead was a relaxed disc jockey, sounding much like the "underground" jocks of the '60s, guiding listeners to bands I had never heard of -- Barry Blue and the Big Blue Crew, to name one. It was good radio. I listened contentedly for a half-hour, the music pounding through my ear buds, and missed three or four phone calls.
For a more conversational approach, consider Dave Winer's Morning Coffee Notes (morningcoffeenotes.com). Winer is a podcasting pioneer. He has a lot on his mind, from politics to technology. He also has a sense of humor. Yes, the pace is slow, much more suited to a long stretch of highway than a morning commute. At one point in the show I listened to, Winer walked across the room and poured himself a cup of coffee. You could hear his voice in the distance. His point: This is relaxed conversation, not traditional radio.
Let's say you find some podcasts you like. The next step -- just a bit harder -- is to subscribe. For this, try going to iPodder (ipodder.sourceforge.net/index.php). It takes a matter of seconds to download the free program and a minute or two to start it up. The program has a selection of podcasts to subscribe to. You click on them, or add the Internet addresses of shows you've already found. Within minutes, if it's working right, iPodder will download the programs to your computer's music program. One hitch: Corporate firewalls may get in the way. (That happened here. A frantic call for help went out on the blog, and helpful readers advised us to make adjustments on the proxy server.)
What's a proxy server? That's the problem with podcasting -- it's the domain of techies. This became clear to me when I tried gearing up my computer to create podcasts. No need to dwell on the details here. If you're comfortable with computers and audio, try downloading Blogmatrix Sparks! 2.0 (blogmatrix.com/products_main). Otherwise, just wait a while. With time, new programs will come along to make it easier for the layman to create podcasts. For now, though, the best way to enjoy them is simply to listen.
By Stephen Baker