By Clive Young
New York, NY (May 25, 2005)--Podcasts are the latest buzz on the internet; a hybrid of radio and blogging, the homebrewed radio programs can be downloaded and listened to at one's convenience, whether via iPod (hence the name) or some other portable device. Many liken it to Tivo for radio--but the difference is that Tivo records professionally produced broadcast programming, whereas anyone with the most primitive of computers can make a podcast and be heard. As a result, the concepts of audio standards and sound quality have gone out the window even as the burgeoning format is gaining popularity.
There are a lot of people who are still setting up a mic in the middle of a table and using that to capture four or five people for an interview," remarked Karl Montoya, founder of American Podcasting Network. Montoya would certainly know as he's heard a lot of podcasts while looking for shows to fill the programming roster for his new business. A former owner of two AM stations, he sold them to convert to an all-internet radio model, with a goal to offer 50 advertiser-supported programs as free downloads by July.
"So far, most people listening to podcasts have some bent towards the technical, so they'll be more tolerant of bad levels, poor quality, bad mic technique and things like that," said Montoya, "but if there's really a business to be made here, it's going to have to improve. You have to set up some standards, or you're going to drive your listeners nuts. You listen from one podcast to another, and levels can be all over the place."
That's going to happen, of course, when the vast majority of programming comes from hobbyists working in their basements. Most podcasters are simply using makeshift audio gear and record shows using low-cost or free software.
For instance, whereas professional broadcasters might use Adobe Audition (formerly Cool Edit Pro) or other high-end audio software, podcasters have overwhelmingly turned to low-cost, if powerful, software such as the recently released Audio Hijack Pro 2.5 by Cranbury, NJ-based Rogue Amoeba Software. Co-founder Paul Kafasis estimates that less than 1 percent of AHP's user base are podcasters, but the company is nonetheless listening closely to the growing constituency.
"[The latest] Audio Hijack Pro adds the Application Mixer plug-in, which was included largely to assist in the creation of podcasts," said Kafasis. "This plug-in allows for audio from multiple applications to be mixed into one stream. For instance, a podcaster could hijack and record from his microphone, then insert Skype [an internet telephony program] chat into the stream for a call-in portion, then insert QuickTime Player's audio into the stream for various sound effects. Beyond that, we'll have to see what happens. The question is really, 'How much time can we devote to this?' We previously considered making an entirely new product--an 'Easy Podcast Recorder' app--and that's still a possibility. But right now, it looks like Audio Hijack Pro 2.5 is a pretty good solution and is doing well for podcasters."
Audio quality and the overall professionalism of podcasts are two related hurdles that the fledgling industry faces, even as many expect it to soon grow into a commercial vehicle (Montoya predicts it will become a mainstream medium within a year). Those, in turn, are concerns that the newly formed trade group, International Nanocasting Alliance, hopes to address.
INA co-founder Errol Smith, who refers to podcasting as "Vanity Radio," remarked, "Podcasting is currently synonymous with poor quality, no regulations or standards, no profits, no business plans and no revenue model. So we have to create a chasm between podcasting and professional, commercial podcasting, which we call 'Nanocasting.'" (A term, it should be noted, Smith has trademarked.)
Along those lines, he said, INA is expecting to establish a "best practices" paper concerning audio and program quality. "The fundamental thinking," Smith explained, "is that in order to commercialize and attract the big dollars--the corporate clients, big investors, people really willing to commit financially--the quality is going to have to be of high caliber. So yes, we are seeking to set a very high standard."
Some corporations are, in fact, investing heavily in podcasting--and they're radio companies. Rather than spend money advertising, radio is quickly adopting podcasting as its "farm league." Sirius Satellite Radio will debut Adam Curry's PodShow on May 13, a daily, 4-hour program culling the best bits from podcasts around the world. Curry, a former MTV VJ who is largely credited with "inventing" podcasting, feels that the program will "create and showcase talent that terrestrial radio listeners would not be able to hear. We think that this partnership is about introducing the best of podcasting to the world."
Simultaneously, Infinity Broadcasting is launching an all-podcast radio station in San Francisco on May 16, called "KyourRadio.Com." Podcasters will upload their programs at the station's website, and the best ones will be selected for airing. An Infinity spokesperson said that audio quality concerns hadn't arisen yet at press time, as the selection process had yet to begin.
INA's Smith is largely unimpressed with the KYourRadio concept, however: "Podcasting means control of access to the public. They're saying, 'Submit to us, and we'll select what we'll put up.' That's no different than what they've ever done; as opposed to being a caller and getting screened, you're going to be podcaster getting screened. You still have a gatekeeper in the mix, so that's a non-starter. It's fun, it's cute, but it communicates more than anything else that conventional broadcasters are looking over their shoulders at podcasters on their yields."
Not everyone is sold on podcasting, however. Rogue Amoeba's Kafasis noted, "Podcasting has gotten a lot of media buzz, but I'd say we're not entirely convinced of its long-term viability. For now, we're keeping our eye on it, and we'll continue to listen to what [features] users request."
Whether podcasting can make the jump to mainstream media in the next year as Montoya predicts, largely has to do with catching the public's ear, and providing a professional-sounding show once they listen in. "People are plugging consumer-grade microphones or less into the side of their laptop and calling it a show," he said. "If they're serious about it, they'll have to invest a little bit of money--I'm not talking $1,500 studio-quality microphones; even a simple SM58 that might be $75-80. But people are going to have to get conscious of that, because at some point, we'll turn the listener off if we don't have quality broadcasts. We have to get to the same level as radio or television. We're beginning to get a bit of celebrity--we're getting former rock stars and Paris Hilton just did her first podcast--so you're more likely to get the public to say, 'I'd like to sample this.' We have to make sure we're all in shape by that point."
American Podcasting Network
By Clive Young