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Rush and NPR find a new way into ears

Chris Suellentrop was a 2004 campaign correspondent for Slate.com.

STEVE JOBS HAS a good publicist. How else to explain July’s monthlong media swoon over a phenomenon -- podcasting -- that is used by almost no one?

Granted, an ever-increasing number of Internet users are being added to the ranks of “almost no one,” so that in the near future podcasting may be a technology used by “nearly someone.” But today, there are only 6,000 to 7,000 regular podcasts being created online, and the number of regular listeners probably doesn’t exceed the lower reaches of “hundreds of thousands.”

If you spent July in Tuscany and missed the mania, here’s a primer: Podcasts are downloadable audio files -- mostly containing talk-radio or talk-radio-like content -- that are distributed over the Internet by radio stations, news sites and bloggers. They are designed to be listened to using an MP3 player such as Apple’s iPod (hence the “podcasting” name), rather than through your desktop speakers, though they can be heard that way too. In late June, Apple released a new version of its popular iTunes software that includes support for podcasts.

The press responded by making July its first-ever Official Podcasting Coverage Month. Fortune, the Washington Post (which put it on the front page) and the Economist weighed in. The New York Times published four podcasting stories, each longer than 1,000 words. C-SPAN, the Fox television network and Slate began creating podcasts.

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Media and technology reporters are obviously interested in podcasting, but so are political reporters (John Edwards podcasts! So does Nancy Pelosi! And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger!), religion reporters (for whom “Godcasts” is the neologism of choice) and local news reporters, who get to write about the podcasters in their backyards (and employ Onion-like headlines such as “Tri-state man part of communications ‘revolution.’ ”).

Although podcasting triumphalists deserve to be deflated, the technology actually is a big deal.

What makes podcasting new and exciting is that it’s portable. The combination of iTunes and the iPod makes it obvious and easy, for the first time, to put the Internet’s audio content in your pocket and take it on the road with you. That gives radio journalists and online bloviators optimism that podcasting is here to stay, even if online video news and video blogging can be seen on the horizon.

“Radio’s big strength has been portability,” said Andy Bowers, a Los Angeles-based editor at Slate and producer for NPR’s “Day to Day.” “It’s the one thing you can do while doing other things.”

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New podcasting forms such as unauthorized museum tours exploit the ability to take listeners with you to a specific location.

Podcasting also frees radio journalists from the need to create content tailored to the demands of the clock. “On ‘Day to Day,’ we have to fill an hour, whether there’s news for two hours or whether there’s enough news for five minutes,” Bowers said.

Benjamin Walker, a former producer for the public radio show “The Connection,” now produces a show called “The Theory of Everything” that is broadcast on five stations and also is available via podcast. He envisions the first “pledgecast,” in which a podcaster, like some bloggers, receives voluntary contributions from the audience.

“What about listener-supported podcasts? It seems to me that that’s a business model that could really easily transfer from public radio,” Walker said. The listeners’ money would go to support the show and its creators, rather than “the infrastructure of the stations.”

Rush Limbaugh, the nation’s most popular broadcaster, podcasts his entire show, but only to listeners who cough up $50 to join his “Rush 24/7" club. “Most radio programs have such limited coverage in their over-the-air broadcasting that having Apple distribute their content free seems like a good deal to them,” Limbaugh said on his show in late June. “When you see various leftist radio programs desperately podcasting via iTunes, it’s not a mark of honor for them, it’s desperation.”

Or maybe the podcasting devotees know something Limbaugh doesn’t. Brendan Greeley, blogger-in-chief for the Public Radio International show “Open Source Radio,” compares Limbaugh’s take on the subject to a newspaper saying, in 1995, “Why would I put all my archives online? You can go get them at the library.”


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