‘Podfather’ plots a radio hit of his own
ADAM CURRY may be known to new media types as the “Podfather,” but these days the former MTV VJ and disc jockey talks more like a spokesman for the chamber of commerce.
While striding through his hipster, post-industrial South of Market office space where some of his 40 employees are lost in a computer or ear-bud-induced haze, Curry, who’s rarely at a loss for words, explained why he and his new company set up shop here and his pro-growth philosophy.
“I love doing business in America,” said Curry, who was born in Virginia, grew up in Amsterdam, and today splits his time between London and the Bay Area. “I’ve lived in welfare states -- Netherlands is a welfare state, the U.K. is moving toward it. You can’t fire anyone in a welfare state. But Americans are motivated. They want to work.”
His entrepreneurial foray into podcasting -- the downloading of audio and video programs onto a digital device such as an iPod -- seeks to be among the first to generate big money off the up-and-coming medium that threatens to further erode terrestrial radio’s power. Though there have been a few failures, Curry has a good track record in the business world. PodShow Inc., founded in January 2005, is only the latest in a series of company-building ventures for Curry that began in the dot-com boom of the 1990s, a time that made him wealthy enough to purchase and move his family into a European castle.
Curry’s fame and bravado helped push podcasting into mainstream consciousness and earned him the Podfather nickname among those in the fledgling new media industry.
“Adam is the figurehead and the face of podcasting,” said Tim Bourquin, founder and CEO of TNC New Media, an Orange County-based company. “He’s definitely got a big following.”
“Big” is the operative word for Curry, who is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and isn’t afraid of thinking on a grand scale.
“If you’re going to start a media revolution, which is what this is totally about, it’s harder to do it in New York, because it’s the capital of publishing. You can’t do it Los Angeles either, because of Hollywood,” he said during a recent tour of his PodShow offices. “It had to be here, where we’re media scientists.”
His doubters regard that kind of talk as overblown, somewhat like Curry himself, they say. They’re bothered that while Curry promotes himself as a would-be revolutionary for the little guy, he’s actually as profit mad as the corporate giants. He’s just smaller, say his online critics who fire off scathing barbs unstoppable on the Web and in podcasts but not permissible in family newspapers.
After all, they add, it was an oversized ego that led to a 2005 scandal on Wikipedia -- the popular online encyclopedia in which Curry was found to have edited his own profile and exaggerated his role in the development of podcasting. That episode, and his new company’s drive to monetize a medium that prides itself on being above something so crass, has earned Curry his share of detractors.
“It’s unbelievable what comes out of people’s mouths and fingers,” said Curry. “Sometimes, it’s like, ‘I’m the evil demon, the overlord, trying to control history and create an evil PodShow empire.’ It’s unbelievable how unhappy some people must be with their own lives because they jump on stuff with such vigor, anger and hate.”
Maverick with a makeover
IT all sounds like something out of “Headbangers Ball,” the weekly MTV late-night tribute to heavy metal music that Curry once hosted. Today, the 41-year-old seems as conventional as a company man and certainly a long way from the distorted electric guitar solos and death-obsessed lyrics of the hard rock genre.
He long ago shed his black leather jacket and cut back his shoulder-length, dirty blond locks, and at a recent interview, he sported black slacks, a pink shirt and conspicuous golden-framed glasses. He’s been married to Dutch singer Patricia Paay for more than 20 years, time enough in his former world for at least two or three marriages; the couple have a teenage daughter.
But this is the same young man who in 1987 was hired by the upstart musical channel just as it began popping up in 40 million households nationwide. The experience brought him immediate fame in America and gave him an invaluable ground-floor view of a certifiable cultural revolution.
His MTV days influenced his current business path in an odd way. Instead of functioning as a blueprint for success as one might expect, the high-profile stint stands out only as the anti-model for his new company.
“I hated it.... It was such a restrictive place for creativity,” he said of MTV. “There were just so many things you couldn’t say,” said Curry, who also once hosted MTV’s “Top 20 Countdown.” “It’d be like, ‘Oh, you can’t say that, we’ll get kicked off basic cable.’ Or I’d make a joke about Madonna and it would be, ‘Oh, you can’t say that, she might not perform in the music video awards.’
“I always said the funniest stuff on MTV never went on the air,” he added. “I have outtake reels that could make me a millionaire again, but they will never see the light of day.”
He made the bulk of his fortune in 1999 with the sale of a Web design company, co-founded with Ron Bloom, called THINK New Ideas Inc. Curry, who served as its chief technology officer, saw the company grow to 700 employees before finally selling it to another firm called Answerthink Inc.
“Everyone said we were crazy to sell, but we did and we sold it for a lot of money,” said Curry, who briefly starred with his wife and daughter in a Dutch reality television show called “Adam’s Family.” “I bought a castle in Belgium, I learned to fly helicopters, and I retired.”
For him, podcasting is the perfect antidote to what he regarded as the repressive atmosphere at MTV. Not even 2 years old, the nascent medium has attracted tens of thousands of podcasters and many more listeners around the globe by offering immense creative freedom in what amounts to time-shifted radio broadcasts.
With a computer and the appropriate software, anyone can become a radio programmer; Curry, along with software pioneer Dave Winer, developed the computer programs that make podcasting possible. Essentially, the pair’s combined work in programming was instrumental in allowing audio clips and shows to be successfully downloaded by listeners onto iPods and MP3 devices.
But what caused an online uproar was when it was discovered that Curry had edited his own Wikipedia biography, an online ethical no-no.
Curry later admitted he deleted information that gave credit to another podcast developer only because he thought it was incorrect. He subsequently offered an apology on his podcast called “Daily Source Code,” which has been averaging more than 1 million downloads a month since the last quarter of 2005, according to PodShow.
“I could really give a crap who invented podcasting,” he said of the past controversy. “I didn’t know you couldn’t go into your own bio and not change something you thought was wrong. There really was no malice there at all.”
PodShow Inc., the privately held company Curry co-founded with business partner Ron Bloom, is a big tent, packed with thousands of podcasts that juggle topics including comedy and culture, education and technology. Curry helps develop all the programming; among the most downloaded are Curry’s own tech-heavy “Daily Source Code” and the “MommyCast,” a weekly podcast by two stay-at-home moms in the Washington, D.C., area with seven children between them and who dispense parental advice. But its crown jewel is “The Dawn and Drew Show!,” two self-described ex-gutter punks who now podcast from a 19th century dairy farm in southeast Wisconsin and talk raunchy about love, sex and even farm animals.
“He’s building an audio version of MySpace.com,” said Mark Ramsey, president of Mercury, a San Diego-based radio research and marketing company. “Whether he can pull that off in the mass market, who knows?”
A more democratic playlist
NOT surprisingly, Curry is confident he can. Like all great rebellions, his is one that pits an army of tech-savvy Davids against a lumbering and bland Goliath as represented by the nation’s media conglomerates. To Curry and his followers, corporate media isn’t necessarily evil -- well, maybe a little evil -- but it certainly can’t be trusted to judge what we should see and hear. And as media companies, particularly in radio, have merged, they’ve become bloated and, even worse, boring, argues Curry.
In place of a mainstream media, or at least alongside it, will be companies like his and the others that will inevitably follow, Curry believes. They offer what the mainstream media never would or could -- a way for regular folk to create and consume their own media content.
“We don’t have water cooler conversations anymore,” said Curry. The mainstream media “is so diluted, so packaged, so predictable. There’s so very little that is new or interesting. We’ve lost a lot of social connectedness that used to come from that. And what we’re building here is a social media network for human beings.”
When asked about profitability -- the question in podcasting and all new media, for that matter -- Curry is somewhat vague. He gave no firm date for showing solid returns. But PodShow is attracting advertisers, he noted, a recent coup being the signing of paper product company Dixie for $200,000 as a sponsor for “MommyCast.”
PodShow also has reeled in impressive venture capital money as well. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital -- the parties who invested in Yahoo and Google before most people ever heard of an Internet search engine -- have pumped nearly $9 million into PodShow.
“Radio is very, very big business, but they’ve gotten too corporate,” said Mark D. Kvamme, a Sequoia Capital partner. “The writing is on the wall. Look at user-generated sites like MySpace and U2 -- they didn’t exist three years ago. PodShow didn’t exist 18 months ago, and sending audio over the Net makes a lot of sense right now.”
But podcasting, which has shown explosive growth in its approximately two years of existence, still isn’t the Web. While most people have probably heard of “podcasting,” far fewer understand it and even fewer actually engage in it -- either as an actual podcaster or a listener.
Just about 1% of North American households regularly downloaded and listened to podcasts last year, according to the Cambridge, Mass.-based media and marketing firm Forrester Research. While numbers are still hard to track, Forrester analyst Charlene Li said that translates to about 1 million people on the continent who will be podcasting this year.
Meanwhile, another recent report estimated total podcasting advertising from 2005 to be just above $3 million, according to PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn.-based media research company. Not terribly good news for companies such as Curry’s.
Big audience numbers and big money aren’t really expected until the technology is more widespread and becomes easier to use for the late-adopting masses. But how much easier?
“It has to become brain-dead easy,” said Li, who adds wireless technology will help podcasting grow more quickly. “I think we’re a couple years off that too.”
However, both reports offer bright visions for podcasting’s future. The PQ Media report predicted podcasting advertising revenue will skyrocket to $327 million by 2010, while the Forrester paper forecast more than 12 million people will podcast in the United States in that same year.
That’s all good news to Curry, though he concerns himself more with finding the appropriate content for his company. Discovering and successfully marketing it is an evolving process.
“There’s this great funny video of a guy trying to shoot a bottle rocket out of his [butt],” said Curry. “I want to take that funny kind of stuff, harness it, serialize it and turn it into a media property.
“I’m not condemning it, it doesn’t matter to me. You look at our network, we have everything on it -- gay/lesbian, religious and inspirational. As long as we have an audience I don’t care.”
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Top 5 podcasts on PodShow
Though the numbers for downloads vary from month to month, the following shows are typically in the Top 5 on PodShow, a podcasting network at www.podshow.com.
“Daily Source Code"--Hosted by PodShow co-founder Adam Curry and podcast nearly every day, the show deals with the tech world and the quirks of Curry’s busy personal and professional life.
“The Dawn and Drew Show!” -- Two self-described ex-gutter punks from Los Angeles talk frankly, candidly, repeatedly about topics including love, sex and farm animals. It’s among the most popular podcasts in the country.
“GeekBrief.TV"-- A video podcast hosted by Cali Lewis, the show focuses primarily on technology. It bills itself as “The Hottest Way to Get Your Gadget News.”
“MommyCast” -- Two stay-at-homes with a combined seven children offer a weekly guide to the tricks and tips of child-rearing.
Scott Sigler’s “Infection” -- The science fiction author reads his “podcast novel,” a tale about an out-of-control illness.
-- Martin Miller
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