MP3 and thee
Podcasting, which takes the Net into the street, may do to radio what the blog has done to print journalism
By all appearances, there was no perceptible difference this past month at the studio of Radio Bracha, which happens to be located on the second floor of the Tel Aviv apartment shared by Nimrod Keret and Adi Alia. The three computers on the big table were in exactly the same place, the two fat cats were still lazing around their favorite spot and even the butt-filled ashtray appeared not to have been emptied. The Internet radio broadcasts are continuing. But now, those wanting to listen to the underground broadcasts no longer have to sit at home by the computer. Now listeners can take the music and the talk programs with Keret, Alia and their guests on the road - provided the would-be listener owns an MP3 player such as iPod or its counterparts.
What's more, these same listeners no longer have to enter the Bracha Web site (goleshet.com) to see if the pair have put up any new material. All they have to do is have the fresh programs sent directly to their computer, barely having to lift a finger.
The technology that makes it possible for Bracha listeners to take the content on the road is called podcasting, and today, only six months after it first saw the light of day, it has been christened the new Internet revolution. Those readers who are reminded of the method by which blog postings are usually distributed are right. Just as anyone can easily transmit and receive blogs with a technology called Really Simple Syndication (RSS), and directly receive to his or her browser the newest additions to blogs without even having to go to the trouble of actually entering the blog, it is now possible to use the same protocol (until now exploited only piecemeal) to distribute audio files, too.
The simplicity with which all this has happened, along with the increasingly greater distribution of portable MP3 players, makes podcasting not only an outstanding means of content distribution, but also a technology that could at some future time threaten the hegemony of traditional radio stations. In other words, it is not inconceivable that within a year or two, podcasts could be doing to radio what blogs have done in the past two years to print journalism.
As far as can be determined, Radio Bracha's podcast is the first and only exemplar of the phenomenon in Hebrew, but within a few days or weeks, it will have company.
Son of blog
"It's really cool. There's a lot of material on Radio Bracha that we wanted to make more available," says Alia. "We didn't want to force people to be online and be in front of the computer when they listen to us, but rather to enable them to download the broadcast. We could have put everything in MP3 format, but that was really heavy, and I was also interested in this format because of its extreme shortness.
"You can put up a track that is a few minutes long and the person downloads it; he doesn't have to be a technology whiz for this. All of the material was there beforehand, and now they can hook up. The beauty of it lies in the capacity for distribution. How could I otherwise have gotten someone to subscribe to my MP3?"
The story of the podcast revolution began when Adam Curry, a former legendary MTV veejay and an entrepreneur and technology fan since leaving the channel in 1994, went to a blogger's conference in 2001 and met Dave Winer, a guru in the blogosphere who wrote the RSS protocol. Curry told Winer about his idea of adding video excerpts to his blog, but Winer convinced him that what people really wanted was "to take the Internet with them and hear it in headphones."
Curry thought about it, embraced the idea and last August went public with a program called iPodder, which enables the downloading of audio files using the RSS protocol. To prove the applicability of the idea, he issued that month the first-ever podcast from "Studio 8A," which is located in the front seat of his silver Audi 8A. His program, "The Daily Source Code," is described as "where developers and users party together."
Since Curry began broadcasting on line with iPodder.org, a site from which the software can be downloaded, and on which podcasts of (nearly) every style and language can be found, more than half a million people have downloaded iPodder. Thousands have also begun to broadcast their thoughts, criticism, analyses, songs, et al on the Internet, in the same way that the blog craze started out a few years ago. Wired magazine labeled the phenomenon "the bastard offspring of the blog and the Apple MP3 player. It combines the hyperactive talkiness of blogs and the hipness of iPods into something utterly new: the podcast." Almost from the moment they first came onto the scene, the only common denominator to podcasts was that it was possible to listen to them. Aside from that, the sky is the limit.
Some people broadcast lengthy home concerts as they prepare dinner in California, others offer 60-second tips on operation of digital players, there are those who preach for Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or Buddha, while others play music of one sort or another. The selection, as at every site on the Internet, is as immense and as eclectic as the number of people living on this planet. New podcasts - the vast majority by private individuals - pop up every day, but the technology and the concept have already been adopted by establishment organizations such as the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and an increasing number of radio stations in the U.S. These radio sources see the technology as an opportunity for more focused distribution of their content to an audience that until now may not have spent its time listening to live radio broadcast at home or in the car.
"This is a significant development, firstly because it makes the ability to broadcast cheaper and more available, and is adapted to the demands of the 21st century," says Nimrod Keret. "They try to sell us boxes that will enable us to see the 7 P.M. news at 9 P.M. and they tell us we have freedom of choice, but my choice doesn't necessarily have to be only from the channel package they give me. There's plenty of people from whom I would like to hear what they have to say. As in blogs, podcasts cut out the middleman factor of distribution, the person who decides which star is going to be born today."
Keret is captivated by another element created by the podcasts: the eternal life of files. "Podcasts are infiltrating beyond the Internet realm, into types of media that existed beforehand," he explains. "If someone comes and tells me that there is a legal prohibition against saying a certain thing or playing a certain song, they can cause me to stop distributing it or they can sit on the Internet all day long and prevent its distribution on the Net - like the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) is doing; but if something has already been broadcast and downloaded, then no one knows how many hard disks - the size of a tampon - this thing is already walking around on, or when it will be broadcast again to the Web, or in which country. This is a concept of a `classic' that will remain with us forever. As an example, I have already received a French song called `I Am Naked, So What' a few times, each time from a different podcast."
While Keret is correct, that at a time when the record companies are sending their long arms to take a whack at the heads of file-sharers, people who broadcast personal programs in which they identify themselves do not want to take the risk of being sued for copyright infringement. Fairly few people pay any sort of fee to the record companies in an arrangement similar to that existing for institutional radio stations, but all the others do make sure that the music they play is PodSafe - that is, safe to play without risk of lawsuit. Of course, this requirement induces people to play on their podcasts much more interesting music than what is played on most radio stations.
The questions usually asked at this stage are how to start, and where to find the really good podcasts. The obvious Internetesque answer is that to get into the swing of things, you need a good helping of patience and inquisitiveness. "If someone says that he's going to play you the best reggae in the world, the only question you should be asking yourself is whether he really knows his reggae, and not whether some regional radio station did him a favor and gave him a show," says Keret.