IT Has a Stake in Podcasting

Just when you thought that you had a relatively firm grip on the latest in digital media, along comes podcasting.

What-casting? Podcasting, essentially an intriguing new way to distribute audio files, involves downloading an MP3 audio file to a digital device and listening to the program -- a song, a lecture, a rant, whatever -- when you want to listen to it.

Imagine TiVo, the hard-disk television recording service, for radio or any other kind of audio content. Then imagine content creation by almost anyone, with no need for a fancy recording studio. Now you have the idea.

Actually, "podcasting" is a bit of a misnomer. It marries the iPod music player with broadcasting. But podcasts play nicely on my MP3-capable mobile phone.

What is IT's stake in this new genre? Perhaps a considerable one.

First, it can expand the conversation an enterprise has with its constituencies: employees, customers, suppliers, communities. Quick chats with these folks are one way I envision podcasts being used. Imagine attaching genuinely human voices to what sometimes seem like soulless executive suites.

The best podcasts tend not to be the slickest ones. That is, production values aren't nearly as important as what's being said. Just as a good weblog exudes the writer's personality, so should a podcast.

Hook up a decent microphone and headphones to a PC running low-cost software -- or no-cost, if you use a cross-platform open-source program like Audacity. Almost anyone can then produce a pleasant-sounding recording if the speaker has a pleasant voice. Editing is getting easier too.

New Web-based services are springing up as well. A small San Francisco company called Odeo, for example, is creating a service that will let users post and edit files on central servers, which then deliver the content to other people via podcasting downloads.

For enterprises, the cost of delivering content won't be trivial if the podcasts become popular. Audio files aren't bandwidth hogs like video, but they aren't tiny, either. IT should consider using peer-to-peer services. It's also worth looking into new free hosting services such as Ourmedia.org, but some require giving up certain copyright privileges.

Creating compelling content isn't trivial, however. Listen to a recording of yourself if you think I'm kidding. We don't all speak in sonorous radio voices -- not that we have to in a sphere where I'm convinced that authenticity matters more than acting ability.

Even if corporate leaders don't want to play the podcasting game, employees are increasingly going to listen to podcasts anyway. Radio stations are moving into the arena at a surprisingly rapid pace, and Sirius Satellite Radio just signed up some talent to offer podcasting-based shows. (I might be doing a podcasting show myself fairly soon.)

For listeners, the convenience is the kicker. We can listen at home, at work and in transit. In our homes, thanks to our hard-disk video recorders, live television watching is becoming a rare event. It may not be that long before the same is true for live radio.

Please excuse me now. I'm going to see if I can rig my phone to play podcasts in the car over the Bluetooth connection.

Dan Gillmor, a writer based in Silicon Valley, is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (O'Reilly Media Inc., 2004). Contact him at grassroots@gillmor.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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