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Hear the noise

Audio programs called podcasts are the latest fad online,
simplifying the way people listen to radio, lectures and more.
Sunday, March 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:13 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The term “e-mail” has been part of mainstream terminology for years. An Internet search engine’s name, Google, is now a verb. And the word “blog” is a Webster’s entry.

Get ready for a new buzzword: podcasting.

Think of a podcast as an audio blog, a recorded program posted to a Web site. Podcasts can be about anything and updated whenever the podcaster likes.

Listeners, with the help of free software available at iPodder.org, can instruct their computers to regularly download new episodes of a podcast, then transfer them to an MP3 player. Although calling the process “podcasting” links the form to Apple’s iPod media player, any MP3 player can play a podcast.

Peter Meng, an analyst for the special projects department of MU’s Information and Access Technology Services, says the power of podcasting lies in its portability, personalization and simplicity.

“You can have access to everything — everywhere and every time,” Meng says. “But even more than that, it’s presented to you in a way that you want to hear it. If I wanted to listen to KBIA news and I missed the 8 o’clock show, I can listen to it at 8:15. It gives you that flexibility, and that’s absolutely incredible.”

Any audio event — seminars, lectures, sermons, concerts, business meetings, news programs or sporting events — can be recorded, posted and broadcast. And because it requires minimal technology, almost anyone can put together a podcast.

Podcasting seems to offer new possibilities for communication, but it is not a new phenomenon, says Clyde Bentley, a professor of online journalism at MU. Bentley says podcasting combines two types of software: MP3 files and a program called an RSS (really simple syndication) feed, which regularly updates news to a user’s computer. Moreover, Bentley says, Web sites with downloadable audio have been around for years, and there have been audio blogs for as long as there have been text blogs.

“What this has really done is opened up this whole idea of an audio world where I have a shopping cart,” Bentley says. “I can go out there and get the stuff that turns me on.”

The first podcast, the Daily Source Code, was created less than a year ago by Adam Curry, a software pioneer and former MTV host. Today, more than 4,000 podcasts are available on the Web, according to iPodder.org. Nearly all were produced by amateurs, and because podcast hosts are under no obligation to follow a specific format, most are a hodgepodge of news, opinion, commentary and music.

Many businesses, universities and traditional media haven’t fully grasped podcasting’s potential, although some have moved past the experimental stage. “On the Media,” a nationally syndicated radio program, started podcasting its weekly media criticism in early January. The Ventura County Star newspaper in California offers podcasts on its Web site. Chef Emeril Lagasse podcasts restaurant information and weekly menus from his Web site . And churches, including North Gate Baptist in Kansas City and Pitts Baptist in North Carolina, are posting sermons, which they call “Godcasts.”

The Rev. Dave Cover of The Crossing Church in Columbia says he hopes to begin podcasting weekly sermons and daily devotionals soon.

“It’s a great thing for the people in our church to do,” Cover says. “It’s a whole possibility of ways to communicate with the church that haven’t really been done before.”

Few people, if any, have figured out how to make money with podcasting, Meng says. But it’s possible listeners would pay a small fee for popular podcasts or subscribe to those that are regularly posted and updated. That might be enough to attract advertisers, Meng says.

Some MU faculty members are exploring how podcasting might be applied in the classroom. Jennifer Reeves, an associate professor in broadcast journalism, describes herself as a “voice of push” for podcasting on campus. Once she understood how easy podcasting is, she says, she knew the university needed to start using it.

“Students use technology more by the day,” she says. “If we find new ways to reach them with the technology they already have in their pocket, let’s use it.”

Reeves says podcasting has many applications on campus, including brown-bag lunches, seminars and class lectures. Ron Harstad, a political science professor, says he thinks technologies such as podcasting give teachers another tool for delivering information.

“Allowing a straightforward technology for re-creating the lecture usefully serves those who could not be present for legitimate means,” Harstad says.

But podcasting from the classroom makes some instructors uneasy. While it might be useful for distance learning, anything that might encourage traditional students to skip class is problematic, said John Petrocik, head of MU’s political science department.

Petrocik agreed to survey his faculty on podcasting via e-mail. Every reply was negative, he said, including one from a professor who said, “Educationally speaking, this sounds like a horrendous idea.”

“The notion that class lectures being podcast would mean that students no longer would have to attend class is shortsighted,” Petrocik says. “That presumes that a face-to-face class is only an audio experience, and it’s usually much more than that.”

Indeed, interaction between student and professor has long been considered important. Bentley points out that although libraries can give people as much information as they want, they have yet to replace guided instruction.

“There’s something we haven’t defined about a lecture, the face-to-face contact with instructors.,” Bentley says. “We don’t know what that is yet, but it seems to work.”

Perhaps the only sure thing about podcasting is that eventually it will become obsolete. True technophiles have moved onto video-on-demand shows, called vodcasts or vlogs, and as other technologies are developed and become popular, interest in podcasting will wane, Bentley says.

“You can absolutely guarantee that it will be replaced in 10 years,” he says. “You can get a major notion it’ll be replaced in five years, and a good chance it’ll be replaced in three years. That’s the speed of technology renewal. Something else will be coming down the line.”

Reeves suggests another potential appeal of podcasting. Blogs — at least according to some bloggers — are becoming a viable alternative to the mainstream media. Radio, especially talk radio and NPR-style news broadcasts, remain popular with listeners, especially those who commute. Could podcasting be just the next wave of media democratization?

“The viewership of television news continues to drop because we’re so busy and because there are 500 stations on my television,” Reeves says. “This is a great way to offer more information in a non-traditional way of traditional media.”


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