If you’ve ever passed by someone in the street wearing the distinctive white earphones of an iPod, did it ever occur to you that they might be listening to the radio? Welcome to podcasting, a service for downloading radio shows as MP3 files for playback on a computer or digital music player.
Unlike live streaming, which requires the listener to be present while a show is being broadcast over the internet, podcasting is suited for consumption whenever the user wants. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t even require an MP3 player, as it can be set to run on a CD burner. Podcasts can be recorded radio programmes made available after broadcast or they can just as easily be a brand new show created by enthusiasts or amateurs. Shows on any subject can run from mere minutes to hours.
Podcasting uses RSS (really simple syndication) technology that allows people to subscribe to a podcast by topic as they would to a website or blog. Podcasting spent close to a year gaining momentum as an underground movement of sorts — an estimated six million Americans have listened to a podcast — and iPod maker Apple embraced it by adding podcasting features to the recent release of its music player software iTunes 4.9. It says customers have subscribed to five million Podcasts from the iTunes Podcast Directory, which features more than 6,000 free audio programmes, making it one of the largest Podcast directories in the world.
The first media organisation to podcast in Ireland is NearFM, a community radio station based in north-east Dublin. The new service is already a major driver of traffic to its website, www.nearfm.ie/podcast. “Podcasting’s very interesting because it’s audio on demand, for when you can’t sit in and hear a programme,” says Gavin Byrne, IT co-ordinator for Media Co-op, the organisation that runs NearFM.
The station started by podcasting its omnibus show, Encore. Other presenters at the station are currently being trained to upload their own programmes. “It’s a little tricky to set up on the server but once that’s done the rest is quite easy. If you can send webmail then you can set up a podcast,” says Byrne.
As with the internet itself, there is the potential for podcasts that cater for all kinds of niche interests. “It’s similar to an ezine or blog that’s been turned into a radio show,” says Brian Greene, technical manager of the web development company Doop Design, who has also been involved in the independent radio sector for 20 years. He has been recording radio content specifically for distribution online since 2001 and he podcasts at http://radio.wxtc.net.
Greene sees opportunities within the medium for savvy businesses prepared to think a little differently about how they communicate with customers. A company that organises children’s parties could create a podcast with kid’s stories being read, emailed to previous customers on their sales list who could then play it for their own children. A hypothetical outspoken airline CEO, for instance, could do a weekly show on subjects that annoy him, instead of being restricted to soundbites on other radio shows with short timeslots.
Long term, podcasting’s growing popularity has the potential to affect listening habits, Greene believes. “If you have the capacity to subscribe to radio programmes that you would like to listen to, you’ll find your listening time to ‘wallpaper radio’ is going to go out the window.”
This also has implications for radio advertising, as it offers the same ad-skipping features as new TV recording technology. Greene suggests product association and programme sponsorship may be the way forward. “[Commercial] stations looking at podcasting will have to think again and look at the golden age of radio where you had programmes such as the Odlum’s Hour,” he says.
By Gordon Smith