Homespun 'podcasts' explore a universe of topics

By Andy Sullivan

As millions of pilgrims streamed into Rome this past week, a Dutch priest led internet listeners on an intimate audio tour that allowed them to pay one last visit to Pope John Paul II before he was laid to rest.

Father Roderick Vonhogen brought the Catholic Church's ancient rites to life through a cutting-edge format: the podcast, a radio-style show that is distributed over the internet.

Podcasts have caught on like wildfire since they first emerged only nine months ago. Listeners can pick from roughly 10,000 shows on topics ranging from religion to wine to technology, and media companies and advertisers are taking note.

For now, it's a cottage industry dominated by the likes of Father Roderick, a parish priest from the Netherlands whose low-key charm and you-are-there narratives bring the church's pomp and circumstance down to a human scale.

On "Catholic Insider," listeners hear Father Roderick banter with students camped out in St. Peter's Square and describe the pope lying in state in the basilica.

"It's beautiful, it really looks like he's sleeping," he whispers as a choir sings in the background.

Thousands of podcasts can be found through directories like Podcast Alley, while listeners can automatically download new shows as they become available using free software like iPodder.

Listeners can transfer their podcasts to an Apple iPod or other portable MP3 player, and listen to them when and where they wish.

A recent survey by the Pew internet and American Life Project found that one in three US adults who own an MP3 player have listened to a podcast, though the survey's small sample size means that figure could be substantially lower.

Analysts say podcasting could challenge the broadcast industry by giving consumers more control over what they hear, and when they hear it.

"To radio it's a big threat, because people are fed up with radio," said digital-media analyst Phil Leigh.

Like the World Wide Web 10 years ago, many podcasts rely on homespun charm rather than slick presentation. Anybody with a computer and a microphone can set up their own show.

"The Daily Download" is little more than a man describing his bowel movements as they happen. One of the most popular podcasts, "The Dawn and Drew Show," features the ramblings of a married couple on a Wisconsin farm.

"Do we have anything to talk about? No? I guess that's the appeal, right?" Dawn said on a recent show.

Several radio stations have developed podcasts of their own, typically condensed versions of their morning shows.

Businesses from Newsweek to General Motors have set up podcasts, as has Democratic politician John Edwards, who ran unsuccessfully for US vice president last year.

Some amateur podcasters hope to quit their day jobs.

Todd Cochrane hopes to attract more advertising dollars for his twice-weekly technology show "Geek News Central" by setting up a network of podcasts that meet professional standards for sound quality and family-friendly language.

"We're trying to build a brand out of many individual brands," Cochrane said of his fledgling Techpodcasts.com network.

Music remains a hurdle. Because no licensing rules exist, podcasters must secure permission from individual artists and songwriters before playing their songs. Most stick to independent artists, rather than those signed to major record labels.

For now, the greatest opportunity lies in spoken-word podcasts which can develop faithful if narrow audiences interested in a particular subject, said analyst Leigh.

As big companies have jumped into podcasting, some pioneers have worried that they could be crowded out. That doesn't bother Ryan Ozawa, whose HawaiiUP podcast explores daily life on the Hawaiian Islands.

"The easier it is to put yourself out there, and the more people that do it, the more likely we are to find the next Ed Murrow ... or the next Howard Stern," he wrote in an email interview.

- REUTERS

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