Rise of the Pod People

Podcasting: What it is, how to get it and what it means to the world of radio

The Shenida Weave No-Lye Mixshow sounds like nothing on mainstream radio. Weave, the over-the-top persona of a "queer Georgia boy" in San Francisco, spins hot dance mixes from Gwen Stefani to Kaskade, and between cuts, he recounts everything from drunken escapades to news from Europe. "The Euro is a very wonderful thing. It allows you to buy your hash in the Netherlands as well as your big fat dildos in Germany. All on the same dollar, honey!"

That goes on for 100 minutes--too long and irregularly paced for a radio show, even at a freeform station. But Weave doesn't worry about schedules, station managers or censorship: He produces his show as a podcast.

A podcast is basically defined as a radio-like audio program that you download from the Internet and play on an MP3 player. It's free, simple to use and much more than a nerdy niche: Right now, 8,000-plus individual shows can be downloaded at sites like iPodder.org (see page 68 for links to local podcasts). While the biggest fans of podcasting right now are, well, other podcasters, its proponents believe its messy democracy will deliver a badly needed kick in the ass to corporate radio.

Just like blogs, to which podcasts are frequently compared, there's almost no pressure to polish the work. Some of the biggest podcasters ramble freely, and you'll even hear people have a sneezing fit, answer their phone or walk out to go to the bathroom.

That said, music podcasts often follow a strict format. Take Brian Ibbott's Coverville (www.coverville.com), a program that plays only cover songs. Now approaching his 100th episode, Ibbott started podcasting after he heard about it last August on cable station Tech TV.

As a burgeoning DJ, Ibbott began his career spinning at weddings, but playing the same cake-cutting music night after night bored him. Then he discovered podcasting. "I thought, 'Geez, this is something I could totally do,'" Ibbott says. "'I've got a laptop; I've got a fairly decent microphone--I'll do the radio show that I've always wanted to hear.'"

The show took off through word of mouth, and today, it's one of the most popular music podcasts. Ibbott estimates that he pulls between 10,000 and 15,000 listeners per show, and the majority aren't podcasters, or at least "they were not podcasters when they started listening to my show," he says.

Many podcasts cover the same broad swath of independent and imported music you'd hear on college radio. Englishman William B. Swygart, one of the rotating podcasters on a roster created by Stylusmagazine (www.stylusmagazine.com/stycast), is a genuine college DJ at the University of Leeds. For his podcast, Home Taping Is Killing Music, Swygart airs UK chart hits like Art Brut and Rachel Stevens, dissecting or eulogizing the artists in a soft voice that makes him sound like he's trying not to wake up a roommate.

"The best part is just getting music that people wouldn't listen to out there and into their ears," Swygart says via e-mail. "The podcasts give you a greater amount of creative freedom, but you have to make sure that doesn't spill over into becoming, for want of a better word, wank."

Candace Corrigan, who has experience in public radio and television, produces a polished half-hour program called The Nashville Nobody Knows (http://candacecorrigan.com/v-web/b2/) where she interviews and plays music by less-celebrated greats, from the eclectic young band the Duhks to the legendary Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. "When the average person thinks of Nashville, they think cowboy hats," Corrigan says. "I felt like somebody needed to say that there was something different."

But maintaining a weekly show demands work to stay at the top of the "most popular" lists and to handle mail, paperwork and hosting issues, too. Podcasters also have to license--or get away with not licensing--the music they play. Some podcasts get permission directly from the artists, and others work with traditional agencies. For Coverville, Ibbott shells out $600 a year to ASCAP and BMI, but even then, "it's still a huge gray area as far as how much of what I'm doing is legal," he says.

With the hassles of running a show--plus the fact that no matter how many of their friends listen, their grandmothers still don't understand what the hell podcasting is--one has to wonder: Do all podcasters secretly hope to land DJ slots? Would they jump at the right offer and ditch the scene before podcasting takes off?

Take KYOU-AM (1550), a new experiment launched in May in San Francisco. The struggling station, owned by Infinity Broadcasting Corp., recently became the first station in America dedicated to podcasts. The station solicits the shows, sticks them in a rotation and broadcasts them over the air. Coverville is giving it a try, and The Nashville Nobody Knows just joined the mix.

"On the one hand, you're giving people the freedom that they deserve--the very concept of what broadcasting was supposed to be about," says Rob Barnett, president of programming for Infinity. "On the other hand, and quite selfishly, we may find some great talent out of this thing. Radio is constantly looking for new people to become the next Howard Stern, and you never know where or when you're going to find someone."

It's too early to tell if this will fly, but for the podcasters, the only thing that matters is exposure. Podcasts can mention sponsorships and keep that revenue themselves, but KYOU does not pay for content and has no plans to pay in the future. That may be a raw deal or a great opportunity for the podcaster--and also for Infinity. After all, if podcasts catch on strongly enough to launch the next Howard Stern, John Peel or Terri Gross, then why bother listening to the radio? Soon there will be an MP3 player in every car and kitchen in America--and perhaps a podcast out of every home.

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