- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

The Internet’s capacity for upsetting apple carts appears again in the growth of “podcasting.” The idea is that anyone can become a radio broadcaster — well, sort of. As most people know, it is possible to listen to countless radio stations over the Internet using software like RealPlayer or Microsoft Media Player. If you live in Washington and want to listen to a station in Spain, you can. Such is the Net.

Podcasting is importantly different. Anyone with Internet access can record a “radio” show, convert it to the MP3 format used to send music around the world, and post it on a Web site. Anyone who wants to listen can merely click on the link. You can’t use copyrighted music. However, you can, for example, do talk “radio” to your heart’s content. If you are good, you can get large audiences.

Several factors make do-it-yourself Web radio important: First, the cost of entry is very low. You need little beyond the computer everyone already has.

Second, you do not need the government’s permission (yet) to podcast. The FCC allocates broadcast frequencies, of which in any market only a limited number are available. Anyone can use the Internet.

Together, these mean that “radio” (which isn’t quite what podcasting is, but close enough here) is open to people with talent and little else. If you can put together a show that people want to hear, they will listen. There will be no editing, no requirement of political correctness, no being kept out of a closed club. The blandness and excessive commercialization of radio leave it vulnerable to smart competition.

Also there is no censorship, which raises the question of what the government will do if someone gets a huge audience saying things one is not allowed to say. The Web has plenty of racially and religiously inflammatory sites. They don’t seem to have much influence. Would that change if people could listen instead of read? Maybe not. People may just not be interested in extremist radio. The technical potential is there, however.

Third, with podcasting the notion of a region of listenership goes away. If I put together my podcast in a cabin in Wyoming, assuming I have broadband, you could listen to it in Bangkok as easily as if you were next door.

The Net is no respecter of geography. In consequence, a bright youth of 15 could in principle have a worldwide audience of millions. The bandwidth would have to come from somewhere, but people with audiences of millions can usually find contributors or advertisers.

Fourth, and perhaps commercially most disruptive, with podcasts, there is no such thing as prime time. You just go to a Web site whenever you choose and click on the audio link. What might this do to normal radio? To ad revenue?

The answer is not altogether obvious, but if I ran a radio station, I’d think very carefully about it. (Many stations, as for example the BBC, already have clickable-anytime programs on their sites.) Right now, with an IPod or clone, you can put all your CDs in your pocket and carry them to your car. While it’s still a bit geeky for most, you could download podcasts to the IPod and do the same.

Early-adopters are doing it. It would let you drive anywhere with no need to listen to ads on the radio. And it would drain off some, though who knows how much, of the audience of commercial radio. Could be interesting.

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