The Paradox of Podcasting

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005; 9:48 AM

Podcasting has done what no new technology that I'm aware of has ever accomplished: It's gone mainstream and underground at the same time.

I don't know any other word to use besides "mainstream" when I hear from the White House that President Bush's radio addresses will be offered via podcast. And I have no other word at my fingertips than "underground" when I read a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece that suggests that podcasting is the biggest tech craze that most of us have never heard of.

Here's what White House spokesman David Almacy told me: Selected Bush speeches, along with the radio addresses, are available now at the iTunes Web site. A team of about a dozen Web staffers are converting these and selected speeches into MP3 files and making them available too.

Not only that, the White House has created RSS feeds for the radio addresses in English and Spanish. That means that anyone who wants to can sign up to receive the information through their RSS readers along with news and other Web site updates that offer this service.

"As technology advances, the White House recognizes the importance of providing content in new ways to reach new audiences to communicate the president's vision," Almacy said.

Regardless of the current brouhaha over what that vision is, it might be possible to classify the Bush White House as jumping ahead of the curve on technology.

That's the conclusion one could draw from reading Chris Suellentrop's "Mediavore" column on the Los Angeles Times Web site. In his Aug. 7 column, the former Slate.com campaign correspondent made the facetious suggestion that the only way to account for podcasting's popularity is a dedicated PR campaign from Steve Jobs's publicist.

"How else to explain July's monthlong media swoon over a phenomenon -- podcasting -- that is used by almost no one?" Suellentrop wrote. "Granted, an ever-increasing number of Internet users are being added to the ranks of 'almost no one,' so that in the near future podcasting may be a technology used by 'nearly someone.' But today, there are only 6,000 to 7,000 regular podcasts being created online, and the number of regular listeners probably doesn't exceed the lower reaches of 'hundreds of thousands.'"

The best media commentary I can offer here is: Ouch. That's a distinct reality check on a tech topic that news sources around the country have taken great pains to report early and often. Here's more:

"In late June, Apple released a new version of its popular iTunes software that includes support for podcasts. The press responded by making July its first-ever Official Podcasting Coverage Month. Fortune, the Washington Post (which put it on the front page) and the Economist weighed in. The New York Times published four podcasting stories, each longer than 1,000 words. C-SPAN, the Fox television network and Slate began creating podcasts. Media and technology reporters are obviously interested in podcasting, but so are political reporters (John Edwards podcasts! So does Nancy Pelosi! And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger!), religion reporters (for whom 'Godcasts' is the neologism of choice) and local news reporters, who get to write about the podcasters in their backyards (and employ Onion-like headlines such as 'Tri-state man part of communications "revolution."')."

Yes sir, there's nothing I like better than a cranky columnist, and Suellentrop fits the mold. He admits, however, that podcasting's portability is a big deal, as is the ability to let people listen to radio programs at some other time than when they're broadcasting.

But his comment about the small usage numbers makes me think of something else that's important to remember about any new technology. The media, when they smell a story, tend to blow it out of proportion for months at a time. Those new things, from podcasts to blogs, wind up as interesting and popular -- in the sense of being widely known, even if not widely used -- cultural phenomena.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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