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Podcasting's Potential, Beyond Two-Fer Thursday

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 21, 2005

The need to have newspaper obituaries read to you via your iPod may not have struck you as an imperative for the new media technology, but audio obits nonetheless await your download at http://blogofdeath.com .

On the other hand, if you've always wanted to know how to clip a cat's nails, how to hammer a nail properly or how to chop an onion without crying, Canadian radio hobbyist Tod Maffin has found self-proclaimed experts to talk you through the trauma at http://tmaffin.libsyn.com .

Amid the general anxiety that afflicts both the broadcast radio industry and other old-line media companies, the podcast -- an audio program that you pull off the Internet and download onto an iPod or similar device for listening at your leisure -- seems as big a threat to radio as the Web poses to print media.

But podcasts thus far seem to be more a device for time-shifting -- saving radio programs to listen to them when you want to, rather than when a station tells you to -- than an audio revolution. Thousands of podcasts are available, and many are indeed homemade shows of a sort you'd never hear on the radio. But many of the most popular podcasts are simply a new way to listen to popular programs from National Public Radio, the BBC and other big radio producers.

In another podcast, Maffin explains how he listens to 100 podcasts a day while holding down a full-time job. Basically, he has rigged his iPod to collect podcasts and sort them into categories ( http://radio.blogware.com/blog/_archives/2005/6/5/911540.html ). But only serious podcasting buffs will need that advice.

More useful for the casual listener is the emergence of a primitive ratings system, such as the Top 25 Podcasts by Hits as measured, for example, at http://www.podcastingnews.com/forum/links_tophits.htm . Eight of the top 25 podcasts are commonly heard either on U.S. public radio or on the BBC. Another eight of the top 25 are either about podcasting or about other new technologies -- a sign of how self-referential and limited the podcast world remains in its second year.

But sprinkled through the hit shows are a few that capture podcasting's potential as an anti-establishment response to the overly corporate state of broadcast radio. The Dorktones, a clever, slightly randy crew of Dutch rockers, put together one-hour programs of campy and wry song selections ranging from Tom Jones's rendition of "The Theme From Thunderball" to snazzy surf numbers such as the Atlantics' "Bombora" ( http://www.dorktones.com ).

Cody Hanson's "Vinyl Podcast" features out-of-print music -- novelty songs he finds at sales of old record collections. One show features a song called "Pork Butts" by an outfit called the New Earth Rhythm Band ( http://www.vinyl.codyhanson.com ).

"When you like the kind of music I like," Hanson explains on the show, "you'll spend 99 cents on just about anything containing the word 'pork' or the word 'butt.' " It's a funky little number from the late '70s, and Hanson simply introduces the song, plays it and thanks you for listening. End of podcast.

Other shows in the top 25 are less enticing. The Dollar Show ( http://www.thedollarshow.com ) is a garage version of your average FM raunch radio morning-yuks chat show, with even bawdier topics and vocabulary. Lots of tampon humor.

The top 10 shows at http://podcastalley.com have not one program in common with the top 25 at http://podcastingnews.com . But the mix of topics is similar: Shows about technology and sex dominate, along with a poker strategy program and a Dutch priest's "Catholic Insider" show.

The inevitable http://pod-porn.com offers "intimate audio files" but also begs listeners to upload their own tales of the boudoir.

In one of the better uses of the technology, podcasts emerge as a collective basement record library. The grand old sultans of radio satire, the Firesign Theater, have made many hours of their archives available for downloading at http://firesigntheater.com/podcasting/list.php .

And unpublished authors may have found a new form of vanity press, the podcast novel. "EarthCore," a sci-fi thriller featuring, as the author, Scott Sigler, puts it, "actual science, blood, blood & more blood, and a super-hot villainess who dabbles in S&M," was originally released as an e-book by AOL Time Warner's iPublish imprint. It's now available free as a serial download at http://www.scottsigler.net/earthcore . At last report, it was in podcastalley's top 10, an achievement that represented about 1,900 votes from listeners.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company