What, you don't have a podcast yet?
That's this year's version of, "What, you don't have a blog yet?" Podcasts -- downloadable audio clips that you can listen to on your computer or on a digital music player such as an iPod -- are riding an extraordinary wave of hype.
Where blogs are supposed to make newspapers obsolete, podcasts are supposed to turn radio into a dusty fossil.
And just as people last year were rushing to launch their own journals on the Web, folks are now jumping into podcasting. Former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards has a podcast, and so does Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans.
Given time, podcasts may very well live up to the most optimistic predictions offered about them. For now, though, the programming available in the pod-verse teems with both brilliance and boredom. The software needed to tune into this bounty also could use more work -- even after the improvements in Apple's new version of its iTunes music program.
The basic idea behind podcasting is to work around the annoying reality that until we get universal broadband Internet access, you can't tune into Internet radio in most of the places you'd like to.
Podcasters abandon real-time streaming over the Internet in favor of recording a program in advance, then letting users download it and listen to it on their own time. A podcast is essentially shrink-wrapped radio, almost always in the form of an MP3 audio file.
You can listen to that right in your Web browser, you can download it and play it on a computer later on, or you can copy it to an iPod or most other music players.
But listening to the wrong podcasts may leave you wondering why anybody bothers. It's not that mediocrity is so much more prevalent among podcasters than bloggers -- or newspaper reporters. It's just more obvious.
Simply speaking clearly and engagingly into a microphone is not always a natural skill. Podcasters can also routinely make rookie mistakes like forgetting to talk close enough to a microphone, or allowing feedback to screech into the recording.
Cleaning up the aural equivalent of typos -- "um," "er" and "uh" -- is far trickier in sound-recording software than in any word processor. Perhaps because editing after the fact takes so much time, many podcasters seem compelled to try to blitz through a podcast in a single take.
Scripts also often appear optional: Quite a few podcasts are ad-libbed -- even when their authors blather on for upwards of an hour.
All that combines to make for some spectacularly bad material: flat, rambling, filibuster-length monologues with awkward pacing, stilted pauses and maybe even a yawn or two. Listening to lengthy voice-mail messages on your answering machine can be more fun.
Good podcasts, on the other hand, compete with anything you can hear on AM or FM. They're more than just one person's yammerings; they're built of lots of different bits weaved together artfully. (Some of the best podcasts come straight from radio; National Public Radio stations have been aggressively publishing their work in this medium.)
In radio, music is a major ingredient. But in podcasts, it's not. That's because including a song in a podcast MP3 amounts to giving listeners a free copy of it, something that most musicians and record labels do not allow. To stay out of legal trouble, podcasters have to seek out "pod-safe" music, songs whose copyright holders specifically permit redistribution via podcast. Many just stick to spoken-word material instead.
Beyond content, the other part of the podcast puzzle is the software needed to collect these audio downloads and transfer them to portable music players.
Until Apple's update to iTunes, podcast listeners would have to choose between one of a few specialized programs to search for, download and subscribe to podcasts. They'd usually then need to switch to a second program to copy podcast MP3s to their music players.
Compared with that, iTunes 4.9 (www.apple.com/itunes/) makes podcasting breathtakingly simple. It includes a comprehensive, easily searched directory of podcasts; although this directory is integrated into Apple's iTunes Music Store, podcasts are free to download. Nor do podcasters have to pay to be included; they only need to give Apple the address of the site serving up their podcasts and some basic data about the podcast's contents.
Listeners, in turn, just need to find an interesting podcast -- either by locating it in iTunes, or by clicking an iTunes link on the podcaster's own site. They then can hear a preview of it, download the current episode or subscribe to the podcast. From there, iTunes will copy new episodes to an iPod and can automatically erase old ones.
The interface does suffer a couple of hiccups, however. The iTunes podcast directory is two screens away when you start up iTunes. And once you download or subscribe to a podcast, iTunes takes you to the listing of podcasts on your own computer without offering a "back" button to return you to your prior spot in the iTunes directory. (Fortunately, but not intuitively, clicking the "Music Store" icon will take you back.)
Further, a few podcast links in iTunes don't yield any downloadable files, and the synchronization of downloaded podcasts to an iPod Mini had some glitches of its own.
The most useful part about iTunes' newfound embrace of podcasting, however, may not be what it does to simplify tuning in, but how it presents the breadth of podcasts available. The most promising part about the podcast business is that, unlike radio, it has infinite room for anybody; there isn't a fixed set of channels that can be bought up by the big media conglomerates. Podcasting may be a mess, but at least it's a mess that everybody has the same access to.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.