Do Your Podcasts Buzz?

25 February 2005

I’m told that any product or service launched today requires buzz. With buzz comes the risk of someone co-opting—no, stealing—your idea. Some forms of buzz simply amount to renaming something that already existed, which brings us to podcasting.

Much like my first exposure to the world wide web, I think I first began to grasp the notion of mp3 files when Napster was all the rage. You know, back before people realized it was wrong for me to put my entire audio collection out there for anyone to download.

As an audiophile, the whole phenomenon of downloading digitized music was of interest. When Apple released the first iPod, there was great unrest amongst the record players. That’s the group who spends tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to play vinyl disks on equipment that can find even microscopic dust in grooves. No digitized music has ever sounded sweet to the avowed vinyl fan. He’s far more concerned about preventing his vinyl from warping than whether or not he can digitize it.

The next time music downloads crossed my mind involved the announcements of iTunes and Walmart’s music downloads. Suddenly, there was a way to legalize what Napster had been doing. Now I think, even Napster is reincarnated.

Comingled with those announcements were a series of press briefings and analysts conferences about bandwidth. Level 3 Communications would mention the costs of moving a compact disk of information from coast to coast. You could fly it. You could mail it. You could transmit if over dial-up. With a global IP network made up of many conduits and the latest fiber optics, Level 3 could move that cd of info quicker and at lower cost than anyone. After all, we either create, store or move information. Level 3 wants to be in the moving business.

Two other events then coincided within a few weeks or months of each other. I became aware of Chris Lydon’s work to put interviews on line. About the time I was pondering that capability, a friend and I were considering putting talk show-styled interviews with business owners on cd’s as promotional pieces. Long story—brief idea—not much buzz.

Other than the regular receipt of Stereophile magazine and playing my own cd’s, all of this left my radar screen for a while. I dismissed mp3 files as having lower overall sound quality than cd’s or vinyl. I dismissed a lot of the digital work with my music collection as tasks that ultimately would undermine the sound quality. Did I mention that speaker wire can be as large as a garden hose for some audiophiles?

The next time mp3 files made an impression on me involved the study of the Book of Revelation. A men’s Bible study group I’ve attended from time to time was launching the study. I learned that the church had been putting the pastor’s sermons on line for download. Visiting their web site, I could see the listing of messages that was available. Then, lo and behold, there were the weekly studies of Revelation—on line and ready for download. The same day I saw this, I ran into another member of the group who was trying to find out where he could buy something called an iPod; “everybody’s doing this. It’s like being able to Tivo the 6:15 a.m. studies.” The church was podcasting and didn’t even know it.

Today, I was spurred to write this because someone whined about having an idea stolen. His buzz outran his ability to keep up with it. Others have actually formed a company and gone into the business of “commercializing” or profiting from podcasting. Digging into the subject a bit more, I started reading the things that would tell me how simple mp3 downloads to computers or mp3 players differ from podcasting.

The short answer is they don’t. At least they don’t differ very much. It seems that podcasting largely adds one other piece to the technologies involved in downloading digitized information. The information syndication format known as RSS is a way to aggregate weblog posts, mainstream media articles and other sources of information into a personalized newspaper. Everything is brought together into a piece of software known as a news reader or aggregator. There, without having to visit every one of your favorite sites, you can see recently updated information in a way that you have organized to your own tastes.

Now, that same technique—RSS—permits attachments that can be digitized audio (and one day video) files. In other words, instead of having to visit the church’s web site to get yesterday’s study of Revelation, I subscribe to their RSS feed and it automatically synch’s to my computer, my mp3 player or whatever the device might be. In this specific example, the church does not (yet) offer those files via RSS subscription, but you get the idea.

With Odeo presenting at TED today, and Apple announcing new audio players every sixty days and content from over seven million weblogs exploding, podcasting is buzzing. As an old audiophile, I remain concerned about the quality of my music. As an old student, I’m thrilled at the possibility of being able to subscribe to topics of interest and have them synch to my listening device for on-the-go instruction.

Today is the day that podcasting ceased to be a buzzword for me and began to shape the way I see audio and video of tomorrow. Stay tuned.

* * * UPDATE * * * Reading out of order today, I’m late getting to Lileks. Here’s the teaser:

Let me speak for millions here who just want to listen to music: I don’t care about Ogg Vorbis. If Ogg Vorbis came to my house and waved tentacles at me demanding in a slobbery moan that I kneel and submit, I would shoot it. I don’t know what it is and I don’t care.

Ogg Vorbis may be the audiophile’s answer to digitized music. In time we’ll know.

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