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Science & Tech

Podcast Academy clicks

COM symposium encourages crowd to join next big thing


Click here to listen to an interview about podcasts and their impact on journalism, with Sasha Norkin, a COM associate professor of journalism and one of the organizers of BU’s Podcast Academy.

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For most of the day on April 28 and 29 the Boston University College of Communication auditorium was filled with the keyboard clicking of laptops connected wirelessly to the Internet. The typing crowd had come to attend the Podcast Academy,  a two-day event by podcasting experts cohosted by COM and the Conversations Network, a California nonprofit that promotes technology and media-related podcasts. About 150 people attended the symposium, but organizers estimated that as many as 16,000 watched via webcast. 

Podcasts, explained first-morning speaker Doug Kaye, executive director of the Conversations Network, are loosely defined as audio or video productions published online, typically as a “show” with installments made available for automatic downloading by a subscriber to a computer or a mobile device such as an iPod.

“Every day on the planet, there are thousands of really important events that disappear,” said Kaye. “They evaporate, because nobody is recording them.” Kaye was quick to point out that podcasters are motivated by more than archival zeal. Podcasts can be an online forum for interest groups, a platform for commentary, a new way to educate, or an alternative form of marketing, among many other uses. The main thing, he said, is that “all good podcasting starts with a passion.”

Although the first podcasts were created by a few technophiles just two years ago, they now appear to be the hottest thing online.  One large aggregator of podcasts, FeedBurner, reports that its stock of podcasts grew from about 1,700 in January 2005 to nearly 45,000 in March 2006. And two days after Apple launched its iTunes Podcast Directory in June 2005, the company reported that customers had already subscribed to more than one million podcasts. 

Podcast topics run the gamut — from wine to computer programming to Harry Potter, and their quality is as varied as their subject matter. Kaye’s network includes a range from professional productions to what a columnist for London’s Guardian newspaper labeled “badly produced rubbish” by “stuttering cat lovers and people ranting about biscuits.”

Quality issues aside, the attitude of most presenters at BU’s Podcast Academy was that now was the time for newcomers to jump in and create. “Innovate, have fun, continue a conversation with your audience, and allow them to help you grow,” said Tony Kahn, a public-radio veteran who hosts a narrative podcast  called “Morning Stories” for Boston’s WGBH. “Let it remain as much fun as possible for you.”

Dan Bricklin, president of the Newton-based computer consulting firm Software Garden, Inc., the creator of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, followed Kaye and encouraged the crowd to master the basics of podcasting. Later presenters explained some of the more affordable options for audio equipment and the proper style for hooking a podcast audience, which tends to be smaller but much more devoted than that of radio or television programs. Other speakers and panelists discussed the potential for podcasts to make money from advertisers and ways that universities might harness podcasts to extend their reach.

While the number of podcasters is skyrocketing, their audience is still relatively small. A recent survey by Forrester Research estimated that only one percent of American households regularly listened to podcasts. But Forrester predicted that 12 million Americans would be joining the podcast-listener ranks by 2010. In an interview, Kaye said he believes podcasts will continue to steal audience from traditional broadcasters.

“The traditional broadcast media are all about a scarcity of bandwidth, transmitters, and licenses. Plus, there are only so many hours in a day, which limits how many programs can be put out,” he said. “But podcasts are all about time and space shifting, offering content when and where you want it, and there’s an unlimited number of programs. With the Internet, there’s an abundance of bandwidth, and it’s almost free. We don’t have to make the news. We can make targeted content.”

Kaye predicted that in five years, podcasts themselves will be just another, more convenient means of delivering and receiving information. “At the end of the day,” he said, “podcasting will be successful, but it will just be part of the infrastructure.”