Podcasting arrived out of nowhere, knocking the wind out of the "expert" prognosticators. While the established media outlets scrambled to make sense of it, a few talented small-scale producers sneaked under the radar, finding new global audiences without having to pass muster with the usual gatekeepers.
It has been a glorious eruption of serendipity fueled by a confluence of events--mainly the boost in broadband connectivity, and Apple's iPod/iTunes combo, which now automatically downloads and aggregates podcasts.
With broadband costs still plummeting and estimates that one in 10 adult Americans--about 22 million people--now own a portable MP3 player, podcasting could have a bright future.
Today, most podcasts are in the form of audio. That, of course, will change. Video podcasts will become more widespread as bandwidth increases, compression improves, and a new generation of personal media electronics hit the market. Look for that to begin this holiday season.
Podcasting, because it works through an on-demand subscription, has introduced many to their first taste of hyper-personalized media. The concept clearly demonstrates the attractiveness of on-demand programming to audiences.
ENTER THE POD PEOPLE
As users, we can subscribe to what we choose and hear it when we like. The old geographic boundaries of broadcasting are erased, while time shifting is totally on the terms of the listener.
However, with podcasting, the personalization goes further. There's a quality to many podcasts that's fresh, homemade, intimate and anti-corporate. Some are based simply on the podcaster's love and enthusiasm for the subject. Many don't try to sell anything. The best podcasting is from the heart.
There's a bit of the outlaw quality of pirate radio in good podcasting. Even if the production is not slick, we like it because we know deep down that the gatekeepers have no power to run it through their great homogenization machine.
We like the idea of having access to anything we want, whether it be an eclectic talent on a far-away radio station or an individual musing on politics in his underwear sitting at his kitchen table.
So much for the romanticized idea of this powerful new medium. Unfortunately, this quaint vision is not yet the reality. It's one thing that podcasting technology is here, but it's another to create a compelling podcast that significant numbers of people want to hear.
Just as the advent of word processors didn't increase the amount of good writing, or home recording gear didn't result in better recorded music, the fact that we can now do low-cost one-to-one broadcasting does not make the programming compelling.
Yet, the potential is there and that's exciting in itself.
As with any media, a good podcast requires that its creator have the talent to tell a good story. Without that ability, nothing else matters. No amount of technology will save the show. Assuming the story skills, however, the sky is now the limit for the creative podcaster.
Already, podcast media--by its very nature--is moving into exciting new territory, a frontier where the individual can be more deeply immersed into the story than ever before possible. Let's hope we're at the beginning of a new creative period in media that will bring exciting and unexpected things.
By using the written word, the late writer Hunter S. Thompson created gonzo journalism, a compelling style of reporting in which the creator--rather than be a passive observer--becomes intrinsically enmeshed with the story he is telling. This gonzo style, when created with a deft touch, brought freshness and excitement to the written word.
Podcasts lend themselves well to a gonzo-type treatment. In recent days, I have been exploring some of the tools now available that can help creative podcasters move beyond the boundaries of the studio to create more immersive productions.
I've found that history is repeating itself. As it has been with most emerging media forms, the early tools were originally designed with something else in mind. There must at first be a period of adaptation of both technology and technique.
Most professional audio gear is designed for electronic newsgathering and music recording. Very little has been designed for use by a single individual focused on creating the story.
The challenge of some podcasts is for a single person to move unobtrusively in the field and record high-quality digital audio without having to pay undue attention to operation of the gear. That's easier said than done.
At first, I looked at a new generation of flash memory-based recorders to find this ultra compact, simple-to-use recording package. I quickly found that higher-quality recorders designed for broadcasting tend to be too bulky. That led me to business and prosumer technology.
Some new pocket-sized recorders, such as the Olympus DM-20, offer decent Internet sound quality in a stealth-size package. For example, the DM-20 ($289.99 list) can record a couple of hours of stereo audio in the Windows Media Format (WMA) on its internal 128 MB of flash memory.
In its best quality 44.1 kHz mode, it can deliver a frequency response ranging from 300 to 8,000 Hz--a decent tradeoff of sound quality versus a weight of less than 3 ounces. This little recorder can do the job in many podcast applications.
However, for much better location sound for an amazingly compact device, the new Sony MZ-M100 Hi-MD Minidisc portable wins the competition. In fact, it has podcasting written all over it. Introduced at summer NAMM, this is an entirely new breed of Minidisc--one with the ability to record uncompressed linear 16-bit PCM audio and turn the takes into files for editing on a computer. It's the first MD recorder to allow the movement of WAV files to both Windows and Macs. The price is $439.95 list.
This new generation MD recorder uses 1 GB MiniDiscs, allows up to 94 minutes of uncompressed recording time, and as much as 34 hours using the Sony ATRAC3 Plus format. It comes with an excellent stereo microphone and offers long battery life. We tested it and found it an ideal unobtrusive personal recorder for podcasting.
These are just two products that we evaluated. There are some excellent resources that sell, service and advise users on ultra-portable gear, stealth and binaural microphones, and other audio goodies that allow experimentation with immersive personal podcasts.
A great source is Len Moskowitz's Core Sound, a specialist in binaural microphones and portable recording. Visit www.core-sound.com Another is Sound Professionals at www.soundprofessionals.com and Oade Brothers Audio at www.oade.com Check out Oade's excellent "Tapers Section" for practical advice on field recording, especially of music.
Finally, for great resources on audio storytelling, visit Transom at www.transom.org and on the latest in podcasting, go to www.podcastingnews.com
It's an exciting time to create new media and find an audience for it. The question is, who will see the opportunity and seize the moment?
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