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Podcasting facesgrowing pains

Remember the Web in 1994? Lots of pictures of pet cats and long lists of people's favorite junk foods.

Podcasting is in the same place today as the Web was in 1994. These personal radio broadcasts, designed to be downloaded to an iPod or similar MP3 player, are homespun, rough-edged, and -- let's be honest -- not all that riveting.

Some of the best podcasts so far are recordings of speeches and roundtables from high-priced technology conferences; some of the worst are like eavesdropping on your next-door neighbors while they're making dinner and talking about their day. One of the most popular podcasts, produced by former MTV ''VJ" Adam Curry, last week included the kind of meandering, boring rant about airport security that you've heard from every person who has taken a flight in post-9/11 America. Yes, Adam, the security lines are a real hassle.

One problem is that, much like the Web before advertising and e-commerce, there's no money in podcasting yet. I doubt we would have seen Google, eBay, CNN.com, or Mapquest emerge if the Web had remained a commerce-free zone. Ads and transactions on the Web gave everyone an incentive to produce high-quality websites, from start-ups like eBay to giant media corporations like CNN to individuals like Harry Knowles, who runs the movie insiders' site Ain't It Cool News.

And some of the founding fathers of podcasting -- just like early Webbies -- want to keep commercialism out.

Dave Winer, along with Curry, developed the technology and standards that made podcasting possible. In 2003, while he was a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Winer helped produce some of the very first podcasts, with WBUR personality-in-exile Christopher Lydon. Last summer, Winer began producing podcasts of his own, which he views as essential to encouraging others to start podcasting. ''What people needed was podcasts that sounded amateur," not as though they'd aired on a National Public Radio station, Winer says.

When I suggested to Winer that podcasting might be supported by ads, like commercial radio, or sponsorship, like public radio, or subscription, like satellite radio, he had a quick comeback. ''The assumption is this must be exactly like every other medium that has come before," he says. ''It's different. It has different economics."

It's true that it's much cheaper to decide to become a podcaster than to open up your own WEEI, or launch your own constellation of satellites. But there are still costs involved, and they grow as you attract more listeners.

Benjamen Walker is an independent radio producer in Cambridge who used to work for WBUR. His half-hour documentary show, ''Theory of Everything," is heard each week by 1,500 people who ''subscribe" to his podcast, and it is also broadcast on a handful of radio stations, like Boston College's WZBC and WCAI on Cape Cod. He pays $49.95 each month for the Internet bandwidth required to support his podcasts; that's $600 a year for the privilege of distributing his podcast, which has dealt with topics like the changing face of Kenmore Square.

Walker has been thinking about producing a ''pledgecast," to ask his regular listeners to help defray some of his costs. He believes that most podcasters don't have large enough audiences to interest advertisers. ''I would love to have a sponsor, and put one 30-second ad at the top of the show," he says. ''That wouldn't bother me at all. But I just don't see it, until the numbers really get higher." (WGBH, another local public radio station, did sell a sponsorship in January for its ''Morning Stories" podcast, which is a ''digital rebroadcast" of content that was originally produced for radio.)

Doug Kaye operates one of the best podcasting sites, ITConversations.com, which collects interviews and panel discussions with big thinkers like Harvard Business School's Clay Christensen, Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos, and author Malcolm Gladwell. Last year, Kaye put up an electronic ''tip jar" on the site, which so far has collected donations of $10 or $20 from about 130 listeners. He works about 70 hours a week on the site. ''ITConversations is my labor of love, but it's also my full-time gig," Kaye writes by e-mail. ''Most other people don't have that luxury - to be able to devote themselves full time to podcasting." Kaye estimates that his Internet bandwidth would cost about $5,000 a month -- if it weren't donated to him by a site sponsor.

''Podcasts are thoroughly interesting to me," says Christopher Lydon, the ex-''Connection" host who has been developing a new show since he left WBUR in 2001. His next show would likely air on traditional radio, Lydon says, ''because there's no economic model" for podcasting yet.

But advertising networks like 24/7 Media or Fastclick could aggregate podcasts for marketers, running an ad across a topical slice of shows. That would allow a company like Microsoft, for instance, to reach thousands of listeners of tech-oriented podcasts, or allow Williams-Sonoma to reach people who listen to cooking podcasts. Future iterations of the MP3 music standard might even allow podcasts to include graphical ads that would show up on the screen of your iPod.

''As is the case with advertising on blogs, there seems to be some potential," writes David Moore via e-mail. Moore is CEO of 24/7Media, an advertising network based in New York. ''However, it is too early to tell if there is a serious market opportunity there."

People might also be willing to pay a subscription fee to listen to their favorite podcasts regularly, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple's iTunes Music Store eventually start offering some of the best podcasts. Audible.com, a company that sells digital audio subscriptions to shows like Charlie Rose and ''Fresh Air," hinted recently about launching tools for podcasters who want to rake in some revenue, and a San Francisco start-up called Odeo plans to do the same.

Winer doesn't think that podcasting needs to follow any of those models. ''Why invent something new if it has to be like everything else that came before?" he asks. Instead, he suggests that a company like BestBuy might produce its own podcast about personal electronics as a way to attract and retain customers.

I'd like to see that tried. But I'd like to see lots of other economic models tried for podcasting, too. Smart, creative people like to be rewarded for the time and energy they invest in producing great stuff. And it doesn't matter whether that stuff is a website, circa 1994, or a podcast in 2005.

It came from Israel
Instant messaging, the cellphone, Intel's Centrino microchip.

They all originated with Israeli start-ups and R&D labs, as did the world's first ''Fantastic Voyage"-style ingestible pill camera.

Those and other technologies are included in an exhibit called ''Israel: Technology for the Next Generation" that's making the rounds of Boston-area colleges.

''We're concerned that the only understanding of Israel people on college campuses have is through the context of the conflict," says James Bornstein, a senior Israel programs associate at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, who helped organize the exhibit. ''We see an Israel that offers the world a lot."

Bornstein worked with the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a Los Angeles group called Israel21c over the course of a year to put together the exhibit. More info at www.cjp.org/israelhitech.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net.

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