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Gary Mottk of the ‘‘Morning Stories’’ at WGBH, which has become a podcast hit.
Gary Mottk of the ‘‘Morning Stories’’ at WGBH, which has become a podcast hit. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

Computer, microphone, iPod make broadcasting personal

Richie Carey has heard the future of radio. It's on an iPod music player.

Carey, a 38-year-old website developer and marketing consultant from Sandwich, is among an early wave of fans for a new broadcast medium dubbed ''podcasting" -- audio content that listeners download from websites to iPods or similar digital music player devices.

''I can subscribe to custom-made audio that is whatever I want to hear, and that's powerful stuff in my mind," Carey said. ''I'm really in love with the technology of it."

So much so that Carey is not just a daily consumer of podcasted talk shows about technology and politics but a fledgling podcaster himself. He has a regular audience of about 50 people who download his ''definitely not polished" spoken musings about life, personal electronics, and even the importance of getting your brakes checked -- a ''podcast" he made and instantly posted from his cellphone while sitting outside the Sears repair shop one day recently.

''This is technology that gives me a voice I never had a month ago," Carey said. ''It's amazing how someone can now make a cellphone call that can be heard all around the world."

If Internet-based weblogs turned everyone into a potential newspaper columnist, and digital cameras let them become photojournalists, podcasting is promising to let everyone with a microphone and a computer become a radio commentator.

A key factor driving the blossoming trend is the booming sales of Apple's iPod music devices. Financial analysts expect Apple to sell more than 4 million units during the three months ending with Christmas, double the rate of sales just three months earlier.

Many retailers are calling the iPod this year's must-have gift craze like Cabbage Patch dolls or the Rubik's Cube from decades past. Nearly 6 million iPods have been sold globally, and they account for nearly 90 percent of the market for portable digital music players that work off a computer-chip memory.

Two other geek-speak trends, weblogs and TiVo, also help explain the podcasting phenomenon. Like weblogs, anything-goes Web pages in which bloggers post observations and links to pages they recommend, podcasts are a vehicle for delivering highly specialized, eclectic content to narrow audiences. Like weblogs, many sound more like a heart-to-heart conversation -- or rant -- than a radio broadcast.

Podcasts have also been called ''TiVo for radio," referring to the TiVo digital video recording boxes that let people record hours' worth of television broadcasts to watch later when they want, and with the benefit of a fast-forward button, too.

A podcast clearinghouse called iPodderx.com now typically offers 900 to 1,700 podcasts each day, ranging from news on God to information about sex, vegan diets, and music from obscure amateur artists.

A heavy focus is chat about information technology and computers, including ''Tech Chick Weekly," offering ''a female perspective" on geek issues. Many podcasts are largely aural recreations of conventional weblogs by the bloggers themselves.

''The cool thing about podcasts is I listen to them when I want to," said Steve Garfield, 46, a video producer and editor from Jamaica Plain who has tuned into a podcast called ''Trade Secrets" since it went live on Sept. 1. The show is co-produced by Adam Curry, a former host on the MTV music video channel, and Dave Winer, a software developer who has produced a Google-style search engine called iPodder. Winer's service not only tracks down podcasts, it arranges for new ones to be automatically syndicated to listeners' devices, which can just as easily be personal computers as iPods.

Garfield loves loading up his iPod, before taking a long walk around Jamaica Pond, with the latest edition of ''The Dawn and Drew Show," the real-life and often off-color bantering of a husband and wife in rural Wisconsin. He also likes downloading one of the few mass-market shows now being podcast, ''Morning Stories" on Boston's WGBH-FM public radio station.

The podcast version of ''Morning Stories," five-minute human-interest segments, has posted numbers that people in the radio business would envy.

In the past two months, the audience for the podcast segments of the show has grown 12,000-fold, from a grand total of five downloads for the entire month of September to 60,000 in November, according to producer Tony Kahn.

As a public station that doesn't have ads to skip, WGBH has nothing to lose by making broadcasts available for free. Bob Lyons, director of radio and new media initiatives for WGBH, said that technologically, ''it's trivial" to reformat a broadcast for podcast downloads.

Lyons said WGBH has been impressed by the rapidly growing demand for ''Morning Stories" podcasts but will move slowly on adding more programs. ''We could pretty much just shovel everything in there, but I think that would be foolish," Lyons said. ''We need to focus on stuff that is suitable for this particular delivery pipe," in particular broadcasts that have a long shelf life and will be appealing to people days or weeks after they've gone out over the airwaves.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has also edged into podcasting, making its history program ''In Our Time" available for podcasting, but only seven days after it's been on the air.

Commercial radio has to grapple with complex legal issues, particularly stations that play copyrighted music that stations license for broadcasting but not for listeners to download. Also, determining how much conventional talk-oriented programming is really worth offering for delayed listening is a major issue for radio executives such as Ted Jordan, general manager of Boston's powerhouse WBZ-AM.

''I just can't imagine that this is our next wave," Jordan said. ''I know some people out there are thinking that this is TiVo for radio, but I have a hard time imagining podcasting supplanting a format that's as habitual and as famous for appointment listening as radio is."

Jordan's first reaction to the idea of making a late-night talk host such as Paul Sullivan or Steve LeVeille available to morning listeners as a podcast: ''Why would I want to create another competitor for Gary LaPierre live in the morning?"

But many podcast fans say what makes the technology so exciting is that it really does not matter what mainstream radio outlets think.

''The thing about podcasting is that it's on your own terms, what you want and when you want it, as opposed to radio," said Wayne Hudson, 33, a computer system administrator from Braintree.

''After a while, you can get bored with politics and sports, which is all that's out there for talk radio. With podcasting, if you're into comedy or jazz or movies or anything else, it's out there," Hudson said. ''This podcasting thing just seems to be growing exponentially all the time."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com. 

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