The Podcast as a New Podium
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: July 22, 2005
Correction Appended [*]
Admit it. You don't know what podcasts are. Your plan is to do that
thing of half-reading tech articles and waiting in denial until it's
scarily mandatory that you really understand it -for instance, you
have to create your own podcast for some random reason in one hour -
and then desperately turning to Wikipedia or a teenage relative for a
last-minute explanation. Just as you did long ago with the World Wide
But let's say today is the day you're going to understand podcasts.
Before the emergency. Ready? Podcasts are little radio shows that
people create on the cheap; you can download them at no cost from the
Web, and listen to them whenever you want.
Podcast content ranges from musical to religious to domestic.
More substantial radio shows, like ones from NPR or CNN, also show up
in reruns in podcast form. If you miss a show you like on broadcast
radio, you can often fetch it from the Web and listen to it at your
leisure. All podcasts can be downloaded from their Web sites, or with
particular ease from iTunes, Apple's popular media player.
Producing downloadable audio shows - getting around copyright
obstacles with music, creating syndicated content that suits a
subscription model of delivery, possibly introducing video - poses
fascinating questions that obsess podcasters. But none of this need
concern anyone who just wants to listen to new music or independent
talk radio in a car or in the gym, where podcasts are most enjoyable.
(Many people use portable music players, especially iPods, to listen
to podcasts, but others - like Steven Garrity, a Web developer in
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, who has offered audio
programming since 2003 - just hook a Pioneer stereo from the 1970's
up to a laptop.)
So what's on these podcasts? The best ones fall into three
categories. The first includes the programs of weird monologists and
couples capering, complaining and exposing their personal lives in
ostentatiously appalling ways. They can be funny. The second category
is for talk shows about technology, from which you learn genuinely
useful things, including that MapQuest.com is over, and that serious
direction-seekers now turn to Google Maps. And then there are
podcasts from abroad, including a good esoteric music podcast from
Scotland, and an eccentric Roman Catholic one, which is produced by a
priest in the Netherlands.
In the first category, I like "The Dawn and Drew Show," on which a
couple - the prolific podcasters Dawn and Drew, who describe
themselves in a blurb as "ex-gutter punks" who now live in a
Wisconsin farmhouse - make each other laugh and get on each other's
nerves. It is the kind of mesmerizing voyeurism you can imagine
submitting to on a long solo road trip.
Dawn, who has the more flamboyant personality, evidently rules the
couple's roost; she sometimes proposes a sketch - in which she and
her husband free-associate on various words, for instance - and then
crushes it if it's not working. She uses jokes and spaciness to cover
gaps in her knowledge, as when she thought the Hindenburg blimp was
literally a lead zeppelin. And she stages dramatic changes of heart
about Drew. On a recent broadcast she suddenly said: "I'm divorcing
you! No, I love you!"
Drew replied, unflappably, "Which is it?" And Dawn said: "Both! I'm
torn!" She sounded petulant, unreachable.
Other odd characters include Soccergirl, a onetime soccer player who
posts topless pictures of herself on her Web site and sometimes uses
a studied 1-900 phone-sex voice before switching to regular tones to
haze her boyfriend, Ryan, and tell melancholy stories about her
childhood. "Keith and the Girl" is another couple's podcast, in which
the guy seems to have the upper hand; Keith is a jerky but fun-
sounding fellow from Brooklyn, while his girlfriend, Chemda, is
funny, smart and accommodating. They talk about things like
television and the hazards of sleeping with women who keep diaries.
"Croncast" stars Betsy and Kris, new parents who live in a cul-de-sac
and claim that they were once cool. Betsy's voice is thick with
Midwestern diphthongs; Kris, like Keith of "Keith and the Girl," is
an amusing crank who has trouble listening.
"The Bitterest Pill" is the podcast of Dan Klass, an intelligent, low-
key (depressive?) actor and self-identified addict in Los Angeles; he
opines about addiction and complains about his laptop and his health,
as his baby cries in the background. Why is this endearing? It just
is, like many forthright accounts of boomer loserdom. Mr. Klass also
worries about podcasting going mainstream. "Do you really need to
hear Dick and wacky Dale from KRAP in St. Louis?" he asked on a
That worry haunts other podcasters, who generally pontificate too
much about the form - amplifying the reputation of podcasts as being
of interest only to those who make them - and spend tedious stretches
of airtime imploring audience members to help them appear more
popular on iTunes and sites like Podcastalley.com, which ranks
podcasts in various ways.
The tech podcasts, including prominent ones like "Diggnation" and
"This Week in Tech," are especially prone to this, and, though
annoying for listeners, it evidently pays; both show up on iTunes'
list of top-subscribed podcasts, alongside the offerings of
mainstream outlets like CNN, NPR, ESPN and iTunes. These two podcasts
compensate for their displays of self-love - and their mind-numbing
commitment to tech news - with surprisingly valuable information. It
was while listening to the jocular dudes of "Diggnation" that I
learned that some ionic air purifiers don't work and are harmful, and
from the older-sounding, hard-rock types on "This Week in Tech" I
discovered that some airlines offer in-flight wireless access to the
Two foreign podcasts - "Tartanpodcast" and "Catholic Insider" - are
also compelling. This is partly because their hosts are so giddy
about the medium. "Tartanpodcast" bills itself as "the first music-
based podcast hosted and produced in Scotland," a superlative with a
narrow focus. "Catholic Insider," similarly, is run by Roderick
Vonhögen, a genial, self-assured Roman Catholic priest and "Star
Wars" buff "podcasting from the heart of the Catholic Church," which
represents a distinct but forgivable exaggeration because he is in
the Netherlands. (Vatican Radio approached him about starting a
podcast, and that station now has one called "Vatican Radio One-O-
The Tartanpodcaster is a sincere muso broadcasting "podsafe" Scottish
music - indie music without copyright restrictions - and seems to
know what he's talking about. On "Tartanpodcast" I heard Palomino, a
dreamy, canyon-rock-style Glaswegian band, for the first time.
Another promising music podcast is produced by KCRW in Los Angeles;
starting yesterday, that station began offering podcasts of some live
sessions from its popular show "Morning Becomes Eclectic," with Nic
On "Catholic Insider" Father Vonhögen leads audio tours of Rome,
which he often visits, and parses the Vatican's reaction to the new
Harry Potter novel; he also boasts about how many subscribers he has,
as all podcasters do. Recently he told a reporter: "On Sunday, in my
church, I can reach about 500 people. But with my podcasts I can
reach about 15,000 listeners or more."
He seemed especially pleased at the nomination of "Catholic Insider"
for the People's Choice Podcast Award, for which the public votes
online. "The number of listeners is going through the roof at
present," Father Vonhögen said.
Will new listeners hurt podcasts? Part of the pleasure of tuning in -
when, for hard-core devotees, the heyday of the scrappy form is
already long past - is still the ambience of intimacy. With the
podcasts by eccentrics and weird couples, in particular, listening
feels like near-actionable eavesdropping. Steven Williams, a writer
and Internet developer from the San Francisco Bay Area who has
recently started a podcast about computing, is not in podcasting for
He sums up the amusement, clubbiness and probable evanescence of most
individual shows with a podcasting maxim: "Everyone is famous for 15
[*] Correction: July 23, 2005, Saturday:
A Critic's Notebook article in Weekend yesterday about podcasts
referred incorrectly to Dan Klass, creator of "The Bitterest Pill."
While he has indeed called himself an addict, he said that the
description was intended as a humorous reference likening himself to
fans of his podcast who call themselves addicts, and that he is not
really an addict.
 Wikipedia : http://www.wikipedia.org/
 NPR : http://www.npr.com/
 CNN : http://www.cnn.com/
 Dawn and Drew Show : http://www.dawnanddrew.com/
 Soccergirl : http://www.soccergirlincorporated.com/
 Keith and the Girl : http://keithandthegirl.com/
 Croncast : http://www.croncast.com/
 The Bitterest Pill : http://www.thebitterestpill.com/
 This Week in Tech
 Tartan Podcast : http://www.tartanpodcast.com/
 Catholic Insider : http://www.catholicinsider.com/
 Steven Williams : http://www.baychi.org/podcast
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