Podcasting is the buzzed-about technology that allows listeners to download audio programming and play it at their convenience but just try making money off it.
For commercial radio stations, the technology poses numerous challenges, such as whether it can deliver copyrighted music and syndicated programs as well as how it can generate revenues.
"I'm a great believer in possibilities," said Ruth Seymour, general manager of public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), which offered its first program for podcasting last week. "It takes the station another step. It makes the programs more available. At the end of the day, it's all radio. You can listen to it in a lot of different ways."
KCRW's offerings, which include talk shows like "Which Way, L.A.," are among the limited programming formats that work effectively in a podcast.
The timeliness of news programming, for instance, makes it impractical for podcasting, while music is subject to royalties and runs the risk of being pirated. Making syndicated talk shows available could undercut the efforts of stations that pay for the right to air them.
Podcasting started out as a grass-roots outgrowth of the iPod revolution. It allows anyone with the right equipment to produce programming that can be placed on the Web and then downloaded on computers or mobile devices. As seen with other Web creations, such as Blogs (or Web Logs), the content, quality and audience reach range wildly.
There are now more than 3,000 podcasting outlets, according to the Web site ipodder.org, which provides downloads of podcasting software. But many of the outlets are hobbyists who produce homemade audio of ambient dance music, sports commentary and even their own weddings. There are no statistics on how many radio stations provide podcasts, although KCRW and L.A.'s other public radio station, KPCC-FM (89.3), are believed to be the only two local outlets.
While KCRW has made much of its offering, KPCC isn't touting its podcast of a program called "Pacific Drift," which spotlights creative artists in the Los Angeles area and includes documentaries about life in the region. Station spokeswoman Kiyomi Emi did not know how many listeners have downloaded the podcasts, which became available in January.
Emi said KPCC, which broadcasts from Pasadena, plans to podcast other programs soon. The station has done relatively little to publicize the Pacific Drift podcasts, preferring to wait until it has a complete package of programming, Emi said.
Seymour said KCRW will not make music or syndicated programs available on its podcasts because of copyright issues. And she said KCRW managers haven't determined how to derive income from the podcasts, which are available at no cost.
The station said 2,000 people had downloaded "Which Way L.A.?" on March 1.
While many stations have offered streaming audio on their Web sites for years, podcasting is a more recent phenomenon.
"The way to deliver a lot of the newer groups, the newer songs, things that might not appeal to large numbers of the audience but would appeal to subgroups, is by podcasting," said Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. "I know it's very high on (stations') radar right now."
With 11 million owners of Apple Inc.'s iPod and other mobile MP3 devices, podcasting advocates say there is a large and growing market for audio files that can be quickly downloaded and listened to at will.
Radio stations such as Seattle's KOMO-AM and WNYC-FM, National Public Radio's flagship station in New York, were among the early broadcast entrants. On Jan. 6, WNYC offered the first podcast of NPR programming with its "On the Media," an hour-long program.
That podcast now draws 7,500 weekly downloads, according to Mikel Elcessor, director of programming operations for the station. "Every week we're seeing double-digit growth," he said. "This quick adoption is very encouraging and it's inspired us to launch two new podcasts."
For radio stations with high-volume computer servers, the costs of podcasting are limited to the expense of having a staff member convert recordings to MP3 files and post them onto the Web site. But podcast audio files can run several megabytes, and stations with limited server space would have to buy bandwidth to make podcasts available to a large number of listeners.
The stations that offer podcasts often do so with little fanfare for fear of their servers becoming overloaded by a large number of downloads.
"To this day, we've never made a dime off of online content," said Stan Orchard, assistant director of news and programming at KOMO, the first commercial station to offer podcasts. KOMO is owned by Fisher Communications Inc., which operates a group of stations in the Pacific Northwest.
"The only reason I started this is we're cutting-edge and we like doing this," Orchard said. "Especially in this market, people are all about new media and we've got to keep up with that."
The Recording Industry Association of America, which has worked to guard copyrighted music from free distribution, has expressed concern about the potential for listeners to copy and distribute songs from podcasts.
The eight Los Angeles-area radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc. offer small amounts of programming online including snippets of songs but do not advertise them as podcasts, said Roy Laughlin, Clear Channel's regional president.
The technology is essentially the same as podcasting, Laughlin said, although Clear Channel is stopping short of offering large chunks of programming for download. "I do credit (KCRW) for launching it as a package," he said. "It's really just TiVo for the radio."
Infinity Broadcasting, another major player in the Los Angeles market, announced that it plans to put streaming audio of its radio stations on the Web, but made no mention of podcasting. Streaming audio allows computer users to listen to live radio programs on sound-enabled computers but does not offer the option of downloading the programming. Officials at Viacom Inc.'s Infinity Broadcasting unit did not return calls.
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