KCRW-FM General Manager Ruth Seymour was getting her teeth cleaned in February when her dentist suggested the station adopt a new technology called podcasting.
Seymour was unfamiliar with the software that allows listeners to download audio programs to such portable devices as iPods. Now she knows, and has plenty to smile about.
Apple Computer Inc. this week rolled out an updated version of its music software, iTunes, that prominently features podcasts of such KCRW programs as comedian Harry Shearer's "Le Show" and film critic Elvis Mitchell's "The Treatment."
Within a day, downloads from Santa Monica-based KCRW exploded from 3,500 a day to 100,000.
"We're reeling, trying to figure out what this means," Seymour said.
One thing it could mean is more money for KCRW's coffers. The nonprofit station relies on the generosity of 500,000 over-the-air listeners and funds from program sponsors.
Seymour expects that 10% of the station's podcasting listeners will each eventually donate as much as $80 a year to the station. If the trend continues, Seymour anticipates the station may raise an additional $1 million a year, a big potential shot in the arm for its $10-million annual budget. Already, Internet radio aficionados outside of Los Angeles make up 12% of KCRW's donors.
KCRW also expects to solicit more underwriters by offering to mention companies at the beginning of podcasts. Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand paid tens of thousands of dollars last month to have the company's name mentioned for six months in KCRW podcasts, on the station's website, on the air and at a concert.
KCRW's experience signals that podcasting may soon join Internet radio as a mainstream way for local radio stations to distribute programs nationwide.
Although 22 million Americans own portable devices capable of playing podcasts, before this week only about 6 million people had downloaded programs, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Since Apple released the new iTunes software Tuesday, listeners have used it to subscribe to more than 1 million podcasts, according to the computer maker.
But some skeptics say it will take time before it is clear whether the podcasting trend is more than a fad.
"Podcasts are the shiny new thing," said Jim Kerr of Pollack Media Group. "A lot of podcasts will be downloaded but never get listened to."
Most podcasts are distributed free, with amateurish production values akin to basement broadcasts.
But that began to change last month when talk radio host Rush Limbaugh began podcasting to more than 100,000 listeners who subscribed to his $50-a-year online service.
Technology experts believe Apple's new iTunes will be the catalyst to push podcasting into the mainstream.
The tens of millions of iTunes programs on Americans' computers, when updated, will offer listeners an easy way to automatically download audio programs as soon as they become available.
Apple plans to especially promote KCRW programs. Eddy Cue, Apple's vice president of applications, said employees at the company were fans of the station, which is known for such cutting-edge programs as "Morning Becomes Eclectic," a weekday music program.
"As long as they continue to produce great stuff, we'll keep promoting them," he said.
For KCRW, the development means riding a technology wave that is carrying it from one coast to the other.
"We've become a national station, I guess," Seymour said.