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Holy hard drive! It's an invasion of pod people!

The fledgling podcast industry and its minions descend on Ontario, plotting nothing short of global domination.

November 14, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

For years, when it came to discussing the Oakland Raiders, Dave McColl's wife had one standard response -- talk to someone who cares. So, last February, the 41-year-old football fanatic, along with a work buddy at a Northern California semiconductor manufacturer, did just that.

With no broadcasting experience, a laptop computer and less than a couple-hundred-dollar investment in microphones, software and a Web page, the pair became a much louder part of the Raider Nation by joining the growing socio-techno phenomenon of podcasting. Twice a week, sometimes from a local pizza parlor but mostly from McColl's Roseville living room, the two produce "the Raidercast," a 40- to 50-minute sports show that talks and talks about all things Silver and Black.

"I love talking about the Raiders and my wife was tired of hearing about it, so this has been a great outlet," said McColl, whose show, created with partner John Poindexter, has been downloaded more than 1,200 times. "I always dreamed as a kid of being a radio DJ, and now I am."

In fact, now everyone can be, a point that was hard to miss over the weekend at the inaugural Portable Media Expo & Podcasting Conference in Ontario. The event drew McColl, Poindexter and several thousand others from most of the 50 states and 20 or so countries, who all came to browse the latest gadgets, develop professional networks and, hopefully, stand out as an individual in a crowded hall of individuals.

Still something of a mystery to much of the non-techie mainstream, podcasts are simply recorded audio programs that can be downloaded from websites onto personal computers or digital listening devices such as iPods or MP3 players. The term itself is a bit of a misnomer, blending only "iPod" and "broadcast." Often described as the "TiVo-ization of radio," podcasting's great appeal is that it can be heard anytime, anywhere -- on the timetable of the listener, not some media conglomerate.

Indeed, many of today's most popular podcasts, which can be easily found through Internet search engines, are programs produced by established radio companies. For instance, National Public Radio's 17 different podcasts have recorded more than 4 million downloads since launching just over two months ago, and a few of them are routinely ranked among the all-important top 10 podcast lists on Yahoo (www.podcasts.yahoo.com) and iTunes (www.itunes.com), both popular sites for downloading the shows.

The bulk of podcasts, however, aren't made by big companies but people like McColl with a computer, a microphone and a favorite topic. Precise numbers are difficult to obtain, but industry observers estimate there are about 20,000 podcasters worldwide. The roster is ever-expanding in a field where you're considered part of the old guard if you've been doing it for more than 12 months.

Thanks to cheap technology and typically an attitude of either severe disenchantment with traditional radio and/or a healthy infatuation with their own voices, podcasters are holding forth on topics as diverse as any Internet chat room -- from Supreme Court nominees to knitting. Their global reach is remarkable and seductive.

"Howard Stern broadcasts to America," said Leo Laporte, "the Tech Guy" on KFI-AM (640) and also a podcaster and blogger, speaking to the Friday-morning convention crowd in Ontario. "I broadcast to the world."

Despite hosting the two-day event, the Inland Empire city is not ground zero for podcasting. That's part of the point, because like the new-media platform itself, the convention could have been staged anywhere.

"I really just wanted to keep it affordable," said Tim Bourquin, chief executive of Laguna Niguel-based TNC New Media, which organized the event. "If we held it in New York City, everybody would be paying $250 a night for a hotel room. But here they can pay $89 and can stay at the Marriott."

Thrift may have drawn some to town, but once there most conventioneers wanted to know the answer to the -- at least -- $64,000 question: How can we profit from podcasting? The short answer is nobody knows, but the industry's best minds are hard at work on it. A sampling of seminars: "Subscription Business Models for Portable Content," "Creating the Commercial Connection: Speaking to Vendors, Customers and Consumers via Podcasting," and "Podcasting as a Marketing Tool."

Gary Leland, an occasional podcaster who launched the online directory Podcast Pickle (www.podcastpickle.com) in March, hasn't shown a profit yet and doesn't expect to for at least a year. Leland and his wife, Kathy, from the Dallas-Forth Worth area, were one of many vendors at the convention trying to create a buzz about their business.

"We're not making any money yet," said Kathy Leland, who runs a wallpaper business as well. "But it's like that with any business -- you have to put forth time, effort and money and that's what we're doing."

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