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Podcasters Tune into Apple

The community speaks out about what Apple iTunes support might mean for podcasts.

When Steve Jobs announced on May 22 that the next version of Apple’s music software and store iTunes – due within 60 days – would feature support for podcasting, the nascent community of Internet-broadcast show creators was all atwitter. And for good reason: Apple’s announced support will be a signal event for the technology, propelling it from a hobbyist’s pursuit to a medium that less tech-savvy people might explore and enjoy.

Podcasting is a relatively new phenomenon, where people create short audio programs and make them available for downloading on an iPod or other digital music device. Podcast programs are usually topic based, say, about cooking or sports. Others are downloadable versions of traditional (“terrestrial”) radio programs. A growing community of podcast directories has emerged, giving people an easy way to find various programs.

But with several podcasting directories already in existence, and high-profile podcast-related companies such as Odeo nearing their launch, Apple’s entry could also roil some first-movers – many fear that Apple will become the de facto place where people discover podcasts, much like iTunes has become for legal music online.

“When I first saw it, I thought, wow, that’s really surprising, and potentially bad for us,” says Evan Williams, co-founder of soon-to-launch Odeo.com, a service that will help people create and find podcasts. “But after looking into it, it’s potentially good for us. Introducing more people will have beneficial effects on the space,” he says. “Either way, it’s an example of the craziness of the podcasting thing. I’ve never seen anything take off like this.”

Williams’ last observation is particularly striking, considering he was co-founder of the company that created Blogger, which helped give birth to the blogging phenomenon and ended up as part of Google.

Already many podcast sites are seeing the effects of Apple’s announcement.

“Since Sunday, we saw a large spike in traffic to our site,” says Dannie Gregoire, president and CEO of Podcast.net, a large directory. “Apple brings a lot of attention and gives credibility.”

The podcasting movement, for all its headlines, is in dire need of the “Apple treatment.” More than anything else, Apple has succeeded in the last 10 years because it has made technology easy for people to understand and commodity hardware stylish. Apple’s iPod is the leading digital music player, with 80 percent market share. What’s more, the company’s online music store, iTunes, owns upward of 70 percent of the legal online music market.

It’s the ease-of-use attribute that many believe will boost the podcasting community.

“Podcasts today are still too difficult to bring to your device,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a technology analysis firm. “Now, Apple is bringing the point-and-click approach to downloading podcasts.”

Bajarin met with Jobs, saw a demo of the iTunes podcast page, and came away impressed. According to Bajarin, a “podcast” tab appears on the iTunes homepage, and clicking on that tab opens the main podcast page, with a featured podcast or two similar to the featured artist pages on various music pages within iTunes.

Some in the community are hoping Apple’s entry will help clear up the murky legal water surrounding music on podcasts. Currently, many podcasts are essentially talk-radio shows produced by amateurs. Sometimes these shows include music, but licensing rules – which have hampered streaming music services – have yet to be established for podcasts.

As a result, many podcasts can play only independent music not affiliated with the major record labels or music which podcasters have specifically received permission to play.

“It’s a gray area,” says Chris MacDonald, founding member and director of legal affairs for the Association of Music Podcasting, a group that showcases music podcasts. “I keep telling people, ‘Be careful.’”

At issue are the myriad licenses needed for permission to broadcast music and the very definition of podcasting itself. Is it a radio broadcast? A download? Currently, no lawsuits have been filed, and until people start charging for podcasts, it’s unlikely the copyright owners will go after podcast makers.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Apple to use its relationships with its licensors to negotiate for music-based podcasts,” says Whitney Broussard, an attorney with Selverne, Mandelbaum & Mintz.

Still, it’s clear that Apple’s podcast announcement will raise the activity up a couple rungs on the popularity ladder. Everyone is interested in Apple’s announcement, says Benjamen Walker, creator of the popular podcast Theory of Everything Radio. Walker thinks Apple’s support is great, but says that some podcasters are worried that Apple will stamp out the little guy.

“But if someone’s going to stop podcasting because they’re not featured on iTunes, they probably shouldn’t be casting anyway,” he says.

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