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It's a Mod, Mod World

Forget plain old podcasting. Modcasting lets listeners assemble customized podcasts, turning them into armchair producers.

Podcasting has been called the ultimate in personalized media, since most podcasts are produced by amateurs for small, specialized audiences. But the real ultimate in personalization may be a podcast for an audience of one – you.

That’s the promise of Modcast, a technology developed by Florida-based Bind that enables a podcast listener to choose which segments of a show to hear, then have a customized audio file generated on the fly. Other companies, such as Podcasternews.com, are also experimenting with modcasting – which suggests that customization may be a big wave in podcasting’s future.

The modcasting technology “puts you in the producer’s chair,” according to Jonathan Brown, Bind’s president. Along with vice president Matt Thompson, Brown will launch an online quiz show intended to demonstrate Bind’s modcasting technology by tailoring the audio feedback to a player’s answers.

Brown, a software developer, and Thompson, a marketing strategist and a communications* professor at the University of Central Florida in Sarasota, already produce a customizable weekly podcast, “The Cubicle Escape Pod.” The show focuses on strategies that budding entrepreneurs can use to bootstrap their companies. The two colleagues say that Modcast technology was the indirect result of a suggestion from a listener.

“We check certain blogs to see what people are writing about [the podcast],” explains Thompson. “One blogger was saying he liked certain parts of our show, but there were other parts he wished he could turn off. Jon and I both, simultaneously, read that same blog, and started talking. We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if listeners really could turn off parts?”

So Thompson and Brown decided to break their weekly podcast into seven separate audio files, each containing a segment of the show, such as “Big Word of the Day,” “Earbud-Worthy Music,” and “Rapid Rants.” Once listeners register at the podcast’s website, they can select from these segments. Then the Modcast software assembles the chosen segments into a single, seamless MP3 file for downloading to the listener.

“The podcasting community seems to want to get to the content as quickly as possible,” says Thompson. “As one of our readers wrote, they ‘don’t want to fart around.’ They want to get rid of the fluff.”

Clearly, customized podcasts are interesting; but Thompson and Brown have a larger opportunity in mind: they want to license Modcast to businesses, which could use it to create individualized corporate-training recordings.

They also hope to sell the idea to advertising and marketing firms, who could use it to tailor podcast content for listeners in different social or economic cohorts. If the NBA created ads for placement in a sports podcast, for example, the producer might use Modcast to insert those ads only when the person downloading the podcast has expressed an interest in basketball. (In this scenario, the listener would not have the option of turning off the ad.) “Basically, we’re creating an audio Google Adwords, where we are going to be able to drop in highly targeted messages to listeners who have a certain demographic,” Brown says.

That, of course, would require that podcasters gather personal information about their listeners, such as their hobbies, zip codes, or income levels. In fact, many users of other Web information services have shown a willingness to give up such details, if they get useful content in return. “Modcast is useless if you don’t have any information about your listeners,” says Thompson. “I don’t care if you have 50,000 people downloading your show – who are they?”

To demonstrate modcasting to audiences beyond their “Cubicle Escape Pod” listeners, Brown and Thomson plan to launch a Web-based game, called “Brain Dump Trivia”, on December 5. Visitors to the website will answer a series of multiple-choice quiz questions. Then they’ll receive a streaming audio file that either congratulates or razzes them. The two “hosts” hope that the game becomes a venue for advertising, with ads potentially appearing both on the website and in the audio file.

Other companies, such as Fruitcast, offer podcasters and advertisers the ability to place audio ads inside podcasts. And Podcasternews.com lets listeners compile their own newscasts from a selection of subjects. But Thompson and Brown say, as far as they know, Bind is the only company planning to offer podcast customization directly to corporations or marketing firms.

It’s too early to tell whether personalized podcasts will have a genuine appeal for the small but growing audience of podcast listeners. But advertising is already an accepted component of many podcasts. And Bind is banking on listeners prefering to hear targeted ads, rather than a long string of random commercials.

“There could be so many uses for this,” says Thompson. “Podcasting is just beginning to tap the potential for audio marketing.” 

* In the original version of this story, Matt Thompson was incorrectly identified as a professor of business at the University of Central Florida. He is a professor of communications. – Editors.

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