Corporations go off a-podcasting

Businesses are getting into the high-tech counterculture domain to see if the quirky medium can help reach the public


Elizabeth Tracey and Rick Lange are chatting amiably over a microphone in a room that's a far cry from a recording studio. But in 24 hours or so, their conversation will be online for anyone to hear -- just like all the other productions in the do-it-yourself corner of mass communications known as podcasting.

Unlike all the other podcasts, though, this one's for Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Make room, early adopters. Businesses are finding their way to the latest domain of the high-tech counterculture, and this time it didn't take them long. In what amounts to a nationwide social experiment, corporate America is testing whether this cheap and quirky medium proves useful in the battle to reach the public, communicate meaningfully with employees and keep costs down.

"The question is, ... What's the longevity of this? and I don't have any idea," said Tracey, the Johns Hopkins Medicine director of electronic media, whose co-host for a weekly podcast on medical news is the chief of clinical cardiology. "But for right now, it's a lot of fun."

Podcasts are audio files that people can subscribe to for free and have automatically downloaded to computers or portable digital devices for on-demand listening. The name is a play on "broadcast" with a nod to Apple's popular iPod player, though you don't need one to tune in.

The concept began catching on with the technologically knowledgeable in September last year. Some large companies were jumping on within a few months -- compared with the roughly five-year lag for them to catch on to Web sites and blogs (Web logs).

"I am surprised at just how far it's gone, how quickly," said Matt Haughey, founder of a community blog called MetaFilter.

He had to fight to get anyone interested in blogging, but companies haven't needed prodding to podcast. "Maybe they saw blogs blindside them, ... and they said, `Well, we're not going to let this one get out of hand,'" Haughey said.

General Motors Corp., credited as one of the first corporate podcasters when it dipped its toe into the waters in February, records talk-radio-style episodes about its vehicles that were downloaded 75,000 times in August. Disneyland celebrated its 50th anniversary in May with a series recorded inside the park. Verizon Wireless issued one a few days ago to promote a cell phone that will, among other features, let you listen to podcasts.

International Business Machines Corp., which produces podcasts for investors about the future of trends, also set up a podcast-recording system for employee communication. And many media companies, from the BBC to ESPN to The Sun, have jumped on board for simple self-preservation.

`Losing control'

"Companies are completely losing control of their messages, and the one way to get into the game is by blogging and podcasting," said Michael Wiley, GM's director of new media. "The companies that are early adopters stand tremendous opportunity to be the winners in the long run."

They join a gaggle of pod people: President Bush, whose radio addresses are available online. Astronaut Steve Robinson, the first podcaster from space. Aris Melissaratos of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, the first Maryland government agency to give it a try. Nine-year-old Rachel Patchett of California, one of a growing number of "Godcasters" who focus on faith. And "just a lot of people at home with microphones, rambling," Haughey said.

Some companies are sponsoring other people's podcasts. But one way or another, more and more businesses want in.

"They're looking at this as niche-market radio," said Alan A. Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, a Chevy Chase consulting firm.

Statistics scarce

No one seems to have good statistics on corporate podcasts or corporate-podcast listeners, but the potential market is growing daily. Bridge Ratings, a California company that conducts radio-audience research, estimated last month that 4.8 million people have downloaded at least one podcast this year compared with 820,000 last year. About a fifth listen regularly.

Though many are using computers to do it, the rapidly growing portable market also expands the potential podcast reach. About 35 million households have portable music devices such as the iPod, according to JupiterResearch, which analyzes Internet and new-technology trends. That's double the number last year, and it will double again by 2010, the company predicts.

"And there's going to be growth in the number of cell phones that have these [audio playing options]," said Julie Ask, a JupiterResearch analyst. "These are becoming fairly mainstream devices for folks."

Apple's iTunes Music Store, which began offering free podcasts along with its 99 cent music in June, has more than 25,000 available for download. Among those are the twice-weekly offerings about family matters from Whirlpool, which has had 15,000 downloads from its own Web site since it started in July and untold others from a dozen podcast directories.

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