Tivo for your iPod

See that fellow with the telltale white iPod wires dangling from his ears? It would be reasonable to assume that he's rocking out to his favorite tunes on his MP3 player. Reasonable, but quite possibly wrong. He might be enjoying a recent podcast.

Just when the mainstream media had finally managed to figure out what blogging was all about, Adam Curry had to go ahead and invent podcasting. A podcast is a radio show that listeners subscribe to online. Every time a new program is posted, it automatically feeds into the subscriber's computer. From there, the listener zaps it onto a digital music player and hits the road: Think of it as TiVo for your MP3 player. "There's a lot of great radio out there that I would love to listen to when I am ready for it," says Curry (yes, that Adam Curry--MTV's old-school golden-feathered late-'80s veejay). "Anyone can come and party on my MP3 player."

They're coming. Curry keeps an informal directory of all the podcasts that he knows about, launched in just the few months since he went public with his program. In his self-reported list alone, there are about 2,000 podcasts, including everything from down-home talk shows like the husband-and-wife bantering on "The Dawn and Drew Show" in Wayne, Wis., to MP3 bloggers like Roger McGuinn, the former Byrds frontman, who beams rare old-timey tunes to his subscribers ("It's been very gratifying," he tells NEWSWEEK of the feedback he's gotten). It's pirate radio writ large and legal. There are comedy podcasts, rare funk podcasts, diary podcasts and more. Curry himself hosts a show called "Daily Source Code," which has 10,000 subscribers, from his home outside London. "The real breakout thing on a podcast," says syndicated tech talk-show host Leo Laporte (whose own Oct. 31 podcast has been downloaded 33,000 times), "will be when someone who doesn't normally have a voice does something and a million people download it."

And podcasting, unlike blogging, has been instantly, if cautiously, recognized by Big Media for its potential. Since its inception just a few months ago, Minnesota Public Radio, Air America, Boston public-radio station WGBH, Public Radio International's popular "This American Life" and BBC radio, to name a few, have all started their own podcasts. Jon Gordon, host of Minnesota Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "Future Tense," says his Web traffic doubled in October when he began podcasting. "Listening online, you're tied to a single location, that's the big difference," he says. "This is very portable and you can dump a whole bunch of programs on your iPod and take it with you." For the moment he says his podcasts include no original content, but he has plans to begin podcasting exclusive tidbits and segments of interviews he couldn't cram into his five-minute radio spots.

An entrepreneur who retired his veejay jersey years ago, Curry helped develop a bit of software called iPodder, which allows listeners to route audio files to digital music players. Then he teamed up with Dave Winer, the brains behind RSS (the Really Simple Syndication system for sending Internet news feeds to subscribers), and the two figured out how to send audio files through RSS feeds in place of text. And although it may be called "podcasting," any digital music device will do the trick. For the time being podcasts are free, but Curry says he is toying with more profitable business models. The right angle could result in a windfall: There are already thousands of podcasters online (an exact number is as hard to calculate as how many bloggers are out there) and with the holidays creeping up this month, there will be millions of new MP3-playing devices in circulation. "That's a lot of free space just waiting to be filled up," says Curry.

Of course, podcasting is a new technology, and like all new technology it has its imperfections. PRI's "This American Life" has a built-in audience that is more likely to be hip to its podcasts than to some anonymous blogger operating out of his kitchen. Of course, the reason podcasting has enjoyed the buzz it has, according to Steve Heard, director of technology at the content-syndicating subsidiary of PRI, is that it came out of the blogging community. "And the blogging community really likes talking about the blogging community." But, it's one thing to click away from a blog when you've decided the content is terrible. It's quite another to subscribe to a podcast and get the audio onto a portable device before listening to it ... and deciding it's terrible.

Podcasting is not the only technology that saves online audio for your digital player. There's AudioFeast, an Internet service similar in concept to podcasting but with a menu of hundreds of established shows, and no amateurs, for $50 a year. There's also RadioShark, a $70 gadget that looks just like a shark's fin and records live radio onto your hard drive with a time buffer, allowing the user to pause or rewind. But the beauty of podcasting isn't simply getting your audio to go: it's that it's free and anyone can play. Neither AudioFeast nor RadioShark are likely to offer listeners kooky home-brewed chatter or 20 minutes of rare funk nuggets. "Like all good things on the Internet," says Curry, "you can do it yourself."