The man who's got mainstream radio quaking

Adam Curry is part of a techno-vanguard changing conventional notions about radio. But can he and other podcasters live up to the hype?

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
9 min read
Adam Curry's name rings a bell for a lot of people who came of age in the 1980s watching the former video jockey, who was a mainstay on MTV.

But Curry, who left the music channel in 1994 and moved to Europe, may be remembered by even more people for his pioneering work in the emerging field of podcasting.

Curry, who dabbled in various Internet ventures after leaving his television gig, resurfaced last year as perhaps the most well-known face associated with podcasting, a technology that's opened the door for thousands of amateurs to create radio programs and find an audience for them on the Web.

Podcasting is more than a hobby for Curry, who has used it to launch a return to the airwaves this week with "PodShow," a new program he's hosting on Sirius Satellite Radio. The show, which is designed to showcase the best from the podcasting universe, is also Curry's own personal attempt to shake up what he sees as the homogenized landscape of corporate radio.

For 20 years, we've been listening to the radio, particularly in America, and it's all the same crap.

But is podcasting indeed part of a radio revolution in the making, or is it just another affectation that won't live up to the frisson of momentary attention? Curry talked to CNET News.com recently from his home in Guildford, England, where he podcasts the "Daily Source Code."

Q: I was able to listen to a bit of your podcast, the "Daily Source Code," the other day. It sounds like you're having a lot of fun with that.
Curry: Oh, yeah. I like it very much. I've been doing it for almost a year now.

Isn't podcasting a bit overhyped, though? After all, who wants to listen to some guy in Duluth waxing poetic about his tube-socks collection, for example?
Curry: Whether you're listening to or reading about someone talking about his tube socks, that could be deemed interesting to one or not interesting to most. But there's also some other stuff in there.

A lot of people are decent enough writers, and so the blogosphere is thriving. Aren't broadcast skills harder to come by?
Curry: Have you ever watched "The Osbournes"?

I haven't actually seen an episode, but I have heard about it.
Curry: Have you seen any real-life programming, what they call reality TV?

Sure. I've seen plenty of reality TV..."Supernanny," "The Bachelor"...
Curry: The first time you saw it, there was something interesting about it, right? It was probably because you'd never seen that before on TV. You're like, "Wait a minute. This is a different way of doing it. Something's changed here." Because there's actually real-life situations. Pretty much like the first time "Cops" came on. That was pretty exciting. You know, we've been beaten to death by it and it has nothing to do with reality programming because it's all sliced and diced and edited to pieces. But the first time you actually saw one camera unedited, following someone around, it was pretty interesting.

Now for 20 years, we've been listening to the radio, particularly in America, and it's all the same crap. No matter what market you go to, there's always a top 40 station, and then you have the light station, and then there's the news station--it's all the same.

What about NPR? It's pretty normal. It's sort of the exception.
Curry: No, I totally disagree. People aren't normal. And by the way, when you turn on NPR, you have the whole weekend filled up with pledge drives. It's normal, but it's the same. There is no difference. The NPR format has not changed...You may find it more normal and that's probably true, but it's still the same type of show, same type of station.

Now all of a sudden, you're exposed to that same, "Wait a minute." Here's something else, here's something new, here's something a little raw around the edges. It's not quite as polished--that's interesting.

You're obviously really passionate about it. How did you get so involved in technology and the Internet?
Curry: I've always been involved and interested in technology. I built my first radio transmitter when I was 14 and made my mom drive me around the block to see how far it would reach. And then by certain circumstances I started to work in radio...not as an engineer but as someone who was behind the microphone. And in the meantime--this is when I was 15 or 16--when I was that age I had a part-time job at an electronics store and the first Commodore, before the 64, came out. And it was interesting. And so I just kind of learned about it through that.

A guy named Danny Gregoire came up with the name podcasting, and it stuck.

I understand you were actually involved in creating some of the podcasting technology. In fact, some news outlets are calling you "podfather" and credit you with inventing it. Did you honestly invent podcasting?
Curry: Well, it depends on what part of invention you're talking about. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I didn't come up with the word. But I did tie all the pieces together. There was technology out there built by a number of people, including Dave Winer.

Speaking of Dave Winer, he was sort of ranting on his blog recently about all the credit you're getting around podcasting. Have you guys had a little fallout recently?
Curry: I asked him to create that last piece. He didn't. I programmed it. I'm not a programmer, so I had to learn how to program. It took me quite a while. And then I put it out in open source and said here's this

thing I've created called an iPodder, which is the name I came up with, and I built it. And it was built on all these existing technologies, and people started to get excited about it, particularly software developers, of which Dave Winer usually doesn't get along with very well. And, they started building their own versions and I started creating a show, specifically for these developers called the "Daily Source Code," thinking that would probably appeal to them.

And we were having a lot of fun, and people started showing up in my e-mail saying, "Hey, I'm also doing a show," and so I started promoting their show. And then a guy named Danny Gregoire came up with the name podcasting, and it stuck.

Can people make money podcasting?
Curry: Why, sure. That's what I intend to do is commercialize podcasting.

If you're passionate about what you want to communicate, you'll come across.

Curry: There are many different ways. The most obvious is advertising. What's nice about it is it's different from Web logs. First of all, you can take them with you. So you're not in front of a computer when you're doing this; it's not a banner you're clicking on. You're listening, and it may be a podcast about bicycles--we have a couple--and then maybe, a promotion or a sponsorship by a bicycle manufacturer.

Are any major advertisers signing on to podcasts?
Curry: Yeah, Warner Films just did a big sponsorship through our network. And, infamously, Durex did a sponsorship on the "Dawn and Drew" show.

I understand you actually have a company, BoKu Communications, that's set up to invest and, as you said, commercialize podcasting. How much money do you guys have to put into this thing?
Curry: We hope enough to make it happen.

What's enough?
Curry: It's a private company, so I'm not going to talk about that.

Do you see more broadcast professionals, like yourself, getting involved in podcasting?
Curry: Yeah, and we welcome them. We welcome them with open arms. I'm delighted when I see people like Peter Day, who's been at the BBC Radio 4 for 35 years; he's going to start podcasting. And some of it will be what they've already broadcast on the radio, which is great because I still like some NPR programs. I still like BBC shows. It's just that I don't want to have to tune into it when they're ready for it...I'd rather have it downloadable so I can take it on my MP3 player when it's convenient to me.

Who will be hurt by podcasting? Will it be radio stations? The recording industry? Who stands to lose?
Curry: I think everybody can win. Nobody has to lose.

What about the recording industry? How do you keep listeners from keeping permanent copies of podcast songs instead of buying CDs or iTunes songs?
Curry: Well, you're talking about music radio to start off. Currently, the way the rules are set up, only broadcast radio has the means to obtain the rights to use those songs. Those means are not available for podcasters at the current time. So what has happened is a very organic and natural thing. Podcasters have said, "Well, if we can use the music that is already signed to a record label, we're just going to play music that is out on the Internet by artists who do allow us to play that on our podcasts."

Copyright law hasn't stopped people from trading music over the Web. It seems like, as a podcaster, you'd be so tempted to play the forbidden stuff.
Curry: People aren't. We've gotten the message. People have gotten the message that you can't do that. The RIAA suing college kids for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop--the message is clear. We can't do that. So we're not.

Of course there are people out there who are. I'm sure there's always someone who's going to do that. But that's not what's happening. What's happening is this community is a step further than the file traders. Look, it's one thing to be swapping music supposedly anonymously amongst each other on a peer-to-peer network. Making a podcast, identifying your personality and playing licensed music illegally there is going to be pretty stupid.

Are you concerned that you could be held liable for any illegal podcasting that goes on? I mean, you can't control what people do with the tools you've created.
Curry: I could be held liable? No. No, no, no, no, no, no.

So the podcasting scene is wholly separate from mainstream radio and what the mainstream recording industry is producing.
Curry: Yeah, without all the B.S. More control, more choice, no lock-in, no horrible contracts. You determine your own destiny. You have a direct relationship with your customers.

For an aspiring podcaster, what makes a podcast good? What are some of your pet peeves? What should people avoid doing?
Curry: I don't think I have any pointers on what to avoid, only what to do, and that's--whatever it is--just be passionate about it. That will shine through. It doesn't matter what it is. If you're passionate about what you want to communicate, you'll come across. People will understand and they'll like it.

Do you own an iPod?
Curry: Yeah.

What's on it?
Curry: I probably have 3,000 songs on my iPod. And continuously I have about 10 audio books. I like listening to audio books.

Which audio books are on there now?
Curry: Let me see what I have. I have "Snow Crash," the unabridged version. I have Bill Clinton's "My Life." Dennis Miller's "I Rant, Therefore I Am." I have "Brain Droppings," George Carlin. Gene Wilder, "Kiss Me Like A Stranger."

What was working for MTV like in its early days?
Curry: One of the guys who worked there longer than I did, Ken Clark, and I have done three podcasts now called the "MTV Chronicles." We actually just get on Skype and talk for about an hour about the old days of MTV. You really should listen to that. We talk about all the memos that came down from the office, all the crazy (stuff) we had to do, the un-hipness of MTV compared to the aura of it being an extremely hip place. Also, you can look at MTV.curry.com. I've written a whole bunch of stories about this.