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Culture

Stage two of the podcasting revolution

MP3.com's Eliot Van Buskirk says the arrival of new programming tools provides a timely fillip to the podcasting phenomenon.

If you don't know what "podcasting" means, it's time to get up to speed.

This growing phenomenon allows anyone with a computer, a microphone and an Internet connection to create his or her own radio show. Think of podcasts as blogs, but with audio instead of text.

If you've already tuned in to podcasts, you know it can be hard to find good ones, especially if you're looking for shows that deal with a specific topic or area of music. Even the show put on by podcasting originator Adam Curry can get a little dull, occasionally veering into such murky areas as his girlfriend's progress with the dishwashing (yawn).

In the short history of podcasting, the most popular way to find shows has been to browse through a directory, such as iPodder, Podcast Alley, Podcast.net, or any of the other podcasting portals that have sprung up seemingly overnight, as entrepreneurs have struggled to make podcasting pay.

These podcasting portals are helpful, but they resemble the early mode of Internet searching, back when people still browsed Yahoo subcategories that were maintained by humans (rather than searching with Google). If the podcasting surge turns out to be as explosive as most experts expect, these portals won't be able to keep up with the increase of available content any better than Yahoo's directories were able to keep up with the growth of the Internet.

If you've already tuned in to podcasts, you know it can be hard to find good ones.

Enter Podscope: the first search engine built specifically for podcasts. It was developed by a company called TVEyes, which specializes in audio and video files that are text-searchable (ironically, the company recently licensed its technology to Yahoo for video searching).

How does it work? According to TVEyes CEO David Ives, the core of the system involves a spider that plays each of the podcasts it tracks and then runs a speech-to-text algorithm on it. When you search Podscope, you're searching that database of transcribed text. Find something you like and you can play the entire show, subscribe or listen to just a snippet that includes the word or phrase you entered.

The system is scalable, since it relies on automated transcription. Ives also said the current success rate for transcription is roughly 75 percent to 80 percent. That's by no means perfect, but it's still accurate enough to let you find several needles in the growing haystack of the "podcastosphere," or whatever silly thing we're going to end up calling the podcasting community.

What can you expect from this community? Right now, it's a mix of music and talk shows, as well as hybrids in which the hosts play a song and then comment on it. "What's happening is, people are clearly buying and giving iPods initially for music," Ives said. "But it has now become so easy to download nonmusic types of audio that (the talk format) seems to be exploding." And it's not just Adam Curry. The BBC, NPR, Clear Channel stations and several other commercial radio stations are making their content available as podcasts. Right now, Podscope is the best way to search them all.

This is all well and good for people who are looking for podcasts, but what about those brave souls out there who want to produce podcasts they can give to the world that express their own thoughts and musical tastes?

Podcasting made easy
I recently tried out a brand-new product from the company that makes MixMeister DJ software. It's called Propaganda, and if you're interested in having your own podcast but are fazed by the technical issues involved with doing so, it's exactly what you've been waiting for.

Propaganda capitalizes on MixMeister's strengths by letting you queue up a bunch of songs or other audio files and then letting you add your own commentary, and perhaps a few sound effects. Enter the details of your podcast into Propaganda (your Web page, its audio directory, the title of your show, and more) once, and you're set from then on. After you record a show, all you do is click the Publish button, and you're done. If you're making a music podcast, you can even have the songs beat-matched and cross-faded automatically so they flow together as if they were mixed by a pro DJ on two turntables.

Propaganda's primary purpose is to allow for the creation and publication of podcasts, but you can also use it to automatically create a mix of tunes to listen to on your own MP3 player. I've been clamoring for an easy way to add cross-fades and beat matching to portable playback for a while. For now, Propaganda and its sister software, MixMeister Express, offer the best answer. Each is free to try for 30 days, and each costs $50 for purchase.

If you're looking for hours of fame (forget about Warhol's lousy 15 minutes!), this is money well spent.