This spring, I have the great pleasure of waking up early twice a week to attend communication 132, a class about media policy, which includes radio broadcasting. Through the course, I learned that the limited number of frequencies available on the spectrum of radio led to government intervention and eventual formation of the Federal Communications Commission, otherwise known as the FCC. Today, radio broadcasters are controlled by the FCC because the FCC wields the power of granting and withdrawing broadcast licenses. Parallels emerge between the discovery rise of radio and television and the invention of the Internet and, with that, the rise of a new technology known as podcasting.
The podcast, a combination of the words iPod and broadcasting, is widely considered by many people to be the evolutionary step in broadcasting due to its similarities to radio. Podcasting rose out of two core technologies: the MP3 and Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. The popular audio compression technology known as MP3 ignited the MP3 player market, with Apple’s iPod achieving mainstream popularity around 2001. Along with the iPod, the RSS technology was gaining popularity; the XML-based RSS let users syndicate news, blogs or any other documents, including compressed audio files. The syndication of these audio files through RSS technology became known as podcasting. And because podcasts are primarily episodic talk shows that cover many topics, they resemble radio broadcasting.
This is how podcasting works: First, the podcaster records an audio file, most likely to be a talk show about a certain subject, which will then be posted on the Internet and syndicated through the use of RSS. From that point, Internet users can subscribe to certain podcasts using podcast-oriented RSS aggregators. The podcast aggregator constantly checks its RSS feeds to see if any updates have been posted. In this way the user will always be up-to-date on the latest episode of their favorite podcast.
While it may sound complicated, in practice, the procedure is actually very simple and straightforward. To drive the podcast vehicle forward, Apple incorporated a podcast aggregator into their popular iTunes music software, which is an excellent medium to use to download podcasts. Some popular podcasters include Leo Laporte from TWiT (This Week in Tech), Adam Christianson from the MacCast, and Molly Wood, Tom Merritt and Veronica Belmont from CNet’s Buzz Out Loud.
While the podcast is similar in many ways to radio broadcasting, there are many unique benefits that ultimately give users freedom to choose where, how and when they consume the content. Because radio broadcasts travel through the airwaves, they are subject to FCC regulations. Podcasts, however, are distributed on the Internet and therefore the FCC has no real jurisdiction over the content of the podcasts. This situation can mean much more freedom and flexibility in who can broadcast and what kinds of content becomes available.
However, podcasts are also not without their limitations. One drawback is that listeners are unable to call in to a show and give live feedback. Also, listeners need to buy expensive devices if they want to listen to the podcast on the go and must have an active Internet connection to get the podcast. While no current FCC regulation of podcasts means freedom of content, it can also mean the broad access to sexually explicit and violent materials, especially to young children. Analogous to the way the government had difficulties regulating the airwaves in the early 1900s, currently they are faced with the same regulation challenges for content on the Internet. But also like in radio broadcasting, some fear that the government regulation of the Internet is inevitable and will end up hurting the Internet.
Despite these advantages and disadvantages, the podcast has been gaining much traction that as a result. Popular networks such as ABC, NBC and CNN have been posting podcast versions of their shows – in the next year we will see the podcast medium hit its stride with video podcasts, and with the help of convergence devices such as the Apple TV and Sling Media’s Sling Catcher, the podcast should see its true potential.