Podcasting is fun and cheap, but . . . who's out there?
In the back room of a Holladay dry cleaners, five men sit around a table smoking, swapping stories and cracking each other up. Nirvana wafts from a stereo, and on the floor by their feet is a steadily emptying case of Natural Light.
Over the course of an hour, the conversation drifts from John McCain ("he's going to keep that war rolling [if he becomes president] . . . he's going to push every red button we've got") to a news story about a Oregon entrepreneur who opened a vegan strip club ("so, they won't allow leather?") to a joke about rapper Snoop Dogg converting to Mormonism ("he's going to have to give up the weed").
The scene is typical of a group of guys hanging out - a delivery man even shows up with three pizzas - except that each of the five pals is wearing a headset and speaking into a microphone. And their banter, packaged into a weekly show titled "In My Opinion," is being broadcast to anyone in the world with a computer and access to the Internet.
So how many people are listening?
"We have no clue," says ringleader Jeff Arrington, a laid-back guy with shaggy hair and a deep, rumbling voice.
This is the world of Utah podcasting, where anybody with a digital recorder and a laptop can be a DJ or a talk-show host. Podcasts - digital audio or video files distributed over the Internet and played back on computers and MP3 players - barely existed four years ago. Today there are more than 120,000 active podcasts available for download on Apple's iTunes store alone.
Some podcasts are streamed live over the Web, allowing anyone with a computer to listen in. Others are recorded and then posted online. All are digital-media files that can be downloaded to hard drives or portable MP3 players, such as iPods, for playback later. Listeners also can subscribe to podcasts and have them automatically downloaded to their computers.
Like blogs, podcasts exist on almost every imaginable topic, from soccer to Celtic music to comedy to video gaming. The most popular attract several million downloads a month, although the majority of podcasts are lucky to draw 10,000 regular listeners. Most can be downloaded for free through podcast directories, such as iTunes or Utah-based Podango.com, which charge podcasters no fees but take a share of advertising revenues earned by popular shows.
Because podcasts are classified by topic, not geography, measuring the number of Utah-based podcasts is difficult. But Michael Harper, associate professor of digital media at Utah Valley University, believes that podcasting in Utah is on the upswing. Last month some 50 people attended PodCampSLC, believed to be Utah's first podcasting conference, at Neumont University, a South Jordan computer science school.
"Podcasting gives people a voice," says Harper, who teaches a course in creating content for digital devices such as iPods. Harper believes podcasting has taken off because it fills programming niches - a talk show for triathletes, anyone? - ignored by mainstream broadcasters.
"It's created much more personalized media for people," he says. "It's a whole new paradigm shift."
Anyone can play: Like blogging, podcasting also is a convenient, inexpensive way for people to reach a mass audience. Anyone with a computer and Internet service can launch a weekly podcast for the cost of a digital recorder - about $50. Building a solid listener base can take years.
"It's a tricky deal to grow an audience," says Arrington, the "In My Opinion" co-host. "You don't want to spend any money doing it, because you're not making any money doing it."
Arrington, 52, didn't even know what a podcast was until he received an iPod as a gift three years ago and began surfing iTunes. The next winter he formed a production company with his son Jeff Jr. and family friend Darren Williamson and began shooting video footage of aerial tricks by snowboarders and dirt bikers. The edited videocasts, posted on their Web site, ExtremePods.com, soon were attracting some 15,000 monthly viewers.
Late last year, the trio launched "In My Opinion" as sort of a cross between "Wayne's World" and Howard Stern's satellite radio show. The amiable co-hosts, often joined by siblings and friends, play raunchy novelty songs and chuckle about bizarre news they find on the Internet.
Some podcasters become discouraged when their audience doesn't grow much beyond their circle of friends. Zach Jacob of Sandy and Nate Nelson of Kearns launched UtahSportsCast.com in 2006 with two microphones they bought on eBay. Over the next 18 months, they taped near-weekly podcasts about Utah college sports and Utah Jazz basketball. But they averaged fewer than 150 downloads per show and quit in February. In a final post on their Web site, they joked, "To our loyal fan: We know you're out there, somewhere. Thanks for listening."
"We had visions of growing it into this big thing and attracting sponsors," says Jacob, who had hoped the podcast would earn him and Nelson media credentials to Utah sporting events. "But we had a blast doing it."
Hits and misses: Other Utah podcasters have had more success. In February, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells began a weekly podcast, "Writing Excuses," that offers advice to would-be fantasy, sci-fi and horror authors. It helped that Sanderson was already a popular fantasy novelist and that Tayler pens a daily Web comic strip, "Schlock Mercenary," with 40,000 readers. After both plugged "Writing Excuses" on their Web sites, almost 2,000 people downloaded their debut episode. Audience for the show has since doubled, and Tor Books, Sanderson's publisher, has signed on as a sponsor.
"Now the podcast has a momentum of its own," says Tayler, who lives in Provo. "We could write this stuff down and blog about it. But it doesn't carry the same energy as when we're sitting at the table talking."
While most podcasts are built around a topic or a celebrity - Oprah Winfrey, Dane Cook and Bill Maher, to name a few - some just feature ordinary people chatting about their lives. In 2006, Jake Cordova and Erin Hatch began podcasting during their divorce. At first, the pair talked about the challenges of ending their marriage, but over time their show evolved into a humorous give-and-take about such mundane subjects as Cordova's trip to Canada and Hatch's dating life. The podcast, "Just Not Right," now attracts up to 1,200 downloads a week.
"We continually get new people listening from all over the world," says Cordova, 32, of Murray, with some amazement. "It's weird. I can't explain it."
Last Monday afternoon, Cordova and Hatch recorded the 102nd episode of their podcast from the front seat of Cordova's black Mazda in Murray Park. Cordova used a small digital recorder muffled with a sock to cut down on wind noise. The couple, who remain good friends, devoted much of the 28 minutes to chortling over Hatch's roller-derby fantasies, Cordova's weekend garage sale and Hatch's recent bus trip to Wendover, on which her legs were bruised by a reclining passenger.
"The Fun Bus . . . I think, is not aptly named. It felt like six hours," said Hatch, a bespectacled redhead with a gift for snappy banter. "Oh, my beautiful knees. My knee-modeling days are over."
They both laugh. And within several hours "Just Not Right #102" is on the Web, inviting listeners from Sandy to Sydney to laugh along.
* BRANDON GRIGGS can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8689.
* To listen to "In My Opinion," visit iTunes or http://www.talkshoe.com and search for "In My Opinion."
* To listen to "Writing Excuses," visit iTunes or www.writingexcuses .com.
* To listen to "Just Not Right," visit iTunes or notrightpodcast. blogspot.com.