[PLEASE NOTE: This deeply researched story about podcasting never ran in the LA Weekly, but as you can see, it should have. The piece is presented in it's raw and unedited form.]
LA’s Indie Podcasters by Caroline Ryder
LA’s Indie Podcasters by Caroline Ryder
I was chatting on IM with my friend Ben about podcasting the other day. The conversation went something like this:
Caroline says: i have this podcasting article i am working on
Devil Ben says: podcasting is sooo last week
Caroline says: why
Devil Ben says: saturation. it's like blogs. there's too much random shit out there. everyone is doing it.
Caroline says: who is everyone
Devil Ben says: all those people online. you know. the podcasters
Whether or not podcasting is ‘last week’ is debatable, but Devil Ben was right about one thing - The Podcasters are everywhere, and their numbers are multiplying at a rapid rate. In LA you have podcasts about power yoga, podcasts about porn,podcasts for Christians, (so-called ‘Godcasts’) and even one recorded by a guy during his daily commute up the PCH.
Just in case you’re sooo last week you don’t know what a podcast is, here’s the deal. A podcast is an audio show posted on the internet which anyone can download (almost always for free) and listen to at any time. Kind of like Tivo for internet radio.
The technology took off less than two years ago, and was quickly harnessed by a few forward-thinking radio stations (KCRW was one of the first) as well as a handful of fearless individuals who realized nothing was stopping them from having a podcast too. Because all you really need to start a podcast is $50 for a mic, some web space and away you go.
Before long, podcasting was being hailed the most punk rock thing to happen to the media environment in years. In the era of Murdoch, it was seen as a way for people to finally take some media power back. Which is great - if only everyone would stop calling it podcasting. “I hate saying the word podcast, I really do” says Chris Burnett, co-founder of LA’s Killradio.org collective and a self-described ‘libertarian anarchist’.
“The actual technology that allows people to do “podcasting” actually has nothing to do with Apple. Podcasting is simply a word that helps to market Apple products when in fact this is a genuine, decentralized, grassroots DIY media effort. So it bugs me to say it because the minute I do, I feel like a walking billboard for Macintosh.”
He’s right about ‘podcasting’ being something of a misnomer - you don’t need an Ipod, a Mac, Itunes or any kind of Apple product to listen to or record a podcast. All you need is a computer with speakers or headphones. And if you want to download a show from your computer to an MP3 player, it doesn’t have to be one made by Apple. “An obvious phrase to use instead of podcasting would be audiocasting. Or indycasting,” suggests Burnett.
While it may be too late for his suggestions to catch on (editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary declared "podcasting" the word of 2005), Burnett is still more than happy to celebrate the revolution. “I’m totally down for the DIY creators,” he says. “Most people in this society have grown up in a media culture which is one-way, top-down. The thought of creating something by themselves has never even occurred to them. Podcasting is allowing people to realize they don’t have to be passive consumers of information – they can be active producers of it. That’s the key. That’s the excitement that you are picking up on.”
One of the first people in LA to successfully harness the power of the pod (sorry Chris) was Dan Klass. He started his twice-weekly comedy talk show, The Bitterest Pill, back in …. and currently has around 7000 or so subscribers. While this figure pales in comparison to America’s most popular podcasts (which currently report 20,000 or so subscribers), The Bitterest Pill is nonetheless the biggest independent podcast coming out of LA.
Klass’ format is pretty freeform. A stay-at-home father of two, he hangs out with his 2-year-old daughter Tula and talks about whatever’s on his mind, occasionally editing in the sounds of 747’s whizzing overhead (he lives close to LAX). There’s no scripting, no heavy production, no magic formula. And yet The Bitterest Pill has a devoted following across the world. I know this, because I appeared on it three months ago and I’m still getting fan mail.
The episode was called ‘Get Her Some Crackers’ and consisted almost entirely of Klass and I talking about random shit (Jimi Hendrix, paedophilia, chip butties) for an hour or so, punctuated several times by Klass having to get up and feed his daughter string cheese and crackers. It was a fun and lo-fi affair, very DIY. Yet soon after it was put out in cyberspace (entirely unedited I might add), I found myself getting MySpaced by people from all over the place. I had people in New York and Ohio complimenting me on my British accent. A girl wrote to me from the north of England, asking what the weather was like in California. Suddenly, I felt like a celebrity! Suddenly, I felt like...becoming a Podcaster!
And therein lies the magic of podcasting (and most recently videopodcasting - or podcasts with images). As well as giving media power back to the people, it can also give Ordinary Joes like you and I the opportunity for an audience. For exposure. Fame even. Yes, fame. Imagine what that means to the average person. Now imagine what that means to the average person in LA…
“When I started my podcast I was what you could call a very underemployed actor,” says Klass, who also co-authored the very good Podcast Solutions – The Complete Guide to Podcasting. “My last gig had been in a Honda commercial and I had just gotten a letter telling me I was no longer in the Honda commercial. I wasn’t doing stand-up anymore and the acting gigs were not pouring in. I started getting these depressed feelings, like ‘maybe I’ve run my course. Maybe I should practice washing windows or something’.”
While searching online for a case for his new IPod, he came across an article about podcasting and a light bulb went off in his head. “It would have been very hard to get my own show on radio,” he says. “But I realized that podcasting would give me the opportunity to do my own thing and have my audience find me. It’s like cutting out the middle man who thinks he knows what the audience wants.”
He launched his The Bitterest Pill soon after, getting in on the ground floor of the podcast revolution. It was a smart move, simply because there was less competition. Then when ITunes featured his podcast on their home page, Klass suddenly found himself with an audience of thousands. “Podcasting really gave me a new lease of life,” he says. “The whole process is perfect for me - I’ve always been a bit of a hermit, so going out and doing standup had started to feel very uncharacteristic. Sitting in my room, by myself, telling my stories suits me much better. I’m putting out the best work that I’ve ever done.”
His sentiments are echoed by Lance Anderson, host of another of LA’s most popular indie podcasts, Verge of the Fringe. A stand-up comic who made ends meet by selling vintage aircraft parts, Anderson got turned on to podcasting by Klass in October 2004. “If you perform a show on a stage, once you finish that’s it - it’s gone, up in the ether,” says Anderson, who lives in Eagle Rock. “But with podcasting you can post it and people can subscribe to it and it’s there. Permanent.” His show, much like Klass’, revolves around storytelling, his personal musings on a range of issues, “some of them funny, some of them not. I did one show called The Pakistan Files about what life was like there prior to September 11. I started getting a lot of requests for my CD from Pakistan – it was kinda weird.”
Podcasting has earned Anderson international acclaim – he was recently featured in UK hipster magazine Dazed and Confused, which dubbed he and his fellow podcasters ‘underground heroes”. And having forged links with podcasters across the pond, Anderson was invited to tour the UK in February 2006 with his new live stand-up show, the Lance Anderson Podcast Experiment.
Anderson has to be one of the most hardworking podcasters in LA. As well as hosting his show, he also runs regular podcasting tutorials at the Apple store in the Grove with Klass (“the first time we did it it was standing room only”), and is working on a book about ‘how to find your voice’ as a podcaster. In January he opened a dedicated podcasting studio in the Brewery Complex from which he will record shows and hold training sessions for neophyte podcasters.
He is also founder and president of LA Podcasters, a networking and support group which meets once a month at the Farmer’s Market in West Hollywood. Members of LA Podcasters may not be the only people in the city doing independent podcasts, but they are the most organized collective – and a diverse one at that. “There are young Latino guys, tech nerd guys, a PR guy, a poetry guy…,” says Anderson. “Age-wise, race-wise and point-of-view wise, it’s quite a collection, and yet we all get along really well. It’s quite amazing.”
LA Podcasters was closely involved in last November’s Podcasting and Portable Media Expo, held in Ontario, CA. It was billed as the first event of its kind in the world, and was organized by Orange County podcaster Tim Bourquin. The event was a success, with alliances made, and loyalties between certain groups reinforced. “There’s really good bond between the LA and OC podcasters,” said Anderson. “But NorCal and SoCal don’t really get on. They act like we’re not even on their radar.”
Silicon Valley is the home base of Podshow.com, which describes itself as the “premier network in podcasting, assembling the leading communities in podcasting, as well as a host of the most popular personalities and podcasts in podcasting”. Wow. That’s a lot of pod.
In a fledgling scene, Podshow is already the Goliath, founded by internet pioneer Ron Bloom and the so-called PodFather Adam Curry, the former MTV VJ who helped develop RSS code which made podcasting possible. Bloom and Curry acquired nearly $10million of private investment for Podshow.com and ‘bought’ some of the US’ most popular podcasts, like The Dawn and Drew Show! and Yeast Radio (the hosts now are paid salaries by Podshow). They have one ostensible goal - making podcasting profitable, specifically through advertising sales and sponsorships. (“Our primary mission is to take this content, turn it into a property and sell it to Madison Avenue," Bloom told Investor’s Business Daily.) And while Adam Curry is viewed as something of a God in podcasting circles, eyebrows were raised when he apparently snubbed the Expo, refusing to return calls inviting him to be keynote speaker. Out of the blue, Curry and Bloom then decided to set up an ‘alternative’ expo, which coincidentally took place on the same dates, coincidentally at a hotel across the street. “I think they thought the Expo wasn’t going to turn into anything – but then it did so they felt they had to do something to overshadow it,” says Anderson. “Talk about the eight hundred pound gorilla – they were pulling press and attention away from our Expo. All they want is to control podcasting - and that ain’t cool.”
Wired magazine reported on the brouhaha (“Curry in Podcast Convention Clash”), and tensions still remain between stolidly indie podcasters and those who involved in the rapid consolidation exemplified by Podshow. Many commentators on both sides of the fence predict that as was the case with the internet boom, only very talented or the very popular stand to make any real money from podcasting. And while Hollywood has started experimenting with podcasting as a marketing tool (Spike Lee had a podcast documenting the making of his movie The Inside Man, as did Paris Hilton for The House of Wax movie), it is not clear how many bona fide media celebrities are likely to be born purely through podcasting.
So instead of focusing on the money that podcasting may or may not bring them, many indie podcasters are more realistically focusing on the exposure, which could lead to more lucrative pastures in commercial radio and television. Take the Burbank-based The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, a weekly five-minute kiddie podcast, about the intergalactic travels of a “the World’s Most Brilliant Scientist, Dr. Floyd as he tries to thwart the plans of his evil arch nemesis, Dr. Steve”. Its makers Grant Baciocco and Doug Price, two former Disneyland employees (“we met working the Jungle Cruise”) launched Dr. Floyd – the world’s first family friendly podcast – in November 2004. It had already been on television, as a public access show, until they ran out of money. When Baciocco and Price came across the concept of podcasting they realized it was exactly the outlet they had been looking for. They now believe their show has potential to be turned into a cartoon by the networks. “Everyone is trying to figure out a way to make money from podcasting,” said Doug. “But the end of the day this is simply a good way to get an audience. And some people say the next Barney will come out of podcasting.”
Aside from money – or the lack of it – the next biggest hurdle faced by aspiring podcasters surrounds the use of music. While podcasting is unregulated by the FCC, it’s not a free-for-all - podcasters still have no right to play copyrighted music without permission. The venerable Adam Curry was made an example of after he played mash-ups which used samples from songs by signed artists. The authorities were not impressed and gave him a dressing down. Shortly after Curry announced he would no longer play music that wasn’t podsafe, deleting all shows from his archive that contained MP3’s of copyrighted material. It was news that reverberated around the podcasting community, and signified the beginnings of the end of an all-too-short honeymoon period. Brothers and filmmakers Seth and Nathan Anderson, who have a bi-weekly show called Hear Me Now Brother, decided to cancel their Depeche Mode tribute show directly after hearing news of the Curry brouhaha. “We were gonna put up tons of samples, not play full songs like a radio show, but do snippets,” said Nathan from his home in West Hollywood. “But then with the Adam Curry thing – it was all getting too gray and too scary. We didn’t want to be made examples of.”
There are a few obvious ways for podcasters to get around the issue – namely, play music only by unsigned bands. You can find directories of bands that agree to allow podcasters to use their music for free at sites like music.podshow.com, or sites specializing in independent music like Garageband, IndieHeaven, Magnatunes and 15 Megs of Fame. Or you can contact artists direct.
What all this means is podcasts have become some of the best places to hear music that truly is under the radar. And sometimes it’s actually very good. “It is unbelievable the depth of talent there is out there in the world among artists who would probably never get heard on commercial radio,” says Larry Winfield, dreadlocked host of the Sundown Lounge, a ‘podzine’ of poetry, politics, alternative tech, and vignettes from West Coast open mics. The Sundown Lounge is the reincarnation of Guerilla Love Party, a pirate radio show Winfield – who lives in Downtown LA - used to run in Chicago. “I spoke my mind, uncensored, and recorded local poetry readings and played them back on the show. We had one of the hottest stations in the city, but we kept getting shut down because reps from some of the bigger corporate radio stations would find our antennae. It was a lot of fun, and that’s what I am doing now, having more fun.”
His dream is for one of the acts that he plays on his show to be picked up by commercial radio and become a star. And maybe…just maybe…for one of the LA podcasters to become a star. “That would be cool,” he says.
I’m rooting for the Tres Jefes, three young Latino podcasters called Erik, Alfonso and Walt, who all live within two blocks of each other in Southgate, Los Angeles. Talking money and Pod Politics isn’t really their thing - they’re more into beer, porn, and psychobilly. As if to illustrate their point, a subheading on their website reads “with friends like these, who needs assholes”.
When I went to watch them record their show, Erik – affectionately called Kidney - showed me their promotional stickers (they say things like ‘Chicks Dig Podcasters’ and ‘Podcast Groupie’) before handing me a can of 8.1% Steel Reserve beer with a solemn “Drink this”.
Each 40-minute show consists of the three lads talking about their adventures through beer-land. They take full advantage of the unregulated nature of podcasting, offering coverage of events like the annual Porn Convention and holding discussions on topics like ‘who knew hookers could be so expensive?’ and ‘tasting your own penis’. They also have uncannily good taste in music, and have interviewed local bands like Jessie Deluxe and the Groovy Rednecks. They like going out in the field, often taking recording equipment into bars around Long Beach and posing a ‘question of the week’ to unsuspecting patrons, like ‘what do you think of anal?’. When I met them they had recently hung out with aspiring porn starlet Chrissie Cums, who had invited them into her hotel room for an interview. On her bed. For the Tres Jefes, podcasting really has made their dreams (wet) come true. “Podcasting is kind of like our avenue, our outlet,” says Walt. “All the things we want to try, this is how we get do it. How else are we gonna meet porn stars, dude?”
Though they may pretend to be the El Salvadoran Beevis and Buttheads, the Tres Jefes need to be taken with a large grain of salt. Two of them have studied journalism, and there’s definitely a wry tongue-in-cheekiness about the personas they have created. Some people don’t get the joke however, and take their sense of humor a little too literally, like the TV execs who were considering developing a show based on the Tres Jefes but pulled out because they weren’t ‘dangerous’ enough. “On our web bios we had posted photos of ourselves looking like drug traffickers. We like to make fun of our own stereotype, but I think they were disappointed when they realized we don’t actually have guns and shit.”
While they may not be politically involved in the podcast scene, they are regulars at LA Podcasters meetings because like everyone else, they’re excited about the future. “The coolest thing is that we can dream about where this is going,” said Walt. “This isn’t like being in a rock band or writing a book. No-one knows what this is - podcasting could be a fad or it could turn in to a household commodity. So we can dream.”