Threats to the status quo rarely seem like such at the start. Think of Shawn Fanning messing with tunes on his PC in his college dorm. Who could have guessed that he was starting the revolution that would be called Napster?
Now radio is falling into the crosshairs of a potent nascent technology: "podcasting."
Last summer, Adam Curry, a former MTV veejay turned entrepreneur, devised a way to deliver automatically updated digital audio streams to MP3 players via a computer. He called it podcasting after the beloved iPod, tossed his rough code into the open-source community, and then watched the idea explode.
Curry's site, www.ipodder.org, offers subscriber links to dozens of programs, among them such winners as www.beercasting.com (basically, two guys chatting in a bar). Now, at least one well-known media outlet is experimenting with the technology too. New York's WNYC in January began podcasting On the Media, one of its signature National Public Radio-distributed shows, which deals, appropriately enough, with issues facing the media.
"New Yorkers have one of the longest commutes in the country, but most often they're not in a car," says Phil Redo, WNYC's vice president of station operations. "This is a great opportunity to introduce public radio to an entirely new audience."
Curry doesn't think every media outlet will take such an enlightened view. Podcasting has the makings of an audio version of the blog phenomenon, allowing any bum with a microphone and a PC to become a shock jock.
And how's this for disruptive potential? TiVo-like editing technology on MP3 players could render radio advertising meaningless. Wireless communications could update programming without a computer download. There's also the threat to satellite radio: Podcasting offers for free essentially what Sirius and XM charge fees for. "If I were the satellite-radio guys, I'd be a little nervous right about now," says Bob Garfield, cohost of WNYC's On the Media, and a columnist for Advertising Age. "Otherwise I have no freakin' idea what direction this thing will go in next."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.