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Geekdom's New Clearinghouse

By Mira Serrill-Robins When Doug Kaye posted recordings of interviews he had done for a book on Web services in June, 2003, he had no idea that this personal project would turn into a 40-person operation.

Today, tens-of-thousands of faithful downloaders visit the It Conversations to hear tech-related conferences and interviews. In a survey of BusinessWeek Online readers, IT Conversations topped nine other candidates as the best podcasting Web site devoted to podcasts.

STAR TREK, TOO. Kaye, 56, of Kentfield, Calif., began with download-only MP3 files and a text-only Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, adding streaming capability and an enclosure tag to the feeds later that year, so that the feeds included a reference to the MP3 files, making them true podcasts. Over the past year, ITC's traffic has grown more than tenfold.

ITC concentrates on recordings of events and offers wide variety, with 10 to 12 shows added each week (that number will rise to 14 a week by early September) and an archive with about 580 shows. Tech talk includes in-depth discussions with such notables as cryptography and network-security expert Bruce Schneier and Star Trek: The Next Generation alum Wil Wheaton, who played Cadet Wesley Crusher.

About two-thirds of the podcasts available on ITC are recordings from info-tech conferences around the world. (Kaye's volunteer staff, more than half of whom live outside the U.S., make the recordings.) At first, he had to fight with conference heads for permission to record such discussions and put them on his site. Now, many conference heads approach him.

"AVAILABLE TO EVERYBODY." ITC doesn't podcast every conference offered or every submission it receives from budding podcasters. Postings from users express appreciation to ITC for screening material for quality of both recording and content. The site also has a user rating system to help people find the best downloads.

Registration on the Web site is free, though Kaye has not ruled out charging for memberships -- similar to those offered by public radio -- that will include some premium features. "We might tie membership to some features like content filtering," says Kaye, "but it's very important to have the content available to everybody."

It doesn't sound like much of a business model, but Kaye can afford to be a full-time volunteer thanks to the 1996 sale of Rational Data Systems, which he founded in 1978, and the successful IPO of Organic Inc, where he served as vice-president of engineering, in 2000. ITC operates as an offshoot of Kaye's one-person consulting and publishing business. Eventually, Kaye hopes to develop the site as a separate, not-for-profit business.

SPREADING THE WORD Kaye says his goal is to widen discussion on the tech conference themes by making information available to everyone. Most conference heads, says Kaye, want the same thing he does.

"The conferences that don't work with us lose the chance to influence people on a much larger scale," Kaye explains. "The physical audience is a small percentage of the potential audience -- they might have 300 to 400 people at a conference. By not publishing content for free, they are missing a lot of influence, and I think a lot of conference people really care about influence more than making a few thousand dollars from registration or publication fees."

Kaye says his staff enhances the usefulness of search engines by including descriptions and photos rather than just audio. "That way, people can link to, and search for, text. And that brings us a lot more traffic," says Kaye.

HOTTEST DOWNLOAD. He also notes that ITC's content withstands the test of time. "Most podcasts are serialized, meaning that you listen to today's show," says Kaye. "Our shows, on the other hand, purposely have a very long shelf life. They tend not to be too current or newsy."

What do people love about ITC? The most-downloaded show so far is author Malcolm Gladwell's presentation at the Pop!Tech conference in 2004, which has just passed the 65,000 mark. "Pop!Tech was a watershed event for us in 2004, and it should be huge this October, too," Kaye says.

ITC also records at all of the O'Reilly media events. "Those are very popular with our base of geeks," says Kaye, who is hoping for a surge of downloads for the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON), August 1 to 5.

SMIDGEN OF REVENUE. The average program requires at least four to six hours of production time, and Kaye utilizes professional announcers to enhance the quality of the podcasts

ITC also already has some sponsors, and two new ones will begin to underwrite ITC with cash at the end of July. Limelight Networks covers the cost of ITC's bandwidth and content delivery, services valued at more than $15,000 a month.

The site also brings in about $3,500 a month from advertising, which goes to equipment and operations. Proceeds from a site "tip jar" are distributed among the volunteers and two nonprofit organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Internet Archive.

VIDEO TO COME. What's next for ITC? Kaye described an expansion project, less than a year away, that includes recording conferences on any and all topics -- going way beyond IT -- and publishing them for free on the Web.

"There are lots of podcasters all over the world," says Kaye. "We want to tap into the social conscience of those people and help them to give back to their communities. We are hoping to capture all of the things that happen every day that are just lost. The events we publish will have to be worthwhile to somebody, but not necessarily us."

Kaye also expects to post video shows within two years, once the technology to do so becomes available. ITC and its offshoots may just turn out to be the C-SPAN of the tech world. Serrill-Robins is an intern with BusinessWeek Online in New York

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