Adam Kempenaar and Sam Hallgren's 15 minutes of fame lasted exactly one month. It began when Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL) opened its iTunes music store to podcasts on June 28, and the duo's Cinecast movie review show was one of the site's featured offerings. The exposure, along with a plug from podcast guru Adam Curry, sent their show skittering up the iTunes' list of the top 100 podcasts, peaking at No. 13. Thousands of fans listened to them review films such as War of the Worlds and spar over whether The Matrix or Dark City was the better flick. The Chicago friends were flooded with fan mail and dreamed their hobby could become a moneymaker.
Then Roger Ebert showed up. On July 28, Ebert & Roeper, the film review show featuring two columnists for the Chicago Sun-Times, began posting its own audio recordings on iTunes. Within a few short days, Ebert & Roeper climbed to No. 2, while Cinecast dropped to 72.
In one of the shortest trajectories yet for a new Internet technology, podcasting has gone from the hands of indie developers to media giants in less than a year. Credit Apple. With typical finesse, it has created a centralized, easy-to-use service on iTunes that makes it a snap to find and listen to podcasts, the audio recordings that can be downloaded from the Net and played on a computer or portable music player. Apple also put out a new version of the iTunes software, which makes it easy for people to create their own podcasts, and invited all to post their creations on the site. Indie podcasters such as Kempenaar and Hallgren rejoiced, ready for the mainstream to embrace the technology they had championed.
But the reality isn't so simple. Apple's service, though just over a month old, is already changing the dynamics of the field. It has helped legitimize the medium, drawing traditional giants, from Ebert & Roeper parent Walt Disney (DIS) to Dow Jones (DJ) and News Corp. (NWS). As they join iTunes, they're squeezing out many of the do-it-yourselfers who evangelized podcasting. Once a podcast drops off the top 100 list, it's almost impossible for a casual visitor to find it. For Kempenaar, the future is clear: "It will be harder for a new indie podcaster to get an audience."
Harder, perhaps, but not impossible. Derek Colanduno and Robynn McCarthy, an engineering consultant and graphic artist from Roswell, Ga., anticipated the mainstream onslaught -- and planned their podshow accordingly. Called Skepticality, their podcast delves into sci-fi and science news and reaches out to the magazines, newsletters, and message forums popular with astronomers and space fans. It's No. 3 on iTunes. "We made a point of going outside the podcast community," says Colanduno. "A lot of podcasting is like ham radio, where people are just listening to each other."
Other podcasters aren't leaving their fate in Apple's hands. To ensure that the indies remain prominent, some are working with networks of podcasts in hopes of driving traffic among independents and providing a one-stop shop for potential advertisers trying to navigate the medium. Kempenaar is talking with Curry, an inventor of podcasting, to be part of Curry's PodShow network, featuring a selection of hand-picked programming. Others join more informal networks, such as Techpodcasts, the Association of Music Podcasting, or Podcastoutlaws.
None can touch Apple today. As companies vie to create the primary site for podcasts, Apple has a huge edge because of the dominance of iTunes and the iPod. But rivals are developing sites that go beyond simple top 100 lists. Odeo Inc., for instance, is rolling out podcast reviews and recommendation services, so you can find new podcasts similar to your favorites. "This isn't the iTunes model, which is: 'Come to our home page and we will guide you,"' says Odeo founder Evan Williams.
The mainstream media's approach to podcasting provides some clues for how independents can succeed. Many of the traditional media's shows are simply repurposed snippets from morning talk shows and elsewhere. Indie podcasters can distinguish themselves by creating something truly different, such as Skepticality's irreverent take on science and space or the infectious enthusiasm for offbeat cover songs found in a show called Coverville. "The way that indie podcasts are going to stand out is to keep providing content that people can't get on radio," says Brian Ibbott, the producer of Coverville. It may not be clear today which podcaster will end up on top. But there's no doubt that the technology is leading to an explosion in content. That should be music to all listeners' ears.
By Heather Green in New York