By Chris Lane
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Every week Mary pens a script on topics ranging from why women shouldn't fake orgasms to how men can build tongue muscles for performing cunnilingus. She then sits cross-legged at the foot of her bed beneath a giant framed Pink Floyd poster and records a new show for anyone to download and listen to.
Her lone goal is to break into the top 50 at Podcast Alley. If that happens, she promises her listeners a "special show" that would feature her having sex. It wouldn't be a quick in-and-out, either, but rather a long, loud, sweaty performance similar to the three-way depicted on her show.
So vote for Mary's podcast. Just don't tell her boss about it.
Kiss and Tell is one of more than 25,000 podcasts produced worldwide. Not bad, given that the first debuted just 15 months ago.
The technology for creating podcasts was invented by software developer Dave Winer and Adam Curry, the former MTV VJ from the late '80s with the big blond hair who resembled Jon Bon Jovi. Last August, Curry wrote a computer program allowing automatic downloads of new audio shows using the online subscription technology known as RSS, or really simple syndication. The subscription service lets listeners receive new shows on their PCs or portable players without having to go to a specific site to download them.
The result is on-demand radio that's free, unregulated by the Federal Communications Commission and can be heard anytime, anywhere. Podcasts are often likened to TiVo because they enable users to download only the programs they want to hear and to skip advertising. They're the next big thing in consumer-controlled media, freeing listeners from the grip of media conglomerates to let them customize their own playlists.
This development has radio executives squirming. Though no one has yet made their fortune in the new medium, some of the best-known podcasters have already sliced into the estimated $30 billion in annual ad revenue generated by commercial radio.
"The era of folks sitting around waiting for a program on the radio or TV is waning," says Steve Pierce, executive director of New Media Alliance. "People are trying to get away from the pervasiveness of crappy content and overcommercialization that's polluted radio."
Podcasts are as easy to make as they are to download. All that's required is a computer with a connected microphone and Web access. This has opened the door to thousands of homegrown radio personalities.
Since licensing fees haven't been determined for music podcasts, most programs are talk shows. Touted as a tool for citizen journalism, the British Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year declared podcasting "the effective rebirth of radio."
As bloggers have influenced journalism, podcasters have the potential to transform radio. Though podcasting is still in its infancy, the numbers already tell a familiar story.
Back in 1999 you could count the number of bloggers on your hands and feet. Now more than four million people spout their opinions into the blogosphere. Similarly, in September 2004 a Google search for the term "podcast" resulted in just 24 hits. One month later that number spiked to 14,000, and today there are more than 70 million listings.
Though most podcasts are produced by amateurs, large media corporations have already hopped on the bandwagon. Everything from National Public Radio's This American Life to CNN's Business Update to the NBC Nightly News to countless other mainstream news shows can be downloaded as podcasts. Dozens of daily newspapers are experimenting with podcasts, featuring news highlights and interviews with journalists.
According to Mediaweek.com, podcast subscriptions for Rush Limbaugh, Jim Rome and others have generated more than $10 million for Clear Channel Communications' Premiere Radio Network.
Podcasts also are being used in classrooms. Duke University led the way by providing free iPods to all incoming freshmen last year. Lectures accessible via podcast have been especially helpful for non-native English speakers, according to Judy Ashcroft of the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment at the University of Texas.
The number of Americans who listen to podcasts is projected to grow from 800,000 in 2004 to 4.5 million in 2005 to 57 million in 2010, according to the Diffusion Group, a technology research firm based in Plano. This trend is being fueled by the popularity of MP3 players and other portable devices that topped this year's Christmas wish lists.
Perhaps it's not surprising that explicit, sex-themed podcasts like Mary's Kiss and Tell represent the fastest-growing area for the new medium. Digital Podcast, which runs a program directory, reported in October that although "erotica" makes up less than 1 percent of all its listings, the category attracts 11.3 percent of all visits.
"Without sex," Mary says, "I know I would lose my fan base."
Mary started podcasting on a whim. Her husband had read about it in a tech magazine and thought it might make for a cool hobby. In their first show, Mary and Max discussed seeing a movie together. It came off like an audio version of a dull, meandering blog and drew few listeners.
After that, Mary insisted on hosting the show alone. Instead of everyday stuff, she would make the show about their sexual adventures swinging in Houston's northeast suburbs. They had attended several swinger parties this past summer. The following week she gave a heart-pounding rendition of their recent threesome. Suddenly her site was getting thousands of hits.