And you thought those audio files were only used for music

"Sex sells," Max says thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, we have nothing to sell."

As amateurs like Mary and Max scratch their heads over how to make a buck off the new technology, adult-industry honchos are licking their chops. The recent release of portable video players has them projecting huge profits by spreading porn to cell phones and digital music and game players.

The sale of adult entertainment for downloading to digital players -- known as pocket porn, pornables or podnography -- is already a multimillion-dollar business in Europe. The portable-porn market could grow to nearly $200 million a year in the United States by 2009, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm.

Joshua Meritt
Todd Spivak
Joshua Meritt

This past spring, adult film companies like California-based Sin City released trailers to watch on Sony's PlayStation Portable within weeks of its debut. Last month saw the launch of a new company called Xobile that focuses exclusively on selling porn for cell phones and handheld computers. And both Playboy and Penthouse have announced plans to offer soft-core movies for viewing on portable players.

The adult industry is driving the new technology much the way it did the VCR and the Internet. The VCR mainstreamed pornography, allowing people to view it in the privacy of their homes rather than in the sticky seats of a seedy theater. The Internet made viewing porn even easier, letting viewers sidestep stares from cashiers at adult video stores.

As everyone knows, porn is big business on the Web. The Internet accounted for $2.5 billion of the adult industry's $14 billion in U.S. revenues last year, according to the trade magazine Adult Video News.

"Every time a new distribution platform comes along, we're there to take advantage of it immediately," says Steven Hirsch, CEO of Vivid Entertainment Group, the country's largest adult film producer with more than $100 million in annual revenue.

"The difference between Hollywood movies and adult movies," Hirsch continues, "is that we have very little red tape. We don't have to deal with agents and managers and screen actors guilds and all of the different things that the major Hollywood studios have to deal with before they can get things approved for a different sort of distribution platform."

As with adult Web sites, an age-verification system requiring credit card information will be used to keep pocket porn away from minors. But most observers scoff at this, since kids find ways of getting around such constraints.

Not everyone is convinced that portable porn will be the phenomenon that adult-industry execs anticipate. Porno Jim Graham, a Manhattan resident who podcasts reviews of X-rated films, says he can't understand the appeal of watching sex on a tiny screen.

"Most people don't want to view pornography while riding on the subway," he says. "At least, let's hope not."

Most podcasts based in the Houston area aren't racy. It's impossible to know exactly how many are made here, since some opt to remain anonymous. Most directories list fewer than two dozen.

Some of the locally produced podcasts are on predictable topics such as technology or sports. A few churches, like Christ the King Presbyterian Church, podcast their sermons via "godcasts."

Unfortunately, most of the personality-driven shows are dry as sandpaper. A Montrose-based music teacher podcasts interviews with local artists. Michael and Wendy Chung record a current-events quiz show that's like NPR's Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me! minus the humor. Two overly earnest 35-year-old men from Spring hope to meet their spouses through their podcast. "Once we find the right girl, we shut the site down," says one of the hosts.

Then there's 27-year-old Cypress resident Joshua Meritt, who specializes in gross-out humor. In one show, Meritt phones several Chinese restaurants to ask if their egg rolls will give him bird flu. In another, he asks God why genitals stink. "God, if you wanted me to lick it, why didn't you make it smell and taste like an Orangesicle?"

A young bohemian couple in Montrose podcasts a show about parenting. They plan to record the delivery of their first child, due this month. "Has there been a birth on a podcast? I don't know. Maybe we'll be the first," says Miah Arnold, a creative writing student at the University of Houston.

It's tough to imagine the appeal of an hours-long audio clip of a woman in labor. It's not surprising that these local podcasts, like countless others, attract few listeners. But the lack of an audience doesn't discourage them, reinforcing the maxim that podcasting is where everyone is famous for 15 people.

The obscure topics and banal banter that typify so many shows, combined with the fact that many listeners are drawn to the medium as a way to bypass advertisers, have cast some doubt on whether podcasting really can revolutionize commercial radio.

"The very specific charms of podcasting -- its freshness and unexpectedness -- make it a difficult business proposition," wrote New York Times media columnist David Carr in July.

Despite all the hype surrounding podcasts, a business model still has not been created that generates profits. But that may change. Just last month, Washington, D.C.-based start-up Podtrac Inc. developed a free Web-based measurement tool that determines audience size, gathers demographic information and offers behavioral profiles of listeners. And New Jersey-based Audible Inc. created a measuring service that tracks how many times a podcast is downloaded and whether it's actually played.

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