Podcasts picking up, but who's listening?

It's a cheap way to reach a worldwide audience. "It's certainly the next cool thing," a USF assistant professor says.

Published January 9, 2006

John Lutz runs his U-Haul business out of a modular trailer in southern Pasco County.

But when he's not renting trucks and selling propane, the 47-year-old businessman slips into a lunch room-turned-studio and becomes "Screamin' Sam," a comic who does a tribute show to the late comedian Sam Kinison. Live from his U-Haul studio, he can reach a national audience.

Lutz and friend James Worley "podcast" their shows - they record them, put them on a Web site, and allow the public to download them free onto iPods, MP3 players or computers.

"I can reach people all over the world from the computer," said Lutz of Odessa. He said he has performed as "Screamin' Sam" at comedy clubs across the country, but, "Now I can do it right in my office."

Lutz and Worley are among a growing number of Tampa Bay residents using the power of podcasting to send music, sermons, lectures, rants, comedy, sports shows and general musings to audiences on the Internet. For all these people, podcasting offers a remarkably cheap way to gain a worldwide stage.

With more than 11 percent of Americans owning iPods and MP3 players - and that doesn't include thousands who bought them during the holidays - podcasts are getting increasing attention.

New podcast sites are popping up all over the Internet. The New Oxford American Dictionary named podcasting its "word of the year" for 2005. Video podcasts have recently become available. And unlike the songs people download for 99 cents each using software such as iTunes, podcasts are attractive because they're free.

But is anyone actually listening?

A survey released in April by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found 6-million Americans had downloaded podcasts, but it wasn't clear how often they tuned in.

"I'm not really sure if podcasting is going to be the next big thing, but it's certainly the next cool thing," said Tim Bajkiewicz, assistant professor at the University of South Florida's School of Mass Communications. "Just like the Internet 10 years ago, a lot of people said, "Well, we're not really sure what it is, but we know that we're onto something. ' "

After searching several podcast networks, the St. Petersburg Times found fewer than 100 originating from Tampa Bay. But Bajkiewicz sees prospects for growth.

"It's going to be in a large metropolitan area like Tampa Bay where we'll see the benefits," he said. People who download podcasts onto their iPods and MP3 players can play them through their car stereos. So longer commuting may translate into more people using podcasts, he said.

Audio and video files have been available on Web sites for years, but in the past people listened to them on their computers.

Now, a growing number of people listen or watch on portable digital players such as iPods, and can even receive them automatically by "subscribing" to them. The whole phenomenon became widely known as podcasting because of the Apple players, called iPods, but is not limited to that device.

Search the Internet for podcasts from around the nation and the choices are mind-boggling. You can find news podcasts, music podcasts, podcasts of science and literature, podcasts of adolescent humor. Churchgoers are "Godcasting." Pornographers are "porncasting." There is an entire network of people who podcast about weddings, and another for authors who have written "podiobooks."

But in the Tampa Bay area, podcasting is just starting to hatch.

"I definitely think it's in its infancy," said Steve Pothoven, a software developer and church deacon who helps Tampa's Seminole Presbyterian Church podcast the sermons of Pastor John Keen.

In this area, you can find podcasts about Tampa Bay Lightning games, music, traditional Greek dancing, business and one that discusses "nudist lifestyle information."

The low cost of setting up podcasts allows regular folks to create them with minimal investments. But established media such as the St. Petersburg Times and radio stations WUSF-FM 89.7 and WMNF-FM 88.5 also have created news, sports and entertainment podcasts.

Three regular podcasts appear on the St. Petersburg Times Web site, sptimes.com, one on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one on poker and one on 1980s culture. Online City Editor Kevin McGeever said the paper began podcasting partly out of curiosity. But last year's Pew study indicating more than 22-million people own iPods or MP3 players shows that "for a journalism company like us that thinks we have good content to offer, we need to explore that."

McGeever said as many as 21,300 people have downloaded individual Buccaneers podcasts.

Some say there's room for more.

Mary Madden, a research specialist with the Pew center in Washington, D.C., who grew up in Tampa, said she couldn't find a comprehensive Web site about local music when she returned home recently for a holiday visit. A local podcast could help fill that void, she said.

"I could imagine a Tampa music scene blog that has a "best of Tampa' events podcast, interviews with artists, something that gives people a little more of a multimedia experience of what's going on around town," Madden said.

But at TBO.com, the Web site that merges news from the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV Ch. 8, General Manager Rusty Coats said he's not sure the podcast phenomenon lives up to its hype. Podcasting "works really well within niches," he said, so TBO.com creates audio webcasts about topics such as upcoming Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

But overall, people aren't clamoring for more downloadable audio, he said.

"On a weekly basis, we get far more searches in our job data bank than we get people asking for webcasts or podcasts," Coats said.

The Tampa Bay podcasting scene is so embryonic that many people who send out podcasts acknowledge that they don't have iPods or MP3 players themselves, so they aren't listening in to what others are creating. Keen, the pastor at Seminole Presbyterian Church, doesn't have one but hears from younger people who caught his sermon on their iPods after missing church.

Nonetheless, Lutz and Worley hope podcasts, as well as an Internet radio station they operate, will eventually launch the Screamin' Sam show to a wide and lucrative venue such as satellite radio. Says Lutz: "I'm going to be big."

Tim Bryce of Palm Harbor, managing director for a management consultant firm, podcasts about "information resource management" topics such as "What is a good program spec?" and "Ten common myths of I.T."

"As far as I'm concerned, it's good for my business," Bryce said. Potential clients have come to him because they appreciated the information in his podcasts, he said.

"I'm getting people calling me the Rush Limbaugh of the information technology world," he said. "I crack up when I hear that."

--Curtis Krueger can be reached at Krueger@sptimes.com or at 727 893-8232.