Pod people
SF's podcasters build on assorted quirks, intrepid ideas, and a will to get naked.


By A. Jacob Metz

MIKE BUTLER JUST got a new job, and he can't shut up about it, on or off the air. Butler, a house painter and local musician (Exodus, American Heartbreak), was understandably nervous about closing down his business, Michael Butler Painting, which he founded in the late 1970s, and starting work at PodShow (www.podshow.com). In early November he began his first-ever office job as one of the newest employees of the company, which is owned by former MTV VJ Adam Curry and longtime business partner Ron Bloom.

Few podcasters are as fortunate as Butler: He occasionally DJs for Adam Curry's syndicated four-hour daily show on the Sirius Radio Network while most work from the isolation of their own basements, struggling to find an audience. But he's not the only game in town; San Francisco boasts some of the quirkiest, as well as the most mainstream, podcasters. Violet Blue, host of Open Source Sex (violetblue.libsyn.com or www.tinynibbles.com), one of the most popular sex podcasts, broadcasts from the Castro, and a few blocks away, Big Mike uploads the comedic exploits of the Extra Super Action Show (www.extrasuperactionshow.com) from the Lower Haight.

When Butler, a well-known San Francisco podcaster, hooked up with PodShow, he practically got to download his own ticket. He gets a lot of votes on the e-mail-verified Podcast Alley Web site, a portal that resembles Billboard for podcasters and their listeners. Butler's first full day on the job in the SoMa office was anything but typical.

"I meet Brian Longest, the director of operations, and he said, 'I have a ton of shit for you to do,' " Butler said. The two headed to their first lunch meeting. Longest asked him for his ideas, and Butler told him – some were thought-out and others were "completely pulled out of my ass." But that ass happened to belong to a podcast veteran – Butler had been broadcasting from his outer Sunset home since September 2004 and had recorded more than 125 episodes.

"He goes, 'OK, there's your job. Whatever your ideas are, there's your job,' " Butler recounted. So it goes in this nascent industry. "I kinda hit the ground running my first week," he said, on-air, in his Nov. 6 broadcast.

One of his first ideas was to widen the scope of music available to podcasters. Currently, Butler said, no major label is willing to authorize podcast use of any of their artists in writing, for fear that listeners will keep MP3 files on their listening devices and never pay for the music. Butler managed to bring Epitaph into the fold, cutting a deal to authorize nearly 100 songs from their Web site for pod-safe usage. "It was my first coup," Butler explained.

But the PodSafe Music Network (www.music.podshow.com) is only one part of the PodShow's auspices. "[PodSafe]'s a place for podcasters to go find music for their shows," Butler said. PodSafe makes artists usable for airplay in all podcasts, which is something akin to a Creative Commons license. Butler's new agreement brings tracks by big-league artists like Bad Religion, Merle Haggard, Tom Waits, the Dropkick Murphys, Elliott Smith, and NOFX into the world of podcasting. Punk label Fat Wreck Chords and Saddle Creek Records, home to indie-emo phenoms Cursive and Bright Eyes, also signed on to PodSafe at Butler's behest, though many indie labels continue to balk at authorizing music for PodSafe usage.

Podcasting is a-changin'

One gets the sense, talking to both the big dogs at PodShow and the smaller, more specialized podcasters, that the field, like blogging, is about to enter its terrible twos, especially locally. None of the podcasters I spoke with seemed to know one another personally, and corporatization is at an all-time high.

Butler sees choppy waters ahead. "A lot of the talk [in podcasting right now] is about monetization, and there are several different companies popping up, and it's in its fifth wave of press," he says, referring to 13 months of coverage from Time, CNN, and the New York Times.

In addition to his own success with the Rock 'n' Roll Geek show (www.rockandrollgeek.com), which currently has 10,000 subscribers, Butler's 15-year-old daughter, Martina, has her own show, Emo Girl Talk, and has recently obtained a corporate makeup sponsor, Nature's Cure (a homeopathic acne treatment), probably making her the highest-paid minor podcaster in the city. Granted, she makes only what a teenager with a part-time job at Hot Topic would pull down, but she's making that money with a biweekly podcast from her home, spinning punk records rather than folding Green Day hoodies.

While Martina continues to quietly operate from her house in the Sunset, Adam Curry is a San Francisco podcaster on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Curry, "The Podfather," probably doesn't spend as much time in PodShow's SF office as he'd like, and for good reason. He resides in the city on what he calls "an oil-rig schedule, two weeks on and two weeks off." His wife and daughter still live outside London, in Guildford, England, which he refers to on-air as the "Curry Cottage." His 10th-floor Rincon Hill abode is the "Curry Condo," and it receives nearly as much broadcast time on the PodShow as the Curry Cottage, which lacks a video hook-up.

Curry began hosting a show on the Sirius Radio Network this past June, bringing podcasting to the satellite radio mainstream. His show combines the best of the podcasting world with idiosyncratic moments of his own binational existence, while his company is responsible for the iTunes PodFinder software, the iTunes component that allows users to find new and interesting podcasts. The iPodder software, which he also developed, is the most comprehensive podcast directory on the Internet, a veritable white pages of podcasting, music-related and otherwise.

Curry himself wrote the enabling code in AppleScript that makes your computer's playlists sync with your iPod or any MP3 player. The open-source community wrote the variations of the desktop software for end-users, and there are dozens of ways to capture podcasts to download onto MP3 players – most people stick with iTunes or a slightly more configurable, less user-friendly application called iPodder Lemon (ipodder.sourceforge.net/index.php). The very popular podcast Daily Source Code is hosted by – you guessed it – Curry, broadcast from wherever the hell he happens to be that day.

Curry listens to "a shitload" of podcasts daily to fill Daily Source Code. "I actually plan time to listen to podcasts. I spend as much time as I can listening to new voices coming on the scene," he said. Curry wants his show to be a jumping-off point from which podcast listeners can begin to define their own tastes and refine their palates before moving on.

"My show, quite frankly, is something that people subscribe to for a couple of months – it's an ever-changing space." Curry says, going on to express a thought parroted by nearly every podcaster I interviewed: "Podcasts work best if whatever you're podcasting is what you're passionate about." Butler digs Cheap Trick and Aerosmith and talking about his own band.

In a primarily male-dominated field, female podcasters have been making great strides recently in popularity and quality of content. One of the most popular podcasts nationally is the Dawn and Drew Show, broadcast by a Wisconsin punk couple from an 1895 farmhouse. While there is no concerted gender-based action to equalize the medium, San Francisco wouldn't be a bad place for the revolution to start. Violet Blue's Open Source Sex podcast continues to keep the city known as a center of written and digital erotica, both gay and straight, on the podcasting map.

Although Blue doesn't call herself the first female sex podcaster (that honor goes to the Super Smart Radio Whore Sex Show, broadcasting from the Mission District since October 2004), she is known as the one that cemented the legitimacy of sex podcasting and as its foremost sex educator. Her genre is no niche market though; after iTunes introduced podcasts, in January, sex podcasts quickly joined the fray; some days Blue's Open Source Sex rises as high as number three on the iTunes daily charts. She typically has about 65,000 subscribers, and her highest downloaded episode, number 17, scored over 60,000 downloads – more than a typical day for Curry's show. But it hasn't always been rosy for Blue.

On July 7 all of the sex podcasts mysteriously disappeared from the iTunes podcast selection. Blue, already ticked at Apple because iTunes inadvertently published her personal e-mail address, went to the big dogs of the blogging community to enlist help. The John Updike of the Good Vibrations set, Blue is a veteran writer and a prolific erotica editor.

"I e-mailed Xeni at Boing Boing [a popular tech blog], and she didn't know what was going on," Blue said. "So she put up an open posting.... [I checked back], and Apple had put my podcast back up, but I didn't want to let it drop, because they didn't put the other podcasters back up." Eventually both matters were remedied – "It's still unclear why they were removed," Blue said – and she was treated like a rock star on her recent visit to Apple's Cupertino headquarters, where employees crawled out of the cubicles to meet her.

When not writing steamy erotica or flirting, Blue is still pushing the sex-tech envelope through visual sideshows that bring graphic images to podcasts. Currently her iTunes podcasts are back, but flagged as "explicit."


Yuks downloaded every AM

While Blue is often explicit for the purpose of "education," Big Mike (Mike Branum) of the Extra Super Action Show may be closer to an R-rated radio shock-jock.

Besides being known as the tallest employee at Haight-Ashbury Music, Branum is rapidly becoming known as court jester of the SF podcasting scene, occupying a niche somewhere between that of early Robin Williams and Henry Rollins. Extra Super Action Show now has nearly 8,500 subscribers, and while its numbers don't yet stack up to Butler's, Blue's, or Curry's, his upload frequency does: Big Mike posts nearly as often – twice weekly – and his humorous antics are uploaded nearly every morning.

"My iTunes [downloads] are like 90 percent of my listeners," Branum said, explaining that most of his listeners choose to use the plug-and-play software, developed by PodShow.

In a late October segment, Big Mike misheard the name of a band recommended to him by a colleague, calling the band Never Again the Great Betrayal, and played a song referencing the incorrect band name on the show (the band's name is, simply, Never Again). After discovering his mistake, he remembered a vow he'd made at the show's inception: If he ever made a mistake that egregious, he would sing naked karaoke to that band on-air as his penance. And he did.

Podcasters like Branum use a lot of local music and sing naked karaoke because they can't just flip on the new Death Cab for Cutie album. ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers), the largest music-licensing agency in America, offers both interactive and noninteractive licenses. Even though some podcasters do pay yearly fees to ASCAP, the classification of the podcast license is very hazy. Podcasting doesn't quite fall into one of the neat boxes that ASCAP defines. Their interactive category covers custom radio (XM), pay for play (iTunes), and on-demand performances (music subscription services like Napster); their noninteractive category covers performances embedded online (the music, for instance, in the Flash animation on a band's Web site).

This key ambiguity is what Curry's PodSafe Music Network hopes to rectify. Because if they don't, playing DJ on a podcast is really going to suck, unless you like only spinning PodSafe artists – a group of largely unsigned musicians. Some are great, some mediocre, many terrible.

"The PodSafe Music Network is a real simple deal," Curry said. "We take the hassle out of finding out if you can play something on your podcast." A network of San Francisco podcasters are members of PodSafe, which, interestingly enough, incubated in Miami and in Boise, Idaho. "It's gone from incubation to hatch." Aside from the PodSafe network, no reliable consortium or catalog of podcast-legal artists exists.

The 10,000 downloads that Butler receives globally for a podcast of Rock 'n' Roll Geek Show may pale in comparison to, say, the number of listeners Seaweed and Steel hit on the drive-time shift at 107.7 FM, "the Bone." But one can't resist the fact that podcasters like him are breaking into the radio market with a vengeance, since their format has sucked for about a quarter century. It's just too damn bad that Butler can't play "Stairway to Heaven" in its entirety.