Podcasting: A new weapon for the right

After Apple Computer announced its new video- capable iPod, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mark Morford, a funny, controversial and ever- iconoclastic columnist, enthused that the new “sexy” and “delicious” device would usher in a future where pornography would be available at the flick of a finger.

But Morford isn’t the only one imagining the future of podcasting.

In June, the Corporate Podcasting Summit in San Francisco will provide an introduction to, and workshops on, podcasting to companies that are thinking about adding podcasting to their marketing mix.

And many conservative political organizations have already added podcasting to their mix, according to Jennifer Biddison, the coalitions manager and associate editor for Townhall.com — one of the oldest and most successful right-wing networking Web sites.

In an article entitled “Podcasting: The latest trend in talk,” Biddison maintained that while podcasting has already become a useful political tool for the conservative movement, its potential has yet to be tapped.

Conservative organizations, which have a proven track record of getting their message out via a sophisticated coordinated network — foundations, think tanks and public policy institutes, the Internet (including the blogosphere), newspapers and magazines, talk radio — are now “hopping aboard” the podcasting train, Biddison reported in “Podcasting: The latest trend in talk,” an article recently posted at Townhall.com.

Thanks to the financial wherewithal and technical savvy of a handful of right wing organizations, conservatives can listen to many of their favorite right wing radio talk jockeys, tune in to a discussion about privatizing social security and other critical policy questions, and catch the latest presentation from the Heritage Foundation, whenever they darned well feel like it.

For the uninitiated, podcasting is defined by Wikipedia as “the distribution of audio or video files, such as radio programs or music videos, over the internet … for listening on mobile devices and personal computers. A podcast is a Webfeed of audio or video files placed on the Internet for anyone to subscribe to.” In short, “Podcasting’s essence is about creating content (audio or video) for an audience that wants to listen when they want, where they want, and how they want.”

“Podcasting” is a “portmanteau word”; a linguistic term that refers to the fusion of two words. Coined in 2004, it combined “iPod” and “broadcasting,” according to Wikipedia, the free online interactive encyclopedia. Usage of the term has become so ubiquitous that it was designated the 2005 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Conservatives take to Podcasting

Podcasting is not new, although it has more recently landed squarely in the political sphere. In March of 2005, John Edwards, the Democratic Party’s candidate for vice president in 2004, “became the first national-level US politician to hold his own podcast”, Wikipedia noted. In the summer of 2005, President Bush “became a podcaster of sorts, when the White House Web site added an RSS 2.0 feed to the previously downloadable files of the president’s weekly radio addresses.” The Republican National Committee has its own podcasts at GOP.com.

According to Townhall’s Jennifer Biddison, social conservatives have several programs from which to choose, with the Reverend Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) leading the way. The AFA offers two daily shows: The AFA Report, in which Wildmon looks at current events; and Today’s Issues, which features a mix of current events and special guests. “A recent episode of Today’s Issues,” Biddison reports, “focused on the issue of adultery; with Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome author Nancy C. Anderson sharing how her marriage was restored after an affair.”

Another choice for social conservatives are the podcasts from the Family Research Council (FRC), a powerful conservative Washington, DC-based lobbying group. FRC offers Washington Watch Weekly, hosted by the organization’s president, Tony Perkins. A recent episode looked at how President Bush’s State of the Union address dealt with family issues, and featured Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) discussing legislation to regulate RU-486, the “abortion drug.”

People interested in foreign policy or national security issues can check out Danger Zone, a series of programs sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Carlson hosts the weekly show on terrorism.

Since Biddison doesn’t have the luxury of sitting at her desk all day and listening to public policy discussions, she often accesses her favorite programs while going back and forth from work. During her daily commute, she confesses to being grateful to be able to listen to a Heritage Foundation podcast of Charles Pickering discussing his “judicial confirmation journey,” or former CIA Director R. James Woolsey “argu[ing] in favor of wiretapping.”

The America’s Future Foundation offers special programming geared toward young conservatives, while the Ashbrook Center has a series of seminars for history teachers called “Teaching American History Podcasts.”

Last summer, FreedomWorks podcast on cable franchise reform “was so successful that they’re ramping up to do more,” Biddison pointed out. And, America’s Future Foundation recently started “hosting monthly roundtables primarily for podcast use.”

While many conservative organizations are providing their podcasts for free, in June 2005, talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh launched a commercial podcast available only to members of the Rush 24/ 7 service, which costs $49.95/year.

Podcasting in political campaigns

In a series of pre-election articles entitled “Election 2006 and Social Media” Kate Trgovac, currently the Manager of Web Evolution for Petro-Canada, looked at how five Canadian political parties used “social media” — podcasting, blogging, emailing, etc. — “to get their message across…[and] promote their agenda online,” during Canada’s recently held election.

“Social media” Trgovac wrote, was effectively defined by Stowe Boyd the author of the blog Message who is described by the blog Corrente as “… an internationally recognized authority on real- time, collaborative and social technologies.” Boyd wrote that social media represented “those forms of publishing that are based on a dynamic interaction, a conversation, between the author and active readers, in contrast with traditional broadcast media where the ‘audience’ is a passive ‘consumer’ of ‘content.'”

As a marketer with strong political interests, Trgovac, who writes about technology, branding, user-experience and other topics on her blog, focused on how the major Canadian political parties were furthering “the political conversation.”

“Social media,” Trgovac wrote, “offers mechanisms (e.g. discussion forums, comments on blogs, event calendar/MeetUps, eCards, even branded downloads) to further a conversation between readers who are interested in a particular topic. This is a change for marketers where we have not always been interested in such a level of discourse; ditto for political parties.”

The Conservative Party (CPC) — which emerged victorious — used “social media extensively,” Trgovac reported: “On the home page, in addition to the ‘Volunteer,’ ‘Donate’ and ‘Request a Lawn Sign’ links that are standard fare on political sites in 2006, there are links to Email Updates, Podcasts, eCards and two Blogs.”

According to Trgovac, the CPC Web site invited “visitors to subscribe to their podcasts … [and] provide[d] feeds for both audio podcasts and video casts, along with instructions on how to subscribe in iTunes.” Although the podcasts were “not original content produced for the web,” they did provided access to a number of speeches of Stephen Harper — Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister. In addition, there was an “assortment of announcements by the CPC and CPC radio ads” as well as videos of the Party’s “TV commercials and other video content.”

“I think podcasting, like other social media tools are incredibly effective for niche constituent groups within larger political entities,” Trgovac told Media Transparency in an email interview. “For example, a Toronto-based candidate for a national political party uses podcasts both to address specific local issues that aren’t given air-time on the national scene, as well as to address special interest areas that are of importance to him,” and his constituents.

“The podcast format” is particularly “ideal for our very on demand and mobile culture,” Trgovac explained. “I can take podcasts with me where ever I go – something of incredible importance in a society that has a large number of commuters and distracted multi-taskers.”

Although Trgovac acknowledged that “conservative movements (both political and religious) are often first to market and exploit new technologies to deliver their messages, there is no way that the US conservative movement can ‘own’ podcasting in the same way that it owns talk radio.”

Trgovac insisted that “the power of distribution has shifted dramatically and is no longer in the hands of political ideologues,” but is now in “the hands of the people.”It is relatively inexpensive, so “anyone can podcast.” And while the quality of the broadcasts varies, anyone can be a podcaster “and their potential audience could be the same as Rush Limbaugh’s or Al Franken’s.”

“We were one of the first conservative think tanks to launch podcasts,” John Couretas, the Director of Communications at the Acton Institute (Web site), told Townhall’s Jennifer Biddison. “We began using them in March 2005 and are getting about 200 hits a day. We include lectures and radio interviews in our feeds, in MP3 format. We’re accessible via iTunes and recently got our first review, a rave. Podcasts have great potential. But like any other media channel, it’s not the technology that matters, it’s the content.”

While only a fool would bet against Mark Morford’s prediction that video podcasting will lead to a boom in the distribution of pornography, Townhall’s Jennifer Biddison also sees a future where podcasting will become another well-honed partisan political tool that will allow right wing think tanks and Christian conservative advocacy groups to further dominate the political debate.

Kate Trgovac has a broader view: She sees podcasting as “the great equalizer,” a democratic instrument that has the potential of tapping into a global audience.

As they say, stay tuned.