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Plugging in: Podcasts in Madison
In music and in the spoken word, local culture is embracing the podcasting era

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On May 17, 2005, one month before Apple added a podcast directory to its iTunes Music Store, the Madison band Sunspot released the inaugural episode of Sunspot Road Mania.

"We did all of the recording while driving in the van last weekend, on the way to Lafayette and back," Sunspot vocalist and bassist Mike Huberty wrote as he introduced the first episode on the band's website.

The podcast gave Sunspot fans an audio window on the trio's antics as they logged van miles en route to gigs each weekend.

Four years and 92 episodes later, Sunspot Road Mania continues to track the itinerary of Madison's most tech-savvy band. But in 2009, the band has moved onto the next frontier of cultural technology - real-time interaction with fans who use mobile web browsers and similar applications.

Huberty says Sunspot has registered on gigdoggy.com. The site boasts a capacity to enable "mobile fanteraction." Mobile phones have become ubiquitous among crowds at music venues like the High Noon Saloon and the Frequency. Gigdoggy aims to target these devices in amping up the experience between the band and their fans

"It lets you create a mobile site that has your set list and lyrics on it," says Huberty. "People at the show can log in to our Gigdoggy site through their mobile phone, find the names of the songs and read the lyrics as we're singing the song. We tried it for the first time at our CD-release party a couple of weeks ago, and people thought it was cool."

According to the digital research firm ComScore, the number of Americans searching for local content using the web applications in their mobile phones increased by 51% between March 2008 and March 2009. More than 32 million U.S. mobile phone subscribers sought information on local restaurants, movies and shows that month using a mobile device, via a web browser, a phone application or even texting.

As mobile devices proliferate, the way Madisonians navigate and experience local culture will be increasingly shaped by the content made available through the portable web browsers many city residents bring along on social outings. With that in mind, a growing number of Madison musicians, writers and social commentators have begun to develop content compatible with mobile consumption.

Especially striking are new podcast "zines" like The Partially Examined Life and Kim and Jason. These are replacing the counterculture print manifestos that once lined lobbies of alternative retail stores.

All in all, it's a new indie culture. And it's thriving.

Let the music play

Mike Huberty says podcasts have played a big role in the marketing success of Sunspot during the past four years. "It's been a great experience for us and has helped Sunspot connect with a lot of new people and strengthen existing relationships. There are no filters on podcasting yet, which means there's an intimidating amount of content out there. You're free to try whatever you want, and there's no preconceived notion of what people expect."

Sunspot isn't alone. More and more local musicians are using podcast technology to introduce their songs to audiences throughout Madison and beyond. Among them are regional figures like Jonathan Overby, whose Madison-made Higher Ground, the world-music variety show, is played weekly both on Wisconsin Public Radio and via podcast at wpr.org.

Then there's Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines, who for more than a year have been recording and podcasting a musical variety show, Mad Toast Live, at the Brink Lounge every Tuesday night.

Like many musical projects in this era of inexpensive recording technology, the Mad Toast Live podcast meets professional standards. Wagoner and Gaines host the shows, and they have invited artists such as Jentri Colello, Lucas Cates and Mark Croft. More than 40 episodes are available at podfeed.net, each beginning with cheers from the live audience and a welcome that notes the Brink is "just down the hill from the State Capitol building in Madison, Wis."

The resulting Mad Toast Live recordings might not be so different from the mp3 files local musicians have long made available on their websites, in what already seems like a quaint practice. The difference is that Mad Toast Live is distributed as a weekly podcast, available to be automatically delivered to subscribers via computer - and, perhaps more crucially, via smart phone, a technology category that includes iPhones, BlackBerries and similarly sophisticated devices.

It's this mobile aspect to local online culture that's new. Local podcasts may be niche content, but according to UW-Madison assistant professor of education Kurt Squire, that's what the mobile media experience is all about.

Squire helps run the Local Games Lab housed in the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory at UW-Madison. Researchers at the lab study how people, especially young people, use mobile devices and engage in place-based gaming to make their surrounding community an interactive game board.

"The thing we're learning from studies of kids with mobile media is that it creates a mobile media experience that is intensely personal," says Squire. "We see kids discovering niche bands through Pandora, consulting band web pages, downloading lyrics and guitar tabs, and learning to play songs they like, all within half an hour."

Although the Internet's reach is global, Squire suggests it is local culture that's naturally, perhaps uniquely, suited to the mobile browser.

And it's not just musicians who create local music podcasts. Music fans are also getting into the act. Aaron Veenstra is a journalism student at UW-Madison by day. By night, he's frequently at local clubs taping shows for his podcast, No, THIS Is What I Call Music. Veenstra has posted nearly 500 episodes to podfeed.net. Several recent episodes feature the Pale Young Gentlemen at last month's Marquette Waterfront Festival. They join a growing archive of Madison music that, thanks to musicians and fans alike, is available for download to mobile devices online.

Talk talk

Local podcasting isn't limited to music. The technology has also ushered in a new generation of spoken-word programs that, in their tone and in their niche focus, resemble latter-day zines.

That's good news for fans of zines, the small-circulation pop-culture manifestos that were trendy in alternative niches of city retail outlets after photocopiers became widely available in the 1970s. Print zines have disappeared over the past decade, as many of the independent booksellers and record stores that once housed them have gone out of business.

But digital delivery is revitalizing this phenomenon. Madison podcasts that follow in this tradition vary widely in their themes. In one, Kim and Jason, available at kimandjason.com, a local married couple offer motivational "recipes" for fending off "adultitis." It's a term they use to define grownups who have lost all sense of childlike curiosity and play.

Branching out from the podcasts, the couple have become popular motivational speakers at churches, businesses and social service agencies, according to Jason Kotecki. "We've been able to sell about 5,000 copies of the book we self-published on this subject," he says.

Elsewhere, Madisonian Mark Linsenmayer has created a philosophy podcast called The Partially Examined Life with two friends (Seth Paskin and Wes Alwan) from graduate school at the University of Texas. A recent episode considered "the absurdity of life," based on the works of Albert Camus.

"This podcast is our attempt to re-create the good old days when we'd meet up after a seminar to drink beer and talk shop or get some teaching yas out where students couldn't talk back," write Linsenmayer, Peskin and Alwan at the podcast's website. "We're recording it to share our joy in 'doing' philosophy with all who care to listen while ranting bitterly about the profession that we so long ago escaped."

And in the great ranting tradition of zines, Elimination of the Snakes is a Madison podcast that brims with the social and political commentary of two fifty-somethings named Dan and John. Episode #160, which aired June 29, included a reflection on gang riots that broke out in Los Angeles after the L.A. Lakers won the NBA championship. "It's nice to be young and stupid and living in L.A. with no future," said Dan in his commentary.

"We're getting more gang activity here in Madison," he added. "What the hell is the point, to stay in it until you shoot someone?"

Call it freewheeling free speech or amateur local talk "radio." Podcasts provide a new way to circulate such thoughts on local culture.

Whether musical or spoken, podcast content is well suited to mobile consumption. So says Madisonian Jeffrey Powers, author of the local tech podcast Geekazine who coordinates a monthly meeting offering technical and motivational support for local podcasters.

"With audio you can just put in your ear buds and go," notes Powers. "The majority of people listen while they're in a car, while they're working out or while they're doing something constructive."

Come together

But mobile technology isn't just letting users consume familiar types of content in new, portable ways. It's actually changing the way we interact with the culture. Kurt Squire of the Local Games Lab is beginning to see the impact of the mobile web revolution on Madison.

"I think the first thing we see is that this idea of 'smart mobs' is coming to life," says Squire, who's also a musician. "If there's a great show going on, especially something like a house party, you can assume that word is going to get out pretty fast through text messaging, Twitter and Facebook updates."

Huberty believes that mobile devices will eventually become integral to the experience of attending a local music gig. "Arena concerts are already showing text messages from the fans on the Jumbotron during some songs," he says. "You can do giveaways using text messages onstage, and it encourages people to sign up for that part of the contact list.

"But the coolest thing is that now people have a visual device in their hands," Squire adds. "So if you can manipulate some mobile web content that would add to the whole multimedia show, you can create something extra. We already use video during the show either on televisions or a big screen behind the band. So another screen that's in the audience's hands already is an extra color in the palette."

Ultimately, says Sunspot's Mike Huberty, the mobile web is about connecting more intimately with fans. "It means more direct interaction with the people we create music for."

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