Government To Go
A handful of public officials and agencies are making their messages and meetings available by "podcast."
People strolling down the street plugged into an iPod or other MP3 player could be listening to Radiohead or 50 Cent or, conceivably, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. No, the governor hasn't joined a garage band or started moonlighting as a gangsta rapper. But her weekly radio addresses are now available as "podcasts" that can be downloaded and listened to on a computer or a portable media device at a convenient time and place.
Podcasting, a way of providing digital audio clips via the Internet, is especially popular with young people, who have been downloading music files for years now. To reach this generation, as well as their tech-savvy elders, some governments' podcasts are made available on the iTunes Web site. But for the most part, podcasting has yet to catch on with the majority of the population, and citizens may find some technical obstacles to easy listening.
Nevertheless, at least four governors, some state legislators, city council members, mayors, school boards and police departments are dabbling in the science of making audio clips available via the Internet to those constituents who would like it that way. More government agencies surely will jump on board as they become familiar with the technology and its advantages. "Podcasts are here to stay," says Erik Arneson, chief of staff for David Brightbill, Pennsylvania's Senate majority leader. The Senate Republican Caucus there has been podcasting weekly since June 16.
Elected officials who produce podcasts like the fact that they can have their say without others, such as newscasters or political analysts, cutting in and editing or analyzing the points they are trying to make. "It's a way for us to get our message out without any artificial filters on it," says Arneson. "Some will argue that's good; some will argue it's bad." He also sees it as a way to reach out to constituents at a very low cost.
In Michigan, Granholm's weekly addresses are first released to radio stations, which may or may not run them. A few days later, anyone can download them. Granholm started doing her three-minute weekly radio addresses this summer. The first week she talked about her trade mission to Japan, the next week about matching unemployed workers with job vacancies and the third about state fairs and the important role of agriculture to the economy. The podcasts are available at michigan.gov/gov.
Technophobes may not immediately see the beauty of the endeavor. The ins and outs of how to access the audio can be a mystery to people unfamiliar with it. If neophytes to digital audio files were to go to Granholm's site to hear her radio address, and click on "podcast," they would wind up with messy text on their screen containing a lot of computer code. And there would be silence. They need to download software for the podcast to work.
The Web site of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen attempts to teach users about podcasting. "A podcast is an RSS feed of audio files..." Got that? The words "user friendly" don't spring to mind. The Dearborn Public Schools in Michigan instructs people to download Apple's iTunes software in order to subscribe to video podcasts about school board meetings. Parents can get their children to show them how--if they've already bought them an MP3 player.
As for the political advantage of podcasting when few others are doing so, there doesn't seem to be a big benefit so far. Arneson doesn't think the fact that the Republican Caucus podcasts and the Democrats don't--or at least didn't in mid-August when he last checked--has translated into anything politically tangible yet. Still, he laughs, "I think we're cooler than they are."