Fireside chats for the 21st century

Podcasts are a new way for the government to reach out to citizens

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered radio-broadcast fireside chats. Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivers a podcast. Although many people may not be aware of it, the federal government boasts a long list of public podcasts, including a State Department series featuring Rice’s remarks on World AIDS Day, military news from the Pentagon and hurricane updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A blend of the words iPod and broadcast, podcast is a generic term used to refer to a collection of audio or video episodes syndicated online via a subscription service. People sign up for the Internet shows using software that automatically grabs the latest episode.

Think of a podcast as an audio magazine subscription sent to your computer instead of to your home mailbox.

To advertise that federal podcasts exist, the official government Web portal, FirstGov, recently posted a podcast library with links to podcasts from across government.

Because agencies began distributing information via podcasts less than a year ago, few statistics and surveys exist on usage and content preferences. However, anecdotal evidence suggests a favorable reception and a desire for more frequent installments, according to agency Web managers.

NASA’s science features, the Defense Department’s military briefings and NOAA’s offerings are the most-viewed podcasts in FirstGov’s directory, said Joanne McGovern, the FirstGov Web content manager who created the podcast library.

Some podcasts were created more for amusement than assistance. “Who knew that the president’s dog, Barney, had a podcast!” McGovern said. Indeed, the main actors in a video podcast called “Barney Cam” are the president’s dog and Laura Bush’s dog, Miss Beazley, a Scottish terrier that the president gave to the first lady for her birthday. The Barney podcast has drawn a lot of Web traffic, especially from youngsters.

FirstGov officials say the word podcast is misleading, because neither broadcasting nor downloading the shows requires an Apple Computer iPod digital music player.

Although the government does not have specific policies governing podcasts, best practices are listed on the Web site of the Web Managers Advisory Council, a peer group of Webmasters from every agency. One guideline is that they adhere to the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) 2.0 standard, which is the format for the list of Web addresses that helps subscription software find and download the latest updates.

McGovern said many people do not know about federal podcasts because mainstream commercial podcast directories, such as Apple’s iTunes, do not have a separate category for official government podcasts. Last fall, she contacted the major services — including iTunes, Yahoo, Podcast Alley and Podnova — to ask that they single out official government podcasts.

“I did get some responses, [but] it was their choice to integrate their government podcasts into their directories rather than create an official government podcast category,” McGovern said. “That’s their choice and it’s OK. If they don’t want to cover that base, we will.”

As agencies observe their peers assembling podcasts, they become entranced with the technology and come to FirstGov and the Web Managers Advisory Council with questions, McGovern said.

She said the hardest part of creating a podcast is the content, not the technology. FirstGov would like to start a series but is uncertain about what would work best. FirstGov does not have as much prepackaged audio as other federal Web sites because it is primarily a search engine.

State was one of the first departments to try the medium in August 2005 when it began airing daily press briefings.

However, RSS news feeds are the department’s most popular new method of distributing government information to the public.

NASA officials are hopeful that their news features and educational programs will gain a larger audience soon. The agency launched NASAcast in December 2005. The show now averages about 7,500 downloads per week. “Compared to the nearly 30 million page views our Web site gets per week, that may not seem like a large number,” said Bob Jacobs, NASA’s multimedia director. “But we believe it’s a new technology that will grow as on-demand services expand.”

NASAcast’s installments include interviews with scientists from the Stardust and Mars Exploration Rover programs and concert clips from former Beatle Paul McCartney’s live hook-up to the International Space Station.

NASA, like most agencies, follows the same privacy guidelines and accommodations for users with disabilities for podcasts as it does for other multimedia, such as video streaming and still images. “We don’t treat podcasting any differently than other media objects subject to accessibility regulations,” Jacobs said. “For example, you’ll find closed-captioned versions of our podcasts online.” To facilitate people with disabilities, NOAA posts full text versions of all podcast stories.

Just as iPods dominate the MP3 player world, iTunes also dominates the podcast world. But there are questions about whether agencies should use a single platform.

The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, chose a single distribution platform. Right now, NLM’s “MedlinePlus: NLM Director’s Comments” requires iTunes software for subscriptions to the weekly updates by NLM Director Donald Lindberg.

“We are actively pursing other avenues for distribution, such as Yahoo,” said NLM spokesman Robert Mehnert. “However, Yahoo’s podcast portal is in beta testing and not as reliable as iTunes. NLM may direct access to the Yahoo podcast portal at a later date.”

At the other extreme, a Google search for “noaa podcasts” will yield listings for the “News from NOAA” podcast on many platforms’ Web sites. The program about NOAA science and research debuted last summer, on the same day the agency issued an update to the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season outlook.

Greg Hernandez, online editor and Webmaster who narrates the NOAA podcast, said he has received dozens of positive e-mail messages. From August 2005 through May 2006, “the 10 NOAA podcasts produced to date have been downloaded more than 75,000 times, and the podcast RSS feed has been viewed more than 300,000 times,” Hernandez said.

The installments sound just like radio spots, with voiceovers dubbed by Hernandez, quotes from NOAA experts and background noise from, for example, a NOAA ship at sea.

Federal officials view this new form of information dissemination as inherently democratic. “The goal should be to reach as many people as possible, and by taking advantage of digital media, along with other traditional means of communication, agencies can reach out to more people who might otherwise have been excluded,” said Andrea Wuebker, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has publicly praised the power of the podcast.

“We work hard to communicate with the men and women of the department around the world,” Rumsfeld said after DOD’s Pentagon Channel added video podcasting in April. “I am pleased that we are using videocasting and other increasingly important technologies to reach our global audience with all the news and information available on the Pentagon Channel.”

Podcast reference shelfHere are several major directories of government podcasts:

  • FirstGov Podcast Library
    firstgov.gov/Topics/Reference_Shelf/Libraries/Podcasts.shtml
    The library includes “Black History Month Radio Features,” “Voices on Genocide Prevention from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,” “White House Weekly Radio Address,” “Barney Cam Vodcast by the President’s Dog,” “Briefings from the Department of Defense” and “State Department Recent Stories."

  • MedlinePlus: NLM Director’s Comments (iTunes only) www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/directorscomments.html
    MedlinePlus presents a weekly update by Dr. Donald Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine, highlighting new materials on MedlinePlus.
    To subscribe to the MedlinePlus: NLM Director’s Comments, click on the link to open iTunes and go to the MedlinePlus: NLM Director’s Comments page. An iTunes subscription to NLM Director’s Comments works only if you are using the current version of iTunes’ client software on your computer.

The following podcast directories offer general information about podcasting, including directions for subscribing:

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