There's a long history of reporters publishing "strike newspapers." Perhaps the most memorable came when striking critics from The New York Times in 1963 started the New York Review of Books, whose intellectual wattage immediately outshone the paper's standard books section, and still does.
Now a similar urge has catapulted locked out broadcasters from CBC radio into what's been dubbed "the Podquake" -- the audio-downloading "podcasting" craze.
On website http://www.cbcunplugged.com, you find Shelagh Rogers heading off on a cross-country picket line pod-tour, genial Vancouver personality Bill Richardson fuming over how "pissed off" he is, and national reporter Curt Petrovich doing a poker-faced interview with "CBC management" as portrayed by his babbling eight-week-old daughter.
If only CBC normally had such passion. Unplugged is now among the most popular podcasts in the Canadian iTunes store, second only to CBC Radio Three's weekly show of Canuck indie rock.
How far the medium has come since former MTV talking head Adam Curry (known in geekdom as "the Podfather") launched the first daily podcast last year.
If you're just tuning in, a podcast is an audio file (almost always an MP3). It could be a hobbyist DJing his favourite new music, a couple bickering about their sex lives, or a public radio show. The twist is that you use software to "subscribe" to the podcast so that it's automatically downloaded when there's a new episode, to be heard on your MP3 player (often but not necessarily an iPod) or at your computer, at your convenience.
It mixes aspects of blogging, Internet radio and digital TV recorders such as TiVo. One technology consulting group has projected that in five years, 60 million people will be listening.
Mere months ago, reports on podcasting usually began like this: "Each day Bill Muggertson dashes home from his chicken-plucking job, puts his children to bed, then heads to the garage, where he stammers into a microphone covered in a pink sock (to dampen pops) about his favourite Battlestar Galactica episodes for his 7,000 listeners.
" 'I don't get it,' says his wife Bernice."
That stereotype was snuffed in July when Apple added podcasting capacity to iTunes, the life support system of the iPod (and the service that made paid legal downloads sexy). Podcasting has become professionalized at record speed, with media and marketers desperate not to be snookered by yet another communications revolution.
CBC Unplugged is cited in on-line resource Wikipedia as the first major use of podcasting for "advocacy." Members of Congress and potential U.S. presidential candidates (such as John Edwards) have already tried their hands at politicasting (podlitics?). Meanwhile Paris Hilton and the Fox network have podcasted to promote movies and TV; NASA has had a podcast from space; and there's podnography (or "sexcasts"), downloadable church sermons ("Godcasts," including one from the Pope), serialized novels and a 'cast for every interest from wine to NASCAR.
One corporate radio station in San Francisco has gone all-podcast, placing popular podcasters and audience-submitted recordings on air in a talent-scouting, "Podcasting Idol" spirit.
Public radio has been especially gung-ho -- the BBC has many of its finest hours available for web download, and the U.S. National Public Radio network put up a podcasting directory this week.
Considering many podcasters' stated mission of ending radio as we've known it, it looks a bit like the British bringing goodwill cups of Earl Grey to the Boston Tea Party.
But the giddy amateurism of podcasting's founding generation was never built to last. If most people wanted stuttering, winningly self-indulgent culture mavens, college-community stations would get a lot more listeners. The found-art aspect of podcasting has the half-life of a mood ring. Like the most-trafficked websites, the most-followed podcasts will be slicker affairs. Basement hobbyists will recede into the "long tail" of more marginal media.
But as Townes van Zandt once sang, "You're gonna drown tomorrow if you cry too many tears for yesterday." Podcasting is part of an array of changes rattling the audio world, along with satellite radio, digital radio, the U.S. anti-payola crusade, Warner Music's new downloading-only record label, a recent breakthrough in download-service subscription by Playlouder and Sony in the U.K., among others. And did we ever need them.
The obstacle is, as usual, record companies, who are trying to charge prohibitive music-licensing fees, just as music publishers attempted to cripple early radio. This stalemate has to break.
(One upside is that the quest for "podsafe" music is drawing attention to artists allowing fair use, under alternatives to copyright such as the Creative Commons license.)
The ubiquity of white iPod earphones can't continue on song shuffling alone -- most people don't actually like music that much, or that much music. Podcasting restores advice, debate, sports and current events to the portable mix, but demands more distinct voices from each one. And for the tune-obsessed few, podcasts revive the context and commentary a skilled DJ can bring, as I've found on New York station WNCY's Soundcheck program or Toronto critic John Sakamoto's weekly podcasts.
No one's sure how to make money on it yet ("podvertising" or "pledgecasting"?). But for public radio, perhaps the greater challenge is the lonely figure of the MP3 listener, in contrast to the mass broadcast audience. Should a network meant to bind a nation together really assist our retreat into individual sterile white capsules, where we download indie rock and science shows while rejecting, say, the farm report?
Whatever the answer, CBC must be able to manoeuvre. And the lockout podcasts show its employees already are as flexible and adaptable as management says it needs. The deeper fault is in the network's lumbering inertia. When the talent sounds tougher and smarter when it's working against you, for free, the real threat isn't the fine print on their contracts.