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[ARTICLE] Portable World: Beyond the Beat

Portable World: Beyond the Beat

Everything from old radio shows to college lectures turns up on digital players

Take a look at that chunk of plastic and metal sitting in your purse or pocket or, at this very moment, connected to your ears by that now-familiar cord.

iPod. Zune. Rio. Zen. Whatever your brand, it’s hardly fair to call it a “digital music player” anymore.

Sure, they play music. But they also might contain recorded lectures from college professors, archival recordings of radio dramas your grandparents listened to when they were kids, entire movies and a season’s worth of TV shows, classic Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoons, made-for-podcast versions of public radio programs, audio tour books of vacation hot spots, even a sales pitch from a company you might want to do business with.

Considering the growing universe of digital content made for them and the unexpected ways in which people use them, it’s time to find a new name for these much-beloved gizmos that have become as vital to the properly wired consumer as cell phones and laptops.

It’s amazing to think that the original iPod — the Apple market-leader whose name has become synonymous with MP3 players — was unveiled in October 2001. In his book, “The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness,” author and technology columnist Steven Levy writes about how, at its unveiling, the first-generation iPod was greeted by what now seems to be stunning nonchalance.

That original iPod held a whole thousand songs, adds Levy, a senior editor and chief technology correspondent at Newsweek. But as the devices became more popular, the universe of content designed to piggyback onto them grew to include just about anything that can be converted into ones and zeroes.

The latest twist, unveiled last week, is that Apple’s iTunes store — the iPod’s online mother ship — now offers movies for rent that can be played on computer, a home television set and, yes, the iPod itself.

Yet, most first-time iPod users — and, for that matter, first-time users of digital music players in general — probably don’t immediately think of their new toys as anything but pocket-sized jukeboxes. “I think people buy the iPod for the music and discover the other stuff afterwards,” Levy says.

“The amazing thing about the iPod to me,” he adds, is how “it’s found itself in the center of all of these big trends happening in the digital world.”

When Gregg Lavin took a trip to Southern Italy several years ago, he took a guided tour using one of those listening wands museums and historical attractions offer to visitors.

“I really didn’t want to hold it up to my ear. It was kind of old and grimy, and you could barely hear out of it,” he recalls.

Like many tourists, Lavin had packed his iPod, and it occurred to him how handy it would be if he could just have downloaded an audio guided tour, synced it to the iPod he was carrying anyway and used it to take a self-guided tour.

Today, Lavin’s company, Tourcaster (www.tourcaster. com), offers MP3 tours of cities, towns and attractions around the world. Each comes with a customized map keyed to audio tracks on the digital music player. And, because it can be stopped and started at will, a traveler can stop at attractions he likes, skip those he doesn’t, and even stop in midtour and resume the next day.

“We’ve been doing it a couple of years now, and every month for the past year-and-a-half, our sales have increased,” says Lavin.

Tourcaster now offers “a couple hundred tours spanning the globe,” he says. Among them are themed tours that include an excursion of Los Angeles’ rock ‘n’ roll highlights, tours of Europe keyed to specific composers, and even a tour of New Orleans that focuses on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina (Lavin says part of that tour’s proceeds go to area community organizations).

Closer to home, Scott Whitney discovered how a digital music player can serve as more than a way to block out aural distractions during the workday. His company, PodWorx Inc. (www.podworx.com), produces podcasts for corporate clients.

Then, Whitney explains, “those companies distribute those podcasts either internally, to their own employees or salespeople or partners, or they put them out externally to customers, prospective investors, the press or analysts.”

Whatever the audience, a podcast, more than an e-mail, memo or printed packet, “gives people a real sense of who you are as a company, and you do that by talking to them,” Whitney says. “It’s such an emotional hook if it’s done right.”

Like the rest of digital humanity, Jack Spargo, a retired airline pilot and member of the Sun City Summerlin Computer Club, stores music on his MP3 player. But he also uses the Zen to chronicle his travels.

“I use the photo capability and music capability of the Zen to put together slide shows and video slide shows,” says Spargo.

The productions — which result in a pocket-sized photo album — can be viewed right on the device or burned onto a disc.

Las Vegas attorney Michael Stein uses his iPod Nano as a sort of TiVo for the radio, downloading, and then listening to at his leisure, podcast versions of National Public Radio and Nevada Public Radio programs.

Stein prefers to catch the programs when they’re actually aired, but says listening to the podcast version is the next best thing. Doing so, he says, brings to mind “visions of the family around the radio, listening to Orson Welles’ ‘doom is on us’ and people actually believing it.”

It’s a more apt analogy than Stein may realize: An irony of the digital music player is that, through podcasting, it has given new life to vintage radio shows, from dramas such as “The Shadow,” “The Green Hornet” and “Flash Gordon” to variety hours featuring Jack Benny, Martin and Lewis and Red Skelton.

For modern-day listeners, NPR podcasts are a convenient way to keep up with programs on their own schedules. For public radio stations, they’re a way to reach listeners who might otherwise remain unengaged with public radio.

Flo Rogers, Nevada Public Radio’s president and general manager, says NPR estimates that it sees about 12 million downloads each month. Locally, Nevada Public Radio (www.knpr.org) sees about 37,000 downloads each month from its own Web site.

In fact, this combo of digital music players and podcasts has created the same sort of radio listener/radio station dynamic VCRs did with TV stations during the ’80s.

“I think when you look across all media — and this is not an original thought — the idea that we would, as few as 10 years ago, say, ‘Oh, it’s Thursday at 8 o’clock, I want to be in front of the TV watching ‘Friends,’ that seems primitive, doesn’t it?” Rogers asks.

And those college students you see walking around campus with their ears plugged into iPods? Maybe they’re just studying.

Kathleen Krach, an assistant professor in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ College of Education, last year began experimenting with delivering lectures to students via podcast to augment what she calls “brick-and-mortar” lectures.

Last spring, she put one lecture on a podcast, and “students went crazy for it,” Krach says. Last summer, she taught a distance learning class entirely via podcast.

Krach estimates that 20 percent of those summer session students downloaded the podcast lectures to iPods or other portable devices.

“I had some students tell me they went on a trip and listened to it in the car,” she says. “I’ve also gotten feedback from students saying, ‘I listened to your lecture all day on Saturday in my house with my family.’ So, there are students who are getting the information, and the kids and the family pet are getting my lectures as well.”

And if the family wants to explore literature, UNLV’s English department maintains an extensive menu of podcasts of readings and lectures presented by visiting lecturers and its own faculty.

“We’ve had 300 to 400 downloads of each one, which I think is pretty good,” says Douglas Unger, an author, UNLV English professor and co-founder of UNLV’s creative writing program.

Unger can foresee a time when UNLV instructors’ lectures are routinely recorded for archiving via podcast. In the meantime, he says, it’s exciting that members of the community, as well as students, have access to “such a rich series of entertainment, and much of it is very educational.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0280.

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