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Letter from the Editor

by Philipp Steger

Dear reader,

When Thomas Edison spoke the words "Mary had a little lamb" on his tin foil phonograph, the world had good reason to be awestruck. Finally, the basic technology required to reproduce recorded sound had arrived. Over time the technology has improved and become so ubiquitous that today hardly anyone would stand in awe of a simple voice recording. What deserves our attention, however, is the ease with which such a recording can today be distributed to any Internet user around the world at virtually no distribution cost. This has given rise to yet other technologies trying to capitalize on the opportunities inherent in this change. One of them, probably the one with the most profound impact, is embodied by the iPod, introduced by Apple in 2001.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}The iPod, a tiny portable music player with a hard drive, has laid the foundation for the latest revolution in how we get our entertainment and our information. Much of that revolution feels like déjà vu, taking us back to the good old days of radio. I have to admit that this is just fine by me, since I am seriously biased towards the spoken word and a big fan of radio. This is evidenced by the particular vividness with which I remember the day radio became a fixed part of my life in the form of a small transistor radio my parents gave to me when I was 9 or 10 years old. No other present - except maybe for the gift of being taught how to ride a bike - and no other technological gadget since (including the iPod; I am currently on my fifth) got me as excited as that first, comparatively simple one. I got the present on a Saturday, which was auspicious, because Saturday was the day that Ö1, the classic radio station among the only three available radio stations at the time, broadcast my favorite show, Das große Welttheater (The great world theater), presenting a different famous play at 8 P.M., right after the hourly news. At that particular time, Ö1 was broadcasting installments of the great Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind. Sitting in my room, with the lights turned off and holding the radio firmly in my hand as if it might otherwise change its mind and walk away, I listened to the play. Considering that Kraus did not have 10-year-olds in mind when he wrote it, most of the play's meaning eluded me. Still, I was mesmerized by the voices coming out of that little radio, the space they left to be filled by the imagination, and the window it had opened to the world beyond. To have my own radio and listen to it in the privacy of my own room, that, I felt at that moment, must surely be the pinnacle of freedom and luxury.

But, alas, one's idea of what constitutes the pinnacle of freedom and luxury changes throughout one's lifetime, and today the mere idea of waiting impatiently and with anticipation for a particular radio show to be broadcast would strike me as impractical, to put it mildly. After all, TiVo and Internet-based radio have released us from the tyranny of a TV or radio station's schedule. And a more recent development, podcasting, has given us an even greater degree of independence and freedom: independence from mainstream programming and the freedom to become our own broadcasters.

The concept of podcasting, i.e. distributing sound recordings as downloadable audio-files to listeners over the Web, has taken the old idea of radio and enhanced it with four significant improvements: One, the consumer of a podcast is not bound to the schedule of a given radio station. He or she can listen to the podcast anytime, anywhere. Two, the low entry cost - it only takes a PC (or Mac), a microphone, and access to the Internet, to ensure that anyone who feels called upon to share his or her thoughts or music with the world at large can do so. Three, there is no likelihood - as in the early days of radio - that a government institution like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will step into the fray and allocate a limited resource like radio frequencies to individual broadcasters, thus artificially limiting the field of players. Four, sound recordings that fill a niche and would have failed to reach a significant market in traditional distribution systems now have the chance of creating worthwhile markets by pulling together niche markets from geographically distant areas.

While podcasting is a niche phenomenon in that most podcasts cater to small and very specific audiences, the overall impact of the movement goes well beyond that of a niche. Experts expect the number of podcast users in the US to reach somewhere between 45 and 60 million by 2010. By integrating podcasts into its proprietary music software, iTunes, Apple made the automatic subscription to podcasts a piece of cake and turned what started out as a fringe phenomenon into a technology that has by now been embraced by mainstream media, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, and even Austria's Public Radio. The surge in sales of iPods, a certainly not unintended side effect of Apple's move, is impressive: so far Apple has sold a stunning 42 million iPods. These sale numbers have, in turn, spawned a cottage industry of iPod accessories that is worth billions of dollars. Obviously, mp3-players such as the iPod are mainly used to listen to music, but the extent to which these devices are being used to listen to recordings of text or talk and the extent to which people are willing to pay for them is not to be underestimated. Audible Inc., a US company that pioneered the concept of making digitally recorded audiobooks available for download, thus eliminating the lion's share of the distribution costs and making audiobooks significantly cheaper, has attracted more than half-a-million regular customers. The company, founded in 1997, offers a wide range of recordings that goes beyond traditional audiobooks. Customers can download radio shows, audible newspapers and magazines, and even TV shows.

At the OST, we are willing to bet that this trend will increase and that more and more people will get much of their information from audible sources. Podcasting affords the OST the hitherto unthinkable opportunity to not just produce sound recordings of bridges but to make these recordings available to anyone with access to the Internet. With this edition, we have made several articles available as podcasts - and have even included some of the most popular articles of previous editions as audio-files. The "voice" of bridges is Bob Souer, a voice-over professional with years of experience and, well, simply a great voice. We hope that many of our readers will become listeners as well and we expect the audible version of bridges to attract many new readers and listeners.

The introduction of podcasts is not the only innovation in the current edition of bridges. We have also significantly changed the appearance of our magazine and added a new section called "moves & milestones," highlighting important events in the careers of Austrian scientists and scholars working in North America. All of these changes have been implemented by a small, but highly motivated team within the OST, led by Caroline Adenberger. Caroline has been with the OST since 2004 when she started as an intern, arriving a few months after the publication of the first volume of bridges. Within a short time, Caroline assumed the day-to-day management of bridges in 2005 and has done an excellent job of it ever since. In the implementation of the recent changes, she was expertly assisted by Irene Eckart, another talented former intern of the OST, who is taking a break from law school to help us out during the busy half-year of the Austrian EU Presidency. The technical whiz behind the changes is Robert Birnecker, a young IT entrepreneur based in Berlin, who made the impossible possible: within a time span of five weeks he implemented a complete makeover of bridges that included reprogramming both our Web site (www.ostina.org ) and bridges from ColdFusion into PHP. And, as always, all articles were copyedited by our superb copy editor, Jacquelyn Beals. That such a small team can put together an online magazine and its audio-version speaks volumes about how truly enabling modern technologies can be.

Even the best team, however, would not be able to produce a worthwhile reading and listening experience were it not for the significant contributions of all the writers, our columnists, Roger Pielke Jr. and Stefan Kalt, and our various guest authors, who have contributed to this edition of bridges.

I wish you a pleasant reading and listening experience,

Steger

 

 

 

 

 

Philipp Steger{/access}

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