Pods casting a spell as the medium of the masses Everyone, it seems, is plugging into a growing Jersey community Sunday, December 16, 2007 The first time he heard the word -- podcast -- James Frankel was intrigued. The Franklin Lakes music teacher did some research, bought some equipment and began putting together audio shows with his students that anyone could download to their iPods or MP3 players. Two years later, the weekly podcasts produced by Frankel and his Franklin Avenue Middle School students have been downloaded more than 20,000 times by people around the world. But Frankel no longer feels like a pioneer. Lately, it seems, everyone from the town council to the local rabbi and the neighborhood mechanic is joining New Jersey's growing podcasting community. "I think it was a fringe thing about a year ago," said Frankel, 37. "Now I'm seeing so many. It's an explosion." Podcasting began to catch on in late 2004 when avid computer users embraced the idea of recording their own radio-like programs others could download to their new iPods and MP3 players. Three years later, the technology has become simpler and iPods have become ubiquitous. Veteran podcasters say podcasting is going mainstream as more and more tech novices are joining their ranks. Local governments are podcasting town council meetings. Colleges are podcasting courses. Churches and synagogues are podcasting services. New businesses also are popping up to help newcomers produce their own audio and video podcasts and find advertisers to help finance their shows. At last count, iTunes, the Web site where users can download music and other programs, listed more than 100,000 podcasts available for free download. Brad Pendergraph's "Whole Lot of Nonsense" is one of then. The Raritan Borough resident discovered podcasting in 2004 when he could no longer stand listening to the car radio while making his daily commute to Morristown. He began downloading and listening to podcasts in his car. Many were by amateurs, who inspired Pendergraph, a computer programmer at a pharmaceutical company, to try podcasting himself. He spent about $300 on recording equipment and began putting together a regular show on social justice issues, one of his passions. "My first 10 or so were downright awful," said Pendergraph, 38. But fellow podcasters and listeners offered advice. Pendergraph now has about 40 regular subscribers and another 150 or so who download each show. Still, Pendergraph says he gets quizzical looks when he tells people he's a podcaster. "I'm still bumping into people who say 'Podcast? What's that?'" he said. Podcast -- a combination of the words "iPod" and "broadcast" -- is defined as a prerecorded digital file that can be distributed over the Internet. Unlike traditional radio or television broadcasts, podcasts can have subscribers. That means programs can be automatically downloaded to listeners' iPods, MP3 players and computers whenever a new show is added. New businesses, including EPOIA Interactive Studios in Monmouth County, are emerging to help even the most computer illiterate produce podcasts. The company's PodshowCreator service helps produce and distribute audio or video shows. Plans start at less than $10 a month, said Jerry Gorman, the company's chief executive officer. Local clients include Howell Township, which recently started producing video podcasts of town council meetings, and Creative Cycles TV, a podcast by a custom motorcycle shop in Farmingdale. "More and more businesses are starting to embrace the technology," Gorman said. "We're waiting for the groundswell." Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, was one of the first Jewish leaders to embrace podcasting to share his sermons. Religious rules don't allow Garfinkel to bring recording equipment into the synagogue. "I do a special re-record on a non-Sabbath day," he said. Garfinkel's "RabbiPod" show has listeners as far away as Michigan, the Cayman Islands and Australia. Many say they are Jews in small communities who don't have access to services. Garfinkel, 37, sees himself as the modern-day equivalent of the Jewish sages who took the Torah into the marketplace for public readings on Mondays and Thursdays. "It's sort of in that spirit. The marketplace is online," he said. "So that's where religion needs to be." Most podcasters say they owe the popularity of their shows solely to word of mouth. Jersey Todd, a podcaster from Princeton who dubs himself the "hardest-working lawyer in podcasting," still sounds shocked when he says his show has been downloaded 85,000 times over the last two years. Listeners of the "Jersey Toddshow" have e-mailed him from China and Afghanistan. How did a show he put together for fun about independent music and new bands get so popular? "I'm still not sure," Jersey Todd said. "I'm a guy in my basement." Jersey Todd, who keeps his last name secret so his podcasting doesn't interfere with his legal career, recently began making a few hundred dollars a month by adding commercials into his show with the help of PodShow, a network that helps podcasters distribute their programs. Like many local podcasters, Jersey Todd says he is waiting for the day wireless Internet access is available in cars stuck in traffic on the Turnpike and the Parkway. Then the podcasting audience could grow exponentially, he said. "I think it's going to get more and more integrated," he said. "My show and a couple of other shows are putting flags in the ground."