Blogs.law.harvard and podcasting history

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Note: When I finished the first draft of this, I sent Dave Winer a tweet asking what I’d left out. He pointed me to an article that Harvard’s staff paper published in October: The Podcast Revolution.


Some interview questions about my history-related podcast, Newspaper Heroes on the Air: JHeroes.com, got me looking for links about events back in 2003 and 2004 when the whole “podcasting” thing began.

This blog server with the unlikely address “blogs.law.harvard.edu” has a place in “broadcasting history” that may not get enough recognition.

The original server at this address played a big role in the dawn of what is now called “podcasting.” That server was launched by Dave Winer, co-creator and major evangelist of the RSS format for syndicating online information. He’s the one who gave RSS the ability to have “enclosure” elements — such as the audio files in podcasts.

The server ran Userland Manila, a group blogging program from Winer’s company. I used Userland Radio (or “Radio Userland”), the company’s combination blog-editor and RSS aggregator, for what was then my main blog.

Despite the “Radio” name, I don’t recall audio-broadcasting being mentioned prominently in the software promotion, but I’m pretty sure Userland’s Radio was the first program to be able to read those “enclosure” tags and automatically download the enclosed media files.

(It’s original name apparently was going to be “My.UserLand On The Desktop.”)

Another Manila and Radio user, Adam Curry, had suggested the “enclosure” idea a few years earlier, as discussed in Winer’s 2001 blog post about using RSS downloads to make it practical to deliver video files at that era’s relatively slow connection speeds by using the RSS feed to download them overnight.

When he got to Harvard, Winer issued an open invitation to his Thursday night blogging round-table meetings at Berkman Center. After I’d gone to a few of them, Dave authorized this blogs.law.harvard.edu account for me on what was then the Manila server so that I’d be using the same software as the rest of the group and would quit asking questions about Radio Userland. Having one more blog was great for my attention-deficit multi-platform blogging, since I kept using Radio Userland, and also had a Blogger account going. Around the same time, an earlier Manila blog host I’d been using went out of business, so this “Red Liner” became my place to keep learning about that software.

After both Dave and I left Massachusetts, the nice folks at Berkman let me keep the blog. The Harvard site migrated to WordPress just around the time that I migrated to Virginia, and to even more blogs. While I’d threatened to podcast for years, it took a very streamlined tool from WordPress — and freely available audio files at archive.org — to finally get me using the technology with JHeroes.com

LANDMARK: I’d argue that what is now called “Podcasting” was born in September 2003, when Winer created what he called a “special RSS feed” for another Berkman blogger, Christopher Lydon, and told us about it at a Thursday night blogger meeting.

I don’t think Lydon was even at the meeting that night. Former host of the NPR talk show “The Connection,” he had interviewed bloggers on the radio as early as 1999. Starting in March 2003 as a Berkman fellow, he had been interviewing bloggers, political figures and others, much the way he had done on radio. His Manila blog allowed him to include links to his interviews as MP3 files, but did not yet add them as “enclosures” in the RSS feed.

Instead, Winer created a new feed in September and announced his intention to release a few audio episodes from Lydon’s earlier blog posts each week until the two were in sync.

As Dave said at the time:

One every couple of days for the next few weeks, and then updated whenever Chris posts a new interview. This should be the chicken that lays the egg that finally bootstraps enclosures in RSS aggregators. So far (as far as I know) only Radio supports enclosures, and it doesn’t do it very well. Chris’s interviews are the perfect application for enclosures. All of a sudden Chris is interested, thanks to a post by Adam Curry. How can we increase the utility of these fantastic interviews? I’m on a mission.

Winer and others at Berkman organized two “Bloggercon” conferences that school year, one in October and one the following April. At one or both, CDs of Lydon’s interviews were passed around, along with word of the audio-attachment RSS feed idea.

Curry, visiting from England, I think, contributed to the idea. One of his blogs at the time sandwiched in a comment between obituaries for John Ritter and Johnny Cash, encouraging Winer to add Radio Userland style enclosure support to Manila.

Later, I remember a post in his blog that described his writing a script (either in Applescript or Frontier, I forget) that moved Lydon’s MP3 files from the Radio Userland downloads folder to the iTunes directory of his Mac, so that they could be synched to his iPod. As I recall, he named the script “ipodder” or “podcatcher.”

Other bloggers and developers created software with more sophisticated approaches to sending and receiving podcasts, and hundreds of “not exactly radio” programs started to appear. I remember Doc Searls doing some Google searches on the word “podcast” that tracked its usage — I even added links to them to an early Wikipedia page about podcasting. (Alas, they seem to be gone now.)

After my first ad lib draft of this item, Dave Winer tweeted back that my memory exercise here left out “big things and people.” Of course he and Lydon weren’t the only ones putting audio files on Web pages at the time. Maybe he’ll expand on his comment at Scripting News, his ancient blog. Or not. He’s talked about the topic there before.

Even before the Web took off, networking guru Carl Malamud had created Internet Talk Radio, broadcasting in 1993 as the first radio station on the Internet. He came to UNC and demonstrated it for us when I was in grad school. His “Geek of the Week” interview archive from back then is still a fascinating slice of history, housed at his Town.Hall.Org site.

However, Winer, Lydon and the Bloggercon sessions added RSS attachment syndication, high-quality content and visibility to the idea of sharing audio online, and along with faster Internet connections they certainly increased momentum for multimedia ‘casting in the blogging community. And they were the only folks doing that whom I’d met at the time, which is why I’ve gone on and on about them here. This is a blog-reminiscence, not a comprehensive historical essay.

Early in 2004, a British techno-journalist whose name escapes me interviewed Lydon and others about audio-blogging in general, and raised the question of what to call it. “Podcasting” was one of his suggestions. (Found him, and more in a blog post I’d forgotten about:My own 2005 Podcasting & Videoblogging essay; Updated link to 2004 Ben Hammersley story.)

Other fans incorporated the word into Web addresses, and “audio bloggers” everywhere instantly became “podcasters” — even if their sites were designed more for click-to-play access than the original “subscribe and automatically download each new MP3″ idea.

As more buzz and podcasting programs were developed, Apple itself picked up on the name “podcast,” and expanded iTunes and the iTunes Store to handle RSS-enclosure MP3 audio subscriptions. NPR programs and audio-bloggers, including old-time-radio experts, quickly filled my own “podcast” subscription list.

I suspect Jim Widner’s “Crime Photographer” or “Big Town” episodes on “Radio Detective Story Hour” and some Green Hornet episodes on an early “Superheroes” podcast at LibSyn were the ones that raised my interest in the wide variety of newspaper reporters and editors in old radio dramatic series.

As you’ll see from my category lists at JHeroes, or my list of more than 40 classic “newspaper film” radio adaptations, it turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg.

So… thanks to Dave, Berkman Center, Adam, Jim and all the old time radio collectors whose work made http://jheroes.com possible! I’m writing it using WordPress, posting blog items about radio episodes while I write longer pages (the menu at the top of the screen) about series and themes. With any luck, someday I’ll feel I’ve put enough thought into it to get a book publisher interested. Wish me luck.


Footnote: Christopher Lydon left Berkman to work on a series of blog-radio hybrid projects. As of this writing, he is doing his Radio Open Source at Brown University.

Multi-blogging as a way of life

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A spam alert on one of this blog’s very old pages just inspired me to retrieve a password for the site and login here for the first time in three years. I fear I’m littering the Internet with Web cobwebs, but at least I’ve updated the “About” page and added this note.

In any case, here is where to find my more recent incarnations:

 http://stepno.com (still my home page, although in need of updating)

 http://stepno.wordpress.com (my main blog)

 http://boblog.blogspot.com (my older, and now mostly-about-music, blog)

 http://stepno.com/oldblog (my most prolific blog, archived after the demise of the radio.weblogs.com server)

 http://jheroes.com (a blog and podcast coming in January 2011… and perhaps eventually to some academic journal or to bookstores near you)

One Laptop for a Child, One More Laptop for a Blogger

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The rubbery child-sized keyboard of my One Laptop Per Child XO computer isn’t great for my usual verbose blog entries, but this item has already accomplished its purpose — testing the XO with WordPress.

Alas, the XO’s browser doesn’t show a text cursor in “visual” editing mode with Harvard’s WordPress installation, but I can type well enough in “code” view. The browser has a similar problem with Gmail. I plan to try it with other Web editors and see if there’s any discussion of the topic on the olpc wiki site.

Just a few more days remain in the Give One Get One offer from olpc. I hope more folks in the Radford area order the little green guys so we can try the collaborative music and drawing programs.

Maybe this will tip someone over the edge: One bonus feature I didn’t appreciate until I took a Christmas trip to New York — the G1G1 offer includes a year of T-Mobile’s wifi service, which normally sells for almost the price of the computer. I have a lot of wifi access points in Radford, but the fact that T-mobile offers service at Starbucks made the XO a handy interstate travelling companion.

While in New York, I saw this AP/Times piece on the real “market” for the XO computers.

The blog goes on… from Tarheel to tartan

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National Tartan Day starThe “Red Liner” name of this mostly archival blog refers to the subway I used to take between Cambridge and Boston, after moving north from Chapel Hill. But now I have to make sure no one from my new campus — Radford University — thinks I’m casting a partisan vote in favor of “Rowdy Red,” a sockpuppet excuse for a school mascot — once used as an alternative to Radford’s kilt-clad Scotsman called “The Highlander.”

“Radford” itself sounds a bit like a merger of Radcliffe and Harvard — or Hartford, but it’s six or seven hundred miles from those old post-Tarheel and pre-Tarheel stomping grounds of mine.

The university’s namesake, the city of Radford, spans the New River in southwest Virginia, an area proud of its Scots-Irish heritage and its own Blue Ridge highlands. (See a Google Maps map)

The university is part of the Virginia public higher education system, and just south of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

To celebrate my arrival at a school whose teams are “The Highlanders,” I put a Scottish tartan behind my home page, as explained there. While that version of my grandmother’s family tartan is mostly green; Radford uses a more red and blue tartan in some of its publications.

I was disappointed to find that you can’t buy a kilt (or at least a plaid tie) at the campus bookstore — in fact, I get the feeling the simple-design-minded “college memorabilia” and “sports marketing” folks have pushed the university toward adopting a simpler solid school color or two.

Someone also has been promoting “RU” as a nickname for the school for sometime, which started to annoy me as soon as the “RU…?” puns stopped being cute. Why have a two-letter, two-syllable abbreviation for a school name that is already only two syllables?

There are plenty of schools that could call themselves “RU,” even if Radford does head the list. Google the word “Radford” and you find the university listed before the city name, unlike Boston and BU.

Maybe I can start a little business on the side with “Radford: Plaid and Proud” T-shirts. Hmm… Maybe in time for National Tartan Day next spring.

Hello (again) world!

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The kind folks at Berkman Center (particularly J Baumgart and Sebastian Diaz) have helped me continue to use the Weblogs at Harvard Law School blog server, where I started my second-longest-running blog four years ago as a regular participant in the Thursday night blogging round-table. (The weekly event started by Dave Winer as a Berkman Fellow and blogging guru, and the launchpad for his first Bloggercon “unconferences.”)

“Continue to use the server…” isn’t exactly the right phrase, since this is a new server. Dave’s original Manila server at Harvard is being retired, so this and other early Harvard blogs have been shifted to one running Word Press, a more recent blog platform. I’ve completed the “migration” process this morning after just a little fumbling with old half-remembered passwords and such.

It looks like my old posts have made the transition, but the actual title of the blog did not at first — probably because there was an apostrophe in the original name.
After a few minutes of browsing through Word Press’s menus, I’ve found the “Options” page where the blog title was recorded, typed in the original Red Liner name, and the change appears to have worked. Quite painless.

I look forward to investigating the Word Press page templates and design options soon… and to purging the old blog posts of accumulated comment-spam.

Getting more Del.icio.us

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For a lot of recent 2007 bookmarks, see my Del.icio.us/bstepno bookmark list. I’ve finally gotten around to uploading a few hundred old bookmarks, too. That leaves only about 2,000 to go. :-)

So many blogs, so little time

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I can’t let a whole year go by without demonstrating Manila to a class, using this brightly colored example.

In the meantime, I’m stretched pretty thinly across the blogosphere, using Radio (my main blog), Blogger, WordPress, Drupal (KnoxViews) and del.icio.us bookmarks. And I’m beginning to hear the sounds of a gypsy jazz guitar telling me that I’ll be using Django shortly.

Teaching old blogs new tricks

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Thanks to J for pointing out that this Manila weblog server has some new features… or at least the ability to add them. So far, the changes are only visible to blog editors, but some of them are promising.

Included are some — such as a search-the-site function — that I hope Manila’s source, Userland Software, adds to its other product, Radio Userland. That’s the engine behind my main Other Journalism weblog, my barely-getting-off-the-ground podcast, and the AEJMC Newspaper Division blog (mostly a subset of the OJ blog).

And thanks to J and the changes in this server for giving me an excuse for making my quarterly entry in this mostly moribund blog.

Insider comment: I do wish they’d make one more change in Manila. When I finish a new blog entry like this one, the button I’m supposed to click doesn’t say “publish this item,” “post this item” or “save this item” — it says “Create News Item,” which looks so much like “Create New Item” that I always do a double-take, worried that I might be throwing away the paragraphs I just wrote and going to a new blank page.

A little more consistency across Userland’s product line would be nice, too: Manila calls each blog post a “News Item,” and its menu for adding to the blog is headed “News.” In Radio Userland, the menu item headed “News” takes you to the built-in RSS aggregator, and “Home” is the name for the page where you write new material… Come to think of it “Home” is also the name on Radio’s link to the public version of the blog. Oh well.

Enclosures with Manila

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This is just a test to make sure “enclosures” is still working on this Manila server.

Tennessee Girls is an old square dance tune (with calls), one of many posted at Folktunes.org (Content is available under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.)

I’m trying this to answer a friend’s question, but perhaps it’s also one more step toward a podcast of my own?

Manila allows you to specify enclosures that are either uploaded to the server (with a simple “browse” button) or “enclosed” by giving the address of the file at some other server.

Hmm… I tried it and I don’t think the file uploaded correctly. So much for the square dance. Maybe it was a problem with FTP settings, or the folder or file names on my system… or the file was just too large for my dial-up connection and the upload timed out.

Here’s another try, addressing a file that’s already online from last Boomsday. If it doesn’t show up, I’ll try changing the preference and pointing to an “enclosure” already on the server. If this works the way Radio Userland does, there should be a little “speaker” icon on the page to click for immediate download, and RSS podcast subscribers will get the clip whenever their aggregator downloads. (The link on the word “clip” and the speaker icon should go to the same place.)

Things to read later

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I’ll probably have something to say about these in my other weblog eventually.

Forbes on printing-press owners recent digital acquisitions.

Times exec interview at PaidContent