The radio preacher is finding new life in cyberspace.
Godcasting is the latest advancement in online religion, in which preachers convert their sermons to audio to be heard on portable digital audio devices.
Using iPods or any portable MP3 player, “podcasting” lets people download audio programs that can be listened to whenever they like. It’s a form of audio syndication that musicians, businessmen, tech talk-show hosts and political commentators like Al Franken have already adopted.
To get the audio feeds, listeners connect an MP3 player to a computer, go online and sign up for podcasting feeds. Audio content is then pushed from the original source and makes its way through an aggregator to a subscriber who can listen to it anytime – in the same way VCRs and TiVo have time-shifted TV shows.
Just as sermons were among the first type of broadcasts when radio caught on in America in the 1920s, pod preachers, including Christians, Buddhists and pagans, are among the most prolific users of the new technology.
“Based on the number of religious-themed programs being distributed … it looks like Godcasting may be the podcast’s first killer app(lication),” said Podcasting News, a Web site that features a directory of podcasts.
“You don’t normally see the churches on the cutting edge of technology,” said Kevin Seger, minister of youth and education at Pitts Baptist Church in Concord, N.C., one of the first churches to podcast weekly sermons. “If we can utilize tools and technology to get the gospel out, the better we are.
“It’s portable. It’s compact,” he added of podcasting. “People can listen in the car or when they’re working out.”
Recently launched podcasts include “Catholic Answers Live,” an hourlong daily call-in radio program run by a San Diego-based lay group. The show also airs on AM and FM stations.
Another podcast called “Teachings for the New Age” offers thoughts on following your inner self and achieving true perfection.
Meanwhile, the “RevTim Podcast,” with host Tim Hohm, and “Lifespring” with Steve Webb, devoted recent podcasts to discussing how God could allow a devastating tsunami to happen in South Asia.
“Psalmcast,” produced by John Owen Butler, pastor of Beal Heights Presbyterian Church in Lawton, Okla., airs selections of musical settings with the Book of Psalms.
In November, Craig Patchett of San Diego started The Godcast Network at Godcast.org, a site that “mirrors” religious-themed podcasts so the feeds can be more widely distributed. Patchett said people in 75 different countries have downloaded podcasts.
Religious podcasters said they like the medium because it’s an inexpensive way to reach the masses.
“It takes a lot of money to run a TV show – it takes millions of dollars – and it seems a lot of the focus is on money,” said Nick Ciske, media coordinator for Minneapolis Vineyard Church.
“Podcasting is basically free,” he said. “There is never a mention of asking for money. There’s no need.”
The technology also can connect a dispersed flock – snowbirds, in particular.
Part-time members of the Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Ind., listen to podcasts of sermons as they spend the winter in Florida, said Bill Todd, network administrator for the 2,400-member church just south of Indianapolis.
The “Pagan Power Hour” started providing spells, cooking and crafts in January. The show is aimed at educating people about Wicca, said Malcom Waterstone, host of the show produced in Quincy, Ill.
A recurring topic has been the need for public worship spaces in small communities, but the show also advises listeners that the correct practice of Wicca excludes sacrificing animals and worshiping Satan, Waterstone said.
The borderless Internet, unfettered by Federal Communications Commission guidelines, allows people to enjoy freedom of speech without fearing retribution, he said.
“People have the freedom to hear what they want and respond how they want,” Waterstone said.
Despite its mass-market promise, listening to podcasts is, for now, the pastime of an elite, gadget-oriented group, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes the real-life impact of the Internet through national surveys.
But as the price of MP3 players – ranging from around $100 to $600 – continues to drop, it will make podcasting more accessible, Rainie said.
Time-shifting is what makes it noteworthy, he said.
“You can get your dose of your worship service when you want it, not necessarily when it’s taking place,” Rainie said.
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