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A Word in Your Ear

From the Jewish Chronicle By Judy Silkoff

With a click of a button you can tune into a Talmud shiur or catch the latest Jewish music releases on the way to work. Judy Silkoff enters the world of podcasting.

The term podcasting is bandied about the media with increasing frequency these days, but many people don’t seem to know what it actually refers to. You might be forgiven for thinking a podcast is some kind of futuristic method for encouraging the growth of damaged mange-tout.

But, in fact, it’s nothing to do with plaster of Paris or legumes at all; it simply refers to a method of distributing audio files over the internet, which can be heard on a PC or MP3 player at a later date or time. The word itself is a combination of iPod and broadcast, although any type of MP3 player can be used to play back a podcast.

The main advantage of podcasts over more traditional radio broadcasts is that anyone can make them: a reasonable amount of technical ability and a computer is all that’s required to create your very own virtual soapbox.

Little surprise then, that religious groups, keen to disseminate their ideas and opinions to the widest possible audience, have been quick to jump on the podcasting bandwagon.

Apple iTunes online music store lists over 4,000 religion and spirituality podcasts in its directory (all free to subscribe to), ranging in theme from Christianity and philosophy to New Age and Zen Buddhism. In the Judaism section, there are over 60 podcasts available: you can download the American Orthodox Union’s regular Talmud shiur to listen to during your lunch hour, or exercise at the gym to the sounds of Shlomo Carlebach, courtesy of the “Rabbi Yonah’s Music” podcast.

According to yeshivah graduate and Imperial College engineering student Joseph Sueke, Jewish-themed podcasts make ideal listening material for religious commuters. He subscribes to the Israel-based Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Torah programme. “I have a two-hour long commute to and from university each day and I was looking for a way to spend the time more productively when I discovered the yeshivah’s daily podcast,” he says.

“It’s of a very high standard and covers a diverse range of Jewish topics, from Maimonides to halachah. With the click of a button, the lecture is loaded on my MP3 player ready for the next day’s journey. It has changed the daily grind of commuting into a positive experience for me.”

For some, podcasts can be a way of keeping ahead of the game professionally. Zev Gruber, a presenter on a Sunday morning Orthodox Jewish radio programme on Sound Radio (1503 AM), regularly listens to the podcast put out by the American Jewish music distributor Sameach. “As a frum Jewish radio presenter, the Sameach podcast is a great way of getting a sense of what’s out there,” he explains. “I get a good idea of the latest styles and beats and it’s helpful for developing a background on the various Jewish artists.”

Although the technology for podcasting has been around since 2001, it’s only in the eight months since iTunes launched its podcast directory that the technology has really taken off. The Yeshivat Har Etzion programme, for example, is less than three months old.

The relative newness of the phenomenon goes some way to explaining why the British presence in the Jewish podcasting world is so minimal. Currently, the only show that originates in the UK is Kol Cambridge, a weekly Israeli music programme on Cambridge University Radio. Its presenter and director, final-year Oriental studies student Samuel Green, was quick to recognise the advantages of podcasting for a small-audience radio show and has seen his ratings snowball as a result.

“Thanks to the podcast, many international listeners are able to enjoy my show. I get feedback from Singapore, Brazil and France and the US,” he says. “I’d estimate that the ratio of podcast subscribers to live listeners is 75:25.”

Mr Green, who is known on-air as Antithesis the Jewish Rapper, hopes to continue podcasting Israeli music when he moves to London next year to take up the position of FZY mazkir. He is also toying with the idea of creating a youth movement podcast.

But in the meantime, other Jewish Brits are finally starting to exploit the potential of internet audio, thanks to the March launch of an online Jewish music store by Manchester businessman David Levine. His hopes to emulate the success of iTunes by allowing fans to download material by popular Jewish artists, both as complete albums and, in some cases, single tracks. Mr Levine came up with the idea after unsuccessfully searching for a download of the latest release from the US-based Orthodox singer Schwekey last summer.

“It struck me that the physical distribution of Jewish music outside of New York and Jerusalem is atrocious,” he says. “You can’t get hold of a new CD in the UK until several months after its release and piracy is rife as a result. The creation of essentially means that everyone with an internet connection will have immediate access to a dedicated Jewish music store.”

Mr Levine also has plans to get in on the podcasting act — he has signed the Orthodox Jewish singer Chanale to his store and hopes that she will shortly begin transmitting a monthly podcast via the website.

“Chanale is going to use the opportunity to muse about the Jewish music scene for women and will hopefully feature other female Jewish singers in a guest slot,” he says. But male music aficionados need not bother subscribing — a disclaimer that only female listeners are welcome will accompany the podcast.

Despite all the advances in the world of podcasting, the overall consensus of those in the broadcasting business seems to be that it will not spell the end for radio as we know it.

Samuel Green concludes: “Podcasts are really convenient because people don’t have to be around when their favourite show goes out on air — they can simply download them for later. But as much as podcasts are a lot of fun, traditional live format radio will, I believe, be here for a long time to come.”

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