Monday November 28, 2005
I just met my favourite podcaster. Larissa Vassilian, who broadcasts under the nom d’iPod Annik Rubens, makes two internet radio shows: the daily Schlaflos in MÃ¼nchen (Sleepless in Munich), an enchanting, five-minute recounting of moments in her life; and the weekly Filme und So (Movies and Stuff), a fast-paced, personable review of cinema, books, gadgets and more. Each is available free online and is downloaded regularly by 5-16,000 listeners, ranking them among Germany’s top 10 podcasts on Apple’s iTunes – and making Vassilian the undisputed Prinzessin von Podcasting.
You don’t need to comprehend so much as an umlaut to hear what makes her perfect for this new medium. Listen to her solo show (schlaflosinmuenchen.net) and you will agree that she accomplishes the apparently impossible: she makes German sound charming, even sexy. Really, she does. But more important, she manages to convey her personality with an authenticity that sets her apart from the all-the-same voices of broadcasting. Because she talks about her life and her views and responds to those of her audience, she establishes personal relationships with loyal subscribers (they even filled her 200th episode with their tributes). Let that be a lesson: humanity can be habit-forming.
I wanted to meet Vassilian to find out whether that voice was indeed authentic – it is – and to learn how she does it. In a Munich cafe, she told me she has loved radio since she was young. Instead of watching German TV, she escaped to her room and listened to the Voice of America because “it seemed wonderfully exotic”. As a result, she learned to speak flawless English and also how to make lively radio – how, in her words, to put laughter in her voice as she speaks into her microphone, imagining that she is simply talking to a friend on the phone. As a teenager, she worked part-time at a Munich radio station. Now, as a 29-year-old journalist, she can be, like any freelancer, chewed up and spat out by various German publications. And so she came to try podcasting.
This is a cautionary tale for media bosses: it’s hard for talent to rise and survive in your institutions. But on the internet, with her podcasts and her thousands of faithful fans, Vassilian has the freedom to be herself. Later, I asked her partner on Filme und So, Timo Hetzel, what he plans to do when he finishes his studies. “Podcast,” he replied, without hesitation. Beware: tomorrow’s stars are no longer necessarily interested in yesterday’s media.
There’s just one issue: making money. Vassilian continues to write (hence the two names), though given a chance, she’d make a living online. As with so much else in citizens’ media, marketers haven’t figured out how to join a world they can’t measure and insure like old, expensive media. Vassilian has met sponsors and they have batted around ideas, but haven’t made them happen.
So this is also a warning to advertisers: a new medium is building relationships with the holy grail of audiences – young influencers – and you’re nowhere near it because you want to play safe. The first significant podcasting sponsorship I’m aware of was just reported by Business Week’s Blogspotting.net: Emo Girl Talk, by 15-year-old Martina Butler, secured advertising from – uh-huh – an acne medicine. There should be a thousand stories like that, but there aren’t. And it’s not as if podcasters need much to be profitable: Vassilian spends $10 a month on internet hosting and has spent less than $100 on sound equipment. She uses free editing software. Her apartment is her studio.
So far, then, podcasting offers only fame, no fortune. And Vassilian is still uncomfortable with her demicelebrity. That is another reason for the second name, and why she has not put a picture of herself online, though that will change soon as Focus, the largest German news magazine, and German Playboy carry stories about her with (clothed) photos. In that cafe, I advised her that she is already a star and is creating the voice of this new medium, so she should continue to innovate. And she is. She is experimenting with video and hopes to podcast in English. Watch out: the future of media is springing up from the most unexpected places.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com