Dawn and Drew are podcasters - stars of an internet-based phenomenon which, in seven short months, has mushroomed at such a pace that some pundits are predicting a serious challenge to mainstream radio.

A podcast is a radio-style show that anyone with a microphone can make on a computer and post to a website.

Free receiving software allows people to pick podcasts from online directories, download them to any MP3 player such as an Apple iPod - hence the term podcast - and listen to them at their leisure.

Since podcasting technology became readily available in August last year, more than 4000 podcasts have sprung up around the globe, devoted to just about every imaginable topic from the teachings of Hare Krishna founder Swami Prabhupada to the extreme sport of kite surfing.

Aimless chatter

And then there are people like Dawn, 28, and Drew, 33, whose aimless and playfully obscene chatter revolves around such burning issues as cleaning their septic tank.

"It's fun thinking... we're talking to someone and they're listening to us all the way over in Lebanon or somewhere"

Dawn Miceli, podcaster

"It's fun thinking we're just two kids in this Wisconsin farmhouse and we're talking to someone and they're listening to us all the way over in Lebanon or somewhere," Dawn said.

The Dawn and Drew Show - recorded three times a week - is one of the top-rated US podcasts, attracting between 25,000 and 35,000 downloads per show, compared to just 50 downloads when it was launched in September last year.

"The content and style just developed organically," explained Dawn.

"It's how Drew and I talk to each other. We don't do any scripting or editing. We're not censoring ourselves. We're honest. So many people write and say they feel like they're in the living room with us."

As well as listeners in every US state, the show has loyal fans as far afield as Australia, Britain, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Freedom of expression

Podcasting's main attractions are low start-up costs - Drew and Dawn's total investment was a $20 microphone - and the total freedom to express any opinion about any subject in any style.

"I think it will grow and grow, because so many people can do it, and people love the idea of having a voice"

Chris McIntyre,
freelance graphic designer

"I think it will grow and grow, because so many people can do it, and people love the idea of having a voice," said Chris McIntyre, 26, a freelance graphic designer who runs the podcast directory and monitoring website, http://www.podcastalley.com/.

The website has been registering new podcasts at the rate of 30 or 40 a day, "from every country you can imagine", said McIntyre who says he has given up on traditional radio completely.

Audio weblogs

Podcasts are essentially audio weblogs and fans believe they could have the same impact on radio that the internet diaries have had on the mainstream media.

At a time of increased broadcast regulation in the United States, podcasts are not only free from any form of censorship but can address topics with the sort of niche interest ignored by commercial radio.

Music podcasts featuring extremely obscure bands are very common, as are those with religious themes - referred to by insiders as godcasts.

The commercial possibilities are still unclear, although some of the more popular shows have sponsors, and mainstream corporations such as the BBC, National Public Radio and even General Motors have started dabbling in the new technology.