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Apple's iTunes podcast directory has attracted more than 5 million subscriptions in less than a month since its launch, but some of the most popular of its 6,000 free audio programs may come as a surprise.
"Open Source Sex," in which host Violet Blue usually reads some erotica, gives advice, and maybe reviews a new adult film, shifted between No. 3 and No. 4 this week on the iTunes list of "Top Podcasts" on its main page. The homemade show looks a little out of place next to names like Ebert and Roeper, ESPN Radio, and Apple's own iTunes New Music Tuesday, which tops the list.
"When people hear the word sex, they automatically think porn," Blue, who has also written seven books on sex and sexuality, says about her show. "I think most porn is offensive and what I do is not porn. I talk about sex and sexuality in a grown-up way."
Blue's program is not the only one; there are plenty more like it. In its sexuality subcategory, iTunes lists 26 shows, like "Fetish Flame," "HIV/AIDS Radio," and "Sex Talk." A little more than half, including "Open Source Sex," are tagged as explicit.
This podcast phenomenon of hosts describing their sexual encounters, reviewing porn movies, or "taking their kink out of the closet" -- sometimes all in the same show -- is not unique to Apple. On another site, podcast.net, the most popular search term is "porn," and the word "porncast" has already entered techie lexicon. Still, how will Apple, the feel-good company that gave the world neon-hued iMacs and hip iPods, preserve its wholesome brand while distributing radio shows like "SexGeeks," "TrannyCast," and "Whorecast?"
"Apple is distributing content and that makes it a media outlet," says Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler, who believes the company needs to begin imposing editorial control. "They have some minimal level of filtering, but they're going to have to do a lot more than that."
Among his to-do list: better search capability, which now is restricted to show titles, and actual editors to screen podcast material and label it accurately. "They have to create editorial policies that support the brand," Schadler says.
Apple may now be a media outlet, but federal restrictions do not apply to podcasts because they are not a broadcast medium. The shows are recorded and then posted on directory sites, where listeners of any age can download individual programs and subscribe, for free, to RSS feeds that automatically deliver new episodes of a program whenever they are made available.
Apple did not return calls for comment. Chief executive Steve Jobs, in an interview last month with ABCNews.com, said the iTunes podcast directory would not allow pornography. It does label some content explicit, as it does with music, and some podcasts come with a "Report a Concern" icon. Some podcasts have been removed from iTunes, but there doesn't appear to be a consistent policy on racy material.
As for the actual content of shows like "Open Source Sex," host Blue insists it's not what you're thinking.
"There's a difference between lame porn that's exploitative and healthy human sexuality, " Blue says. "People think there's got to be this crazy sex fest."
Blue says she has never received a complaint about her show, which has attracted 380,000 downloads, about one-fifth of those from iTunes, to which she attributes possibly as many as a quarter of a million hits to her Web site.
For all her iTunes popularity, though, it almost didn't happen. A few days after the June 28 launch of iTunes 4.9, the latest version of its digital music software and online music store that includes the podcast directory, Apple yanked "Open Source Sex" temporarily before restoring it. Other shows with sexual content, including "MXL," "Rubber Canada," and "Gay Sexcapades," have not been so lucky.
Apple removed those programs without explanation. Blue says the company has never communicated with her or any of the other hosts. "I get the sense that Apple didn't exactly know what it was putting up," she says. "There's no reasoning behind what it's doing with adult podcasts."
A case in point, she says, is the explicit content in the iTunes music store. "I've downloaded some rap that's way more nasty and offensive than anything I've heard on any podcast," she says. "It's got the explicit label on it. It only cost me 99 cents. It seems like Apple thinks they should legislate morality."
The host of "Gay Sexcapades," who wished to remain anonymous, isn't bothered that iTunes dropped his show. "I was amazed I was listed the first time around," he says, because of the "graphic" details. But he does wish Apple was more consistent in choosing content.
"There are some shows listed today that are just as explicit as mine," he says, naming "Fox and the City," which iTunes describes as "home of the Hacidic [sic] Jew Gay Cast" and "Trannie Fear Factor," both sketches recorded by Ragan Fox, "a queer performance poet and artist."