Pitt grads create podcast powerhouse with Wizzard

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Trace the history of an East End company that's quickly become a dominant force in podcasting, and you will find four guys tinkering in an Oakland dorm room in the late '90s.

And not at CMU, but at Pitt.

"We weren't the guys programming robots to do crazy stuff, but technology was always a big part of what we did," said Marty Mulligan, one of the brains behind Libsyn.

Launched in 2004, Libsyn was one of the first companies to offer cheap, fixed-rate online hosting for podcasts -- audio or video broadcasts that can be downloaded onto an iPod or enjoyed online.

Wizzard Software, a tech firm based in Bloomfield, snapped up Libsyn last year for $15 million in stock.

Wizzard boasts 3 million downloads a day, and last week, its shares began trading on the American Stock Exchange.

"If you asked me who has more power in the podcast space, Microsoft or Wizzard, I would say Wizzard," said Paul Colligan, co-author of "The Business Podcasting Bible" and host of several podcasts on new media.

Research firm eMarketer reports U.S. companies spent $165 million on podcast advertising and sponsoring last year, a figure it expects to triple in five years. Almost 19 million Americans downloaded a podcast last year, the report said.

Wizzard's growing roster of 8,500 shows includes the popular "Grammar Girl," as seen on "Oprah."

Wizzard's CEO, former WVU student and serial entrepreneur Chris Spencer, is focused on integrating ads into the programs the network hosts.

Spencer lives in south Florida, but the four guys from Pitt still are in town.

The most flamboyant, Dave Chekan, shows up to work in a trilby hat, black jeans and a pinstripe jacket over a Homestar Runner T-shirt. He credits Pittsburgh's "angstful vibe" for spurring the group's creativity.

"You get depressed because it's raining all the time so you go home and make noise in the basement. We kind of do the same thing, except with computers," Chekan said.

It started when theater student Dave Mansueto started hanging out with computer engineering students Chekan and Matt Hoopes, mostly because he coveted their song files and CD burner.

The trio started staging variety shows at a local coffee house. Mulligan joined the team, and Chekan sold his Transfomers collection on eBay so they could start a Web site for local bands and artists.

Chekan, Hoopes and Mulligan left Pittsburgh after college. But Mansueto, unemployed and living off insurance money after wrecking his car, called his friends to tell them about his new hobby -- podcasting.

The group launched Libsyn, and its $5-per-month base package won over early podcasters. Soon, Mansueto was alone in Pittsburgh no more.

"He laughed his (butt) off when everybody came back," Chekan said.

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