A year ago, few Internet users had ever heard the word ``podcast,'' let alone listened to one.
Now Yahoo is making a bet the podcasting phenomenon has a mainstream future. The Sunnyvale company Monday unveiled a slick service that lets people easily find, review and automatically download any of the tens of thousands of radio-like audio shows that are fueling a wave of personal digital publishing.
With Yahoo's stature as the most-visited Web site, the new service will undoubtedly drive thousands of people to discover podcasts -- the audio files intended to be played on portable digital music players such as iPods.
The move also makes business sense for Yahoo since it makes the Web site a more attractive platform for personal publishing. And it might push users to Yahoo Music Engine, the company's new subscription music service.
``It certainly marks a major milestone in the adoption curve,'' said Michael Geoghegan, who produces a movie-review podcast called Reel Reviews.
Concocted by technologist Dave Winer and former MTV host Adam Curry, podcasting has seen phenomenal growth in the past year. Mainstream media outlets have joined thousands of amateur podcasters to produce shows about everything from politics to comedy to food to sex.
But while 28 percent of Internet users say they are aware of podcasting, according to a new Yahoo study, just 2 percent say they subscribe to them.
That's partly because Internet users have needed to be somewhat tech savvy to know where to find the podcasts and how to download them.
Apple Computer gave a big boost to the trend recently when it released new iTunes software that made it easy to find and download the audio shows.
``With Yahoo, their reach is so much greater,'' said Alex Williams, a media consultant who contributes to a blog about podcasting for online media company Corante. ``Now, it seems, it will start moving much faster into the mainstream.''
Yahoo's service, at http://podcasts.yahoo.com/, is free and still in testing mode. It provides a directory and search engine for tens of thousands of shows and more than 100,000 individual podcasts. Yahoo compiled the directory by crawling the Web and searching for special types of files. Publishers can also submit their podcasts to be included in the directory.
``When we talked to consumers about podcasting, if they had tried it, it was hard to do,'' said Joe Hayashi, director of product management at Yahoo. ``We thought we were in a position to help.''
When users find a podcast they like, they can set up a subscription that will automatically download the program to their computers and copy it to their digital media players. Or they can listen to it on the Web.
Yahoo's service is among several podcast directories that exist, including San Francisco-based Odeo and Podcast Alley, now owned by podcasting pioneer Curry and his company, PodShow.
So far, Yahoo does not allow people to record podcasts through its service. But that is coming, Hayashi said.
``We've focused on the end-user, making it easy to find podcasts,'' he said. ``We'd like to lower the bar for publishers.''
Among other things, Hayashi said Yahoo hoped to integrate the technology into ``Yahoo 360,'' a relatively new social networking service that allows people to build personalized Web sites. Hayashi said users may be inspired to create personal podcasts intended for small circles of friends, relatives or colleagues.
``I think there's been a lot of focus on one-to-many,'' he said. ``But there's a great opportunity in one-to-few, where the voice is more personal.''
Yahoo's move into podcasting dovetails with its interest in self-publishing. The company is making big bets that user-generated content is a wave of the future, and it's investing heavily in technologies that make it easy for people to publish to the Web.
``We're in a do-it-yourself mega-trend where people can do it themselves,'' Williams said. ``It's so much easier to write to the Web, talk to the Web and put images on the Web.''
In a similar vein, Yahoo on Monday also made one of the strongest statements yet about Web logs as a source of news. Blogs will now appear alongside mainstream news sources when people conduct searches on Yahoo's news site, the company said.
The blogs will appear in a box alongside the results from Yahoo's 6,500 traditional news sources. The blog results will be ranked according to their relevancy to the news. Yahoo will also display photos from its photo-sharing service Flickr if they are relevant.
``Now, we're saying there's a wider universe out there,'' said Joff Redfern, a Yahoo product director.