For those who fancy themselves an undiscovered Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern or Nancy Grace, just-launched interactive Web site TalkShoe.com could be their spotlight at the end of the tunnel.
The locally bred site offers live and recorded Internet conversations called "talkcasts" for anyone who has something to say on the topic of their choice -- sort of 24/7 talk radio for the online masses.
Have strong feelings about beer? Love President Bush but hate British Prime Minister Tony Blair? Ambivalent about Taylor Hicks, American Idol's latest champion? You can make your voice heard by hosting a talkcast, which can range from an invite-only chat with family or friends to a public forum open to anyone willing to dial-in via phone. "At the core, it's a conference call with a podcasting wrapper," said TalkShoe founder David Nelsen.
Mr. Nelsen and his team have been working on the venture since April 2005 and in recent months have been testing and tweaking it in their stark suite of offices in Pine, next door to his old firm, CoManage, which was sold last year to Canadian telecom firm Syndesis Ltd.
Mr. Nelsen lay low in the months following the sale last August, publicly denying he had another startup in the works. Then this spring, he donned the moniker "CEO Breadman" and began clandestinely posting on the Web his own podcast talk shows on winemaking and healthy bread baking for viewing over the Internet.
To further test TalkShoe, a handful of Pittsburgh talk show-host-wannabes were enlisted last month to give the service a try, including former KDKA newscaster Elizabeth Day and Steelers Brett Keisel and Max Starks, who hosted the "Steel City Wrap Up," chatting about Super Bowl rings, the upcoming football season and controversial teammate Joey Porter.
Ambitious talkcast hosts have the chance to develop a fan base by racking up good reviews from listeners -- and if they become popular enough, participants might even be asked to pay a fee to join in the conversation. For now, the site generates revenue from advertisers who post on it.
Users can subscribe for free to the TalkShoe site by registering at www.talkshoe.com, where they can type in their thoughts and, if they wish, simultaneously make their voices heard by dialing 724-444-7444. They also can receive notices of upcoming episodes on topics of their choice.
In the future, it's hoped that talkcast hosts will be able to post their pictures, have introductory music and link their talkcasts to their private home pages or blogs. And the TalkShoe team is working to allow users to join discussions directly from their computers and bypass the dial-in number.
It seems inevitable that Talkshoe's come-as-you-are, anything-goes, all-talk, all-the-time atmosphere could turn into an Internet circus, luring everyone from the exceptionally eccentric to zealots and the downright offensive.
All but the latter are welcome, Mr. Nelsen said, and TalkShoe has a rating system to ward off weirdos and keep children safe: "A'' for all audiences, "Ex" for explicit and "PC" for parental control.
Talkcasts are a twist in the telecommunications-centric career of Mr. Nelsen, an enthusiastic alumnus of Fore Systems, the high-flying 1990s tech firm that was gobbled up by Marconi and now is the local unit of Swedish telecom giant Ericsson.
Armed with a total of $1 million from his own pockets and that of a few private investors, Mr. Nelsen began quietly assembling a team last year largely composed of fellow Fore veterans, including Mark Juliano, for his fourth startup.
He also enlisted local partners such as North Pittsburgh Systems and Compunetix to support TalkShoe, whose name is a nod to legendary television host Ed Sullivan, whose pronunciation of "show" -- as in, "We have a really big show'' -- always sounded like "shoe."
Mr. Nelsen got the idea three years ago while drinking wine and reading a Wall Street Journal article on Ebay at a bar in California. "I got to wondering whether there was a similar way to connect people to share experiences expertise or entertainment," he said.
He's betting that TalkShoe's novelty will set it apart from the flood of trendy second-generation dot.coms popping up on the Internet's landscape that allow Web surfers to generate their own content and share it with others. None are exactly like TalkShoe's version of an online audio swap meet.
That's why Mr. Nelsen refused to publicly discuss the hush-hush project until recently -- fearing copycats or a rush to the TalkShoe site by anxious podcasters. TalkShoe eliminates the need for specialized podcasting software or a personal Web site to post the podcast, prompting industry watchers and seasoned podcasters who have tried out the service to give it favorable reviews.
Some have predicted that TalkShoe's user-friendliness could help expand Internet broadcasting beyond the tech-savvy 1 percent of American households Forrester Research said now creates or downloads podcasts that allow for viewing and hearing video and audio files. TalkShoe provides an instant audience to ambitious podcasters by allowing Web surfers to search for "talkcasts" in by subject.
It brings a voice to "regular people with passion," said local radio personality Ron Morris, host of "The American Entrepreneur" that airs on AM News Talk 1360. Mr. Morris plans to begin using TalkShoe to simulcast his Saturday morning radio show in mid-July.
It's a scenario that both thrills and daunts Mr. Nelsen, who said he is relying on the Web's viral word-of-mouth power to market TalkShoe rather than planning a splashy launch. Too much too soon could hinder TalkShoe's ability to deliver a "reliable and responsive service," Mr. Nelsen said. "I'm a long-term kind of guy."
Corilyn Shropshire can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 4120-263-1413.