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hola! Perry Hall teacher uses Internet to give Spanish lessons virtually anywhere

The Baltimore Sun


David Spencer nearly busts a listener's eardrum in his enthusiasm to get the word out, to get started, to get moving. ?Vamonos! his recorded voice shouts - as in "Let's go!"

It's one of the Baltimore County Spanish teacher's stock phrases. But it's less known by his 140 students at Perry Hall High School than by the thousands of students worldwide listening to the language lessons he posts regularly over the Internet.

Since its debut in July, episodes of Spencer's free "Learn Spanish - Survival Guide" have been downloaded to home computers and portable listening devices, like the Apple iPod, nearly 1.7 million times. And they're consistently among the top 10 such broadcasts - known as podcasts - in the education section of iTunes, a free Web-based media player and podcast distribution center.

His fans say his podcasts stand out from the competition because they allow listeners plenty of time to repeat the Spanish words and phrases, focus on timely topics and, at 15 minutes long, are relatively brief.

Spencer will tell you the secret is in his training and his will. He's got 10 years of teaching Spanish under his belt, infectious energy, some creative self-promotion plans and a passion for both his subject and its medium.

"I want to corner the market on learning Spanish," Spencer declared from his home office in Baltimore County, where he creates new lessons every week or so, recording them in his basement and sending them out into the world via the Internet. But taking on the professional world of foreign language instruction from his basement has certain challenges and many competitors.

Still, as the public becomes more familiar with podcasts - often likened to Internet radio - entrepreneurs like Spencer are trying to find ways to make money from them. Companies have cropped up hoping to sell their podcasting services and some advertisers, including cable-channel HBO, have taken to sponsoring the projects.

But few have yet to bring in profits, and some have questioned whether they ever will.

"Podcasting is a tough way to make a buck," said Barry Parr, a media analyst with Jupiter Research in California.

Few people have ever heard a podcast and there's no way to track if they are listened to once downloaded, he said.

Recorded material

But Spencer's got faith. The upbeat father of two is in the process of building three businesses - with his two brothers - around the show and its medium, even though he has yet to turn a profit or bring in any revenue at all.

"People are starting to catch the podcast craze," said Spencer, 35. "I see this totally taking off."

Podcasting is essentially the audio (and increasingly video) version of blogging. But instead of publishing written works, podcasters post recorded material.

It started to gain popularity among hobbyists a few years ago, and has been drawing a professional presence ever since. But it still has a long way to go before it's considered mainstream.

Fivefold increase

According to a May report from industry researcher eMarketer Inc., about 10 million Americans have downloaded a podcast at some point in their lives, though just 3 million of them - or roughly 1 percent of the population - are regular downloaders.

Those numbers are expected to increase fivefold by 2011, however, along with the number of advertising dollars spent on podcasting.

Last year, about $80 million in sponsorship and ads were invested in podcasting. Four years from now, eMarketer expects that figure to balloon to $400 million.

Among the hottest areas of podcasting is education, and the offerings are diverse. Podcast fans can download grammar tips, business strategies and, yes, dozens of language lessons.

Learning new languages is a fast-growing industry, with more students than ever enrolled in such courses throughout the country. In all forms - tutoring, books, software and portable devices - language lessons make up a multibillion-dollar business, according to various estimates.

The often amateur podcast programs have to compete established mobile media courses from well-known companies whose credibility is assumed. With podcasting, however, there are no guarantees that the information is even correct.

Podcasts can also be hard to find, of poor quality, and they typically have little-to-no budget for promotion. But they do have several things going for them. They're usually free and tailor-made for portable MP3 players like the iPod, which is fast becoming a household item.

Survival guides

Spencer is hoping that growing interest in podcasting, combined with the booming learn-a-language market, will make him a hit - and possibly a fortune.

His podcasts are as described: survival guides, meaning just enough of the language to get by. He plans to sell audio advertisements that would run throughout the programs, available online at

He's also in the process of putting together a Web site - There, customers will be able to buy pens, calendars and personalized T-shirts as well as take advantage of various language-learning tools like Spanish flashcards.

And finally, he and his identical twin Mark Spencer - who also happens to teach middle schoolers Spanish and runs a podcast called "Leadership DNA" - are creating a company to market podcasts for other people, a skill they picked up promoting themselves on various Internet forums and message boards.

The catalyst for it all is big brother Chris Spencer.

He runs Wizzard Software Corp., an 11-year-old Pittsburgh-based company that manages three podcast advertising and publishing sites -, and

Wizzard's more than 8,000 podcasts, including brother David Spencer's and one produced by celebrity Hilary Duff, had a combined 80 million downloads in April.

That critical mass of podcasts helped the company land its first advertising customer, TD Bank Financial Group, headquartered in Toronto. Rather than just tie the ads to one podcast, Wizzard will run the bank's commercials on multiple programs that play in areas where TD has branches.

"Our goal in life is to make these podcasters money, because we'll take a little piece," Chris Spencer, 38, said during a telephone interview from his home in Florida. "We'll handle the business side for them, while they handle the creative."

A little more than a year ago, David Spencer didn't even know what a podcast was when his older brother suggested he develop one and publish it through Wizzard. Now David Spencer considers himself something of a pro, with the fans to prove it. He has received thank you e-mail from all over the world, he says, ticking off a list that includes England, Africa and Canada.

Students surprised

In Texas, high school art teacher Amy Semifero was looking for a way to better communicate with her Spanish-speaking students when she came across Spencer's show on the iTunes site. After a couple of listens, she was hooked and has the skills to prove it.

Her favorite story involves surprising a group of loitering teens by telling them - in Spanish - to get to class after one of the students said he didn't understand English.

"They were like ... 'She knows Spanish,'" Semifero said during a telephone interview, chuckling. "And I'm just dying of laughter, going 'Yes! Yes!' Finally I got to use it to my advantage."

New shows

David Spencer's podcasts cover topics including reading Spanish street signs, dating, making reservations and popular phrases.

And he's got big ideas for new shows focused on industry-specific terms to help English speakers communicate with Spanish-speaking colleagues.

"Hopefully, between the three ventures," Spencer said, "there will be at least something to supplement a teaching income."

An article in the Business section Sunday about podcasting incorrectly identified the Web sites for three advertising and publishing businesses run by Wizzard Software Corp. They are:, and
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