WHY MEETING PLANNERS NEED MP3 If you've heard of MP3, it's probably in the context of illegally downloaded pop music. An audio file compression technology, MP3 allows music (or other recorded audio information) to be reproduced with exceptional quality at a fraction of the file size of other audio formats. The files can be played on a personal computer, through a stereo system hooked up to a computer, or using a product such as the Diamond Rio, a small personal MP3 player.

While the music piracy issues are far from resolved, meeting planners are making note of the advantages to the MP3 format. Dr. Michael Wool, assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA and medical education director for the Academy of Continuing Education Programs (ACEP), is one convert. Wool began offering his conference proceedings in MP3 in November 1998. Now, "every program we do will be available at our Web site in MP3," he says of the training programs he creates on HIV strategies for health care professionals.

While ACEP still distributes CD-ROMs and audiotapes, Wool is sold on the future of MP3: Distribution is cheaper and practically instantaneous, even internationally; the files can be updated, archived, and are better for the environment--you don't need the CDs, CD packaging, tapes, and so on. Plus, he says, you can index the content: It's not a linear format like an audiotape; users can search for specific information. Other advantages: The Diamond Rio can hold up to six hours of conference materials, depending on how you encode the file (only one hour if you need CD quality), and since there are no moving parts in the player, it won't skip during a morning jog.

For a 24-city HIV training roadshow ACEP produced this spring in conjunction with Bristol Myers Squibb, Wool got Diamond Multimedia Systems, makers of the Rio, to donate 24 players, which he used as door prizes, one per city. "The interest level in MP3 was very high," says Wool, who offers links to Diamond on the ACEP Web site (www.aceponline.com).

It may be years before MP3 files are a mainstream option for distributing conference proceedings, but is mainstream what you're looking for? Quicker, cheaper, cutting edge: MP3 has a lot on its side right now.