Learning Podcasting

by Carolyn Wood

What is a Podcast?

A podcast, simply put, is an audio file posted on the web that is generally delivered to listeners via a subscription service, such as an RSS feed. RSS feeds alert subscribers when new files have been posted to a Web site, whether the files are new entries in a blog or new podcasts or videocasts. While audio files and even audio blogs aren’t new, the term “podcast” was first coined in 2004, blending the words “iPod” and “broadcast.” By 2005, the concept reached its tipping point: not only had thousands of podcasts been created, but The New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its official “Word of the Year.”

Podcasting rapidly moved beyond the realm of bloggers and small businesses to mainstream media/corporate sites. While podcasting’s name was originally associated with the iPod, listeners can use any computer with a sound card or any MP3 player to tune in. Podcasts on hundreds of topics can be downloaded at the listener’s convenience, and played back at the time and place of the listener’s choice. As Amy Gahran at Contentious says, “podcasting is like TiVo for radio.” Directories of podcasts abound, including iTunes, Podcast Alley, and podcasts.yahoo.com. Subscribe using the news feed reader of your choice, a news feed specifically for podcasts (like Juice), or an online reader (like Bloglines).

Podcast Creation Basics

Basic podcasts are easy to create. You’ll need a microphone (and preferably a headset, as well), some free or inexpensive software, and a location on the web for your finished file. Setting up an RSS feed is easy, as well. On the other hand, producing high-quality podcasts with compelling content that attracts loyal listeners requires a bit more knowledge, a lot more preparation, and an investment in some additional hardware. As with blogging, the tools are accessible to a wide range of people; the rewards, including audience size, however, will be commensurate with your talents, passion, discipline, study, marketing and timing.

The first step is to determine what your content will be, whether it’s music, an interview, a seminar or tutorial, entertainment, news, or a report on the laugh riot that is your life. Listening to a variety of programs by experienced podcasters is an invaluable introduction. Check out the blog article 10 Best Tech Podcasts of 2005 for some places to start.

Hardware can be as simple as the internal microphones found in some computers, though investing in even an inexpensive ($30 or $40) microphone can make a world of difference. Headphones are important, too, so you can hear your voice, and any background noises or distortions, as you record. To record and edit your podcast on a Mac or PC, most sources recommend starting with Audacity, a free, open source application.

Quick tutorials for getting up to speed with Audacity are listed in Resources at the end of this article. Some of these appear to use earlier versions of Audacity, which can now be used to record sound, not just edit. Several sources recommend making backups of recording sessions made with Audacity, as early versions, at least, were a bit crash-prone. If you want to include content from speakers in other locations (as in an interview), Virtual Audio Cable for the PC and Audio Hijack Pro for the Mac are able to capture sound from Skype conversations. As you gain experience, you may want to do heavier editing, have music fade in and out, and do more sophisticated processing of your files. Audacity can handle some of these tasks, and the books listed in Resources will provide details on other software if you decide to invest more.

For Mac users, the 2006 version of Garageband in iLife 06 Garageband 3 has expanded to make podcasting a snap, especially in combination with a .Mac Web site. Apple refers to it as a “podcasting authoring studio,” complete with royalty-free sound effects, jingles, and the use of iChat for conducting remote interviews.

Be sure to check Audacity’s online FAQ page for info on downloading LAME, which encodes Audacity’s files as MP3s, an essential step since raw audio files would be huge. This conversion to MP3 can also be done in iTunes, using the Import Preferences panel (see Start Your Own Podcast article in Resources section.) Podcasting Solutions, a book reviewed later in this article, takes you step by step through encoding your file, choosing bit rates and sample rates, and designating ID3 tags and artwork for your file, all in Audacity. ID3 tags make sure that media players and directories know the name of the podcast, your URL, and any other information that you want associated with your file. You’ll find other good tagging ID3 applications online.

Once your file is the quality you want and has been compressed to the MP3 format, be sure to save the master version of your file. Then you’ll need to put the MP3 on your website or blog. Keep in mind that podcasts are larger files than HTML pages. You may want to store your podcasts on sites, such as Liberated Syndication, that charge for storage space but not for bandwidth (meaning you aren’t charged for the amount of traffic you have).

Next, create an RSS feed for your podcast, so that listeners can easily subscribe. See the Resources section for some excellent introductory articles on RSS feeds. Most blogging software is set up to create RSS feeds for your podcasts, with “enclosures” that contain pertinent information that will be listed in the directories you use. You can also add this information using iTunes. Many people use Feedburner to create the RSS feed. You enter your blog’s url at www.feedburner.com. Once in, go to Additional Services, choose SmartCast, select Hide Details and “ping audio.weblogs.com.” Each time you add new podcasts to your blog, they will appear on the list of latest podcasts at audio.weblogs.com. Anywhere you list your podcast, the information you create at Feedburner will be included. You can also submit your podcast to other directories, as well as to iTunes.

A good combination of tools for people who are just starting out in the blogging world, as well as being podcast newbies, is to use Blogger and Feedburner, and store your podcasts at ourmedia. A tutorial at How to Podcast, listed in the resources below, takes you step by step through the process, even providing a video of how to add an RSS feed to your Blogger account. The site also has video tutorials on using Audacity.

One option if you want an audio version of your blog entries, rather than an actual podcast, is to use Feed2Podcast or Talkr. A robotic-sounding voice will read aloud the contents of your blog. It’s not my cup of tea, but perhaps some visitors to your site will find it useful.

Keep it Simple with Odeo and Audioblog

The free (for now) Odeo website is a great way to introduce yourself to podcasting, though experienced and well-known podcasters are listed there, as well. The set-up couldn’t be simpler, and unless you want to “roll your own” podcasts and link to them from Odeo, you won’t need any software to produce simple podcasts. Although you are limited to three minutes when recording at the Odeo site, short podcasts have many potential uses and it’s a good way to learn the art of podcasting. They are currently testing the creation of longer recordings. Sign in, and choose Record Audio from the Create section of the sidebar. The software asks for access to your microphone, and when you say yes, you are ready to roll. Hit Record and start speaking. Hit Stop when you are done. Click Play to hear what you just created. You’ve got the option to Clear Audio so that no one will ever hear your early, sad attempts at podcasting, or you can forge right ahead and choose Save Recording. If you’d prefer, back in the Create section you can choose to phone in your podcast, or connect to the URL of a podcast you’ve already recorded elsewhere. You can then create a channel for your podcast shows, with information on what they’re all about, choose tags for your channel, subscribe to other podcast series, and check out the top podcasts.

Finally, you can grab an Odeo badge for your site, if you’d like, by clicking on Channel in the Manage section, and finding the Promote link. Visitors just drag the badge into their RSS reader, and they’re all set to subscribe to your podcasts, or they can click on the badge on your site to directly tune into your channel. Odeo also sees their service as an ideal way to send private podcasts to one person or a group of people.

Of course, the quality of your show will still be hardware-dependent. With my $40 microphone, I had “plosive” p’s and other annoying distortions that a $20 pop filter would eliminate (just the sort of tip you’ll find in Podcasting Solutions, the book reviewed below). Using Odeo’s set-up for recording audio won’t allow you to do any editing or interviews with people at other locations, and you’ll need a high speed internet connection for quality recordings. However, Odeo has a bright, clean interface and efficient process that makes it a good place to get started and an inviting place to list your podcasts even if you record them on your own. For a sample, listen to a two and a half minute podcast I did using only Odeo’s services and a $40 microphone (the MicFlex from macmice).

Audioblog offers hosting and record-and-publish-to-RSS services, too. Although they offer a 7-day free trial, they require more information from you to sign up, including your credit card number, whereas Odeo justs asks for a name and password. You can upload files you’ve created in Audacity or Garageband, phone in your podcast, or record your podcast at Audioblog. $4.95 buys you 5 gigabytes of bandwidth each month, and it’s easy to set it up to automatically update your blog’s RSS feed, especially if you use Blogger, Typepad, Movable Type or Live Journal. You are limited to a generous 60 minutes for each podcast. The service isn’t nearly as intuitive to use as Odeo—I repeatedly found myself going in circles—but it does offer more. Podamatic is a similar site—if it interests you, check Podcast Free America (a blog dedicated to podcasting for non-techies) for a video tutorial on using podamatic.

Podcasts and Advertising

If you’re successful enough to have a regular audience, you may have the potential to earn money with your podcast. However, lining up advertisers for your podcast, and then incorporating their ads into your podcast can be a labor-intensive process. Services like Fruitcast offer to take care of the entire process for you. Fruitcast downloads your MP3 audio file, adds the advertisements, on the fly, to the beginning or end of your program, and then sends your podcast to your subscribers. You are paid each time a podcast episode is downloaded. Your RSS feed info (Atom feeds aren’t yet supported) will still be on your website or in directories but the actual podcast will be hosted at Fruitcast. You’ll then enter the Fruitcast-designated URL for your podcast at Feedburner and be ready for your listeners. As of February 2006 it’s still a bit early to tell how viable podcast advertising will be, but a few services like Fruitcast are starting up to take on the challenge.

Beyond the Basics

If you want to move up from very basic podcasts to something more professional, reading one of the podcasting books is probably your best bet. Podcasting Solutions: The Complete Guide to Podcasting was written by two experienced podcasters, Michael Geoghegan and Dan Klass. It is rich with the sort of practical tips and insider know-how that you’ll be hungry for after struggling through your first few podcasts. The authors introduce a number of technical concepts without overwhelming the novice or dumbing-down the subjects. This book is not padded with extraneous words or information. You’ll be able to zip through it quickly, yet finish with a firm grasp of both the technicalities and the art of podcasting.

Podcasting Solutions guides you through developing the concept for your podcast: establishing an identity, determining the best length, frequency of updates, and program structure. The authors run through legal considerations and tips for good vocal technique. Their chapter on Podcasting Tools discusses the pros and cons of all the types of hardware to consider, and then makes specific recommendations for each price/quality level, describing packages from “Just a Mic,” all the way up to “Portable Podcast Professional.” These complete packages containing the authors’ recommended hardware for each level of quality are available through BSW Professional Audio Gear, and include a copy of the book. The starter kit, which is one step up from “Just A Mic,” costs $249.00. The authors also cover software choices, and include a CD of trial versions. (The Resources section in this article also lists Podcast Factory, a complete kit for $180).

Later chapters in Podcasting Solutions take you step by step through setting up your hardware, using Audacity to record and edit your podcast, adding music, processing the sound for much higher quality, encoding and compressing to MP3, and creating tags and album art. The authors guide novices through setting up a site and RSS feed with Blogger and Feedburner, although they highly recommend Wordpress, which they use for their own podcasts. (See the Resources section for a new podcast plug-in for Wordpress blogs.) Finally the book addresses getting the word out about your podcast, and making money from your programs. One drawback to reading a book on podcasting is that things are moving so fast. New services, new software versions, and new shows are popping up at the speed of sound. But the discussion of concepts and technical concerns in Podcasting Solutions: The Complete Guide to Podcasting provides an excellent foundation for any further study and investigation that you do. Blogs, such as Podcast Free America listed in Resources below can keep you up-to-date on the latest developments. If you are looking for a book that makes technical subjects easy to understand, as well as providing the sort of tips that will enable you to make professional-quality podcasts, Podcasting Solutions is an excellent choice.


Books on Podcasting


Conferences, Communities, Magazines

Websites and Blogs

Articles/E-book on RSS

Articles on Podcasting

Software and Services