Few buzzwords surrounding Internet technologies have moved into the mainstream more quickly than "podcasting," but because of this speed and an only tangentially related name, few consumer-level technologies have engendered more confusion. So what is podcasting?
Quite simply, podcasting is creating an audio file (traditionally in MP3 format, though other formats can be used as well) and making it available online for other people to listen to. If that were all there was to it, you would probably say "So what? That capability has been around for years!" and you would be correct. What’s different now is that there are simple ways to subscribe to specific shows and have the audio files automatically downloaded to your computer and placed into your MP3 software – likely iTunes on the Mac – and, thus, if you wish onto your MP3 player – probably an iPod – without any effort. Simplifying and automating that task has made all the difference.
Right off the bat, I want to clear up one common misconception about podcasting: it has essentially nothing to do with the iPod, and you do not need an iPod to listen to podcasts. If another MP3 player was the cool toy everyone had to have, podcasting would have been given a different name.
But look how far podcasting has come in a short time! Since this summer when there were only a handful of people putting their audio files online for others to hear, thousands more have taken to the virtual airwaves and begun producing their own shows. "Podcasting" was coined in September 2004 as a term, and by December it had already gotten mention in major newspaper and news magazines. I can’t remember ever seeing a new technology go from grass roots to appearances in the legacy media that quickly.
Already there are over a thousand different people (no one really knows exactly how many) producing their own shows. Topics, when they exist at all, run the gamut from music to food to movie reviews to podcasting itself. Many are simply audio versions of weblogs where the content may only be interesting to a small circle of friends (and sometimes even that’s a generous characterization).
Some people have criticized podcasts on the grounds that it is far easier and quicker to read a Web page and scan or search for information than it is to download a huge audio file and listen to it to get what the creator is trying to say. That’s true, but it misses the point entirely – podcasting is to weblogs what radio is to newspapers. Podcasting represents a new form of broadcast media. You can think of it as an audio weblog, but podcasts can transcend that description. Perhaps a better analogy is with legalized pirate radio where everyone can have their own station and show.
Here are some samples of content which would simply not be as interesting (or, in some cases, even possible) in a text-only medium:
Adam Curry has been routinely playing music from a band called The Lascivious Biddies and has, as a result, gotten them not only a great increase in CD sales via their Web site, but even an interview on CBS News.
I first heard excerpts of Wil Wheaton’s books "Just a Geek" and "Dancing Barefoot" in a podcast put out by IT Conversations from a reading Wheaton did at Gnomedex 4 in late 2004. I immediately went out and bought the books.
Coverville plays only covers of songs in its thrice-weekly show (the music is fully licensed, so it’s legal!) and puts together some of the most interesting and strange mixes ever heard.
Mur Lafferty has been reading some of her essays (published and unpublished). While these are certainly something I could read in text only, there’s something compelling about hearing an author read her own works out loud.
I ran a series of interviews with singer/songwriter Robert Burke Warren throughout January on my Podcrumbs show. He talks, plays songs, and his mother (who was in the room with us) adds wonderful color to the conversation.
Interestingly enough, the vast majority of my use of iTunes and my iPod are listening to various podcasts. I’m watching less TV and I never listen to the radio (in fact, the few times I do, aside from NPR, is usually painful). I enjoy the fact that I am finally able to listen and enjoy content which was not produced by the giant corporate monoculture, but by regular people.
Podcasting History — The various technical pieces that make podcasting possible have been around for a long time. But the synergy that led to the explosion of podcasting began toward the end of 2000 when Dave Winer and Adam Curry met in New York City. Dave is the creator of the venerable outliner MORE, UserLand Frontier, the weblog system Radio UserLand, and the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) standard which is so critical to weblogs and, increasingly, news sites around the world. Adam is a former MTV VJ and founder of OnRamp, a New York City ISP from the early 1990’s. Adam wanted to move large files around (at the time he was thinking about video) and Dave didn’t see how it would work. Downloading large files was always a pain and rarely yielded worthwhile results. Often you’d spend ages downloading a tiny postage-stamp sized video which took less time to play than download.
But Adam had a brilliant idea: look at the speed of your network connection and how much time that connection is sitting idle (when you are away from your computer, doing tasks that don’t use it, etc.) You could download vast amounts of data during that idle time. Dave was sold on the idea and since he was working on RSS 2.0 at the time, he added the concept of an "enclosure," which would simply be a URL to a binary file such as a video file. In this way, programs that supported enclosures would automatically pick up any new enclosures uploaded to a Web site as part of a weblog entry and download them in the background, at night or whenever the user told the software to retrieve enclosures.
And thus, some years ago, everything that was needed for podcasting was in place. You could create the content, make it available for others to subscribe, and it could be downloaded while you were otherwise idle. So, why did podcasting take so long to catch on?
Before 2004, there simply was no critical mass in terms of people. Not enough people owned MP3 players, read weblogs, or had the motivation to create audio content.
In terms of content, Dave Winer himself was one of the first people to use podcasting. He began recording what he now calls "Morning Coffee Notes." He also worked with Christopher Lydon, formerly the host of WBUR’s "The Connection" in Boston, who began recording interviews and making them available in this way as well. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Dave walked around making audio posts from the convention and publishing them on his site. There was starting to be enough content to catch people’s attention. In addition, by this time, the blogging community had not had any major technology innovation in over three years. As Dave put it, "You’re looking at a community that’s hungry for some new ideas."
But one final piece of the puzzle was missing: It was still annoying to move the downloaded audio files onto an MP3 player manually so you could listen to them in the car, on the train to work, or while exercising, which are times when radio is traditionally popular. Adam Curry then wrote and released an AppleScript script called iPodder that simply went through the RSS feeds for a list of sites, looked for enclosures it hadn’t already seen, downloaded them, and moved them into iTunes (and therefore, his iPod). With that last problem solved, it became obvious that not only was it easy to distribute any content you created, but an audience could now find and listen to your work easily. The floodgates opened.
One of the interesting side notes to this story is the fact that without planning it, Dave and Adam reversed their roles. Dave says, "Adam is a radio professional and I’m a software professional, and by this point in time my major contribution to this was the radio side of it and his major contribution was the software side of it." Dave believes it was this very reversal that made podcasting possible. Adam didn’t know the rules of software design and thus could break them, and Dave did not know the rules of radio and could break them as well. This ignorance of the "rules" led to the critical breakthroughs which may not have happened had they not switched places.
(Note: The quotes from Dave Winer come from an interview with Dave via Skype from January 2005. The interview is about 20 minutes long and contains a wealth of interesting historical background on podcasting. It is available in its entirety as a podcast at my Podcrumbs site.)
Listening to Podcasts — A number of different Macintosh programs enable you to subscribe to podcasts and copy subscribed show content into iTunes, where you can listen to them on your Mac or later send them to your iPod.
First, there are the programs that are designed solely for podcasts: iPodder (free), iPodderX Lite (free), iPodderX ($20), PlayPod (free), PoddumFeeder ($5). These tools all help you subscribe to specified RSS feeds and copy to iTunes any and all MP3 files they find during periodic scans.
Next, there are more traditional RSS readers which have added the capability to manage podcasts on top of everything else they already do. As far as I know, only NetNewsWire Pro 2.0’s public beta and PulpFiction have added support for podcasting, but it’s only a matter of time before podcasting support becomes commonplace.
Finally, several programs for managing iPods directly (especially in terms of copying notes, calendar items, contacts, news and more to the iPod) have added support for RSS enclosures. These include Pod2Go ($12), and YamiPod (free).
Personally, I use a combination of iPodderX and NetNewsWire Pro. iPodderX manages the podcasts where I want to listen to every single episode as it comes. Then I use NetNewsWire Pro – which I also use for all my other RSS feed reading – for feeds where I listen only to occasional episodes. NetNewsWire Pro makes it easy to pick and choose, thanks to a convenient button that downloads an enclosure and moves it into iTunes automatically. It gives me an opt-in approach to individual episodes.
My advice? Try all the various tools and see what you like. There’s no way to predict which tool will fit your desired approach to podcast content.
Once you have one of the tools above installed, you can point it to any number of sites out there to find podcasts. Each come with some suggested feeds and iPodder and iPodderX both also offer integrated directories from which you can subscribe to podcasts. Outside of these, the iPodder and iPodderX Web sites both provide their directories online where you can find podcasts to sample.
It’s customary for people producing podcasts to announce them via a specific Web site, audio.weblogs.com. At any given time, the 100 most recently posted podcasts are listed there, making it another excellent way to sample new podcasts.
Lastly, if you don’t want to mess with any of the software above and just want to sample podcasts right in your browser, you can do that, too. All of the podcasts are presented as simple links on their Web sites (and on audio.weblogs.com) as clickable MP3 files which Safari will play for you right in the browser.
Signing Off — It will be interesting to see where podcasting goes. From one standpoint, it truly is the people’s radio: a chance for every person who wishes to have his or her own show without needing a radio station or being bound by FCC regulation. A.J. Liebling famously said, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." The advent of individuals being able to publish on the Web meant that everyone could own a printing press; with podcasting, now everyone can have a radio show. Video is undoubtedly not far behind.
From another standpoint, podcasting reveals a new marketplace just opening up. Who knows how and when (or in many cases, if) people will start to make real money from podcasts? But it’s certain that some people will. And who knows what will happen when the media moguls become aware of the successes in podcasting? Will they try to stop it or co-opt it? Is there any chance they could succeed at either? If the past performance of the Internet is any indication, I doubt it. But that’s all speculation, and as with Internet publications, and then with weblogs, it’s likely that podcasting will have a very few commercial successes, many failures, and will in the process contribute a vast quantity of original content of widely varying quality to the Internet-connected world at large.
For now, I’m just enjoying hearing all of the different voices in all their wonderful cacophony.
[Andy J. Williams Affleck is a project manager for a U.S. federal government contractor and an expert in usable accessibility in Web design. He’s long been fascinated by any tool to allow the individual to communicate to others, be it newsletters, email, weblogs, podcasting, or whatever comes next.]
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