Christopher’s Savvy Guide to Podcasting – Part One: Introduction

ARTICLE: INTRODUCTION — Podcasting is only the latest social and economic trend to be born on the Internet, which over the past decade has brought online shopping, auctions, dating, movie rentals, and blogs to individuals and businesses who need nothing more than a PC (personal computer) and a phone line to get access to this more-and-more interconnected global village.

Want to create a Podcast? This series of articles will walk you through the process. What do you need? In reality, all you will need to create your own show is a PC, an Internet connection, a microphone, and this article series or comparable book (and, naturally, something to say).

This series is written for both the savvy business person who wants to explore ways to add Podcasting to a marketing or customer support program, and for anybody who is interested in understanding not only what a Podcast is, but how to create, enable, and even market one to an audience. For musicians, this guide will help showcase some interesting “quick start” options available online today through social networks and music posting sites, that can help side-step the learning curve of yet another software application — using instead a simple web browser and file upload and click-point procedures.

blue snowballIf you’re a Gen-Y, or Gen-Z, you can even print this out and give it to your parents so they have a clue what you’re up to in your bedroom, spending so much time online while wearing a headset mic and brandishing a “Quiet – I’m recording” sign on your bedroom door (an eBook will be available will all the series parts, for easy reading/printing).

What is Podcasting?
What is Podcasting? In the simplest possible terms it is a way to put audio or video content onto the Web, and through a subscription mechanism called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), provide a way for interested parties to find, subscribe to, retrieve, and listen to or view such content on a PC or portable media device (like Apple’s iPod, Sony’s PSP, and multimedia telephones than can play MP3 files).

But, in a very real sense, Podcasting is actually a misnomer. While the advent of what we call Podcasting, a combination of the words iPod and broadcasting, was inspired by folks who wanted to generate and listen to audio programming on Apple’s iPod media player, you don’t actually need an iPod, or even any portable device to enjoy a Podcast program — all you need is a PC and some software, sometimes called a “Podcatcher,” which allow you to subscribe to a particular program and listen to or view it.

A Podcast can really be any type of programming. A talk show, audio blog (Web + personal log = Blog), newscast, a music performance, or any combination of these things. A Podcast is not “live” as with AM/FM radio, or the nightly TV news, and is really more akin to “on demand” programming you might find with your modern Cable TV company.

podcatcher devices
Modern portable media devices that can play Podcasts include Apple’s iPod, Sony’s PSP, and Web-enabled mobile phones (L-R). Image is courtesy and © Christopher Simmons.

Podcasts can be almost any audio or video file format. For audio, content will most often be MP3 (technically MPEG-2 Layer3) audio file. For video: either H.264 video or MPEG-4 format video, which are compatible with video-capable iPods and Sony’s PSP (the helpful glossary provided as part three of this series can help you sort out some of this tech jargon, but I’ll provide short explanations where appropriate to keep your mouse button finger from getting chaffed zipping back and forth).

If you are a TiVo user, you’ll understand the concept of subscribing to a Podcast immediately, since it’s almost identical to a “season pass” for a TV series, except you’re using PC software to set-up your “subscription” to the Podcast. Since TiVo has announced support for moving video content to iPods, it’s likely by the time you read this that you will be able to subscribe to Podcasts with the TiVo ToGo service if your TiVo has a Cable Broadband connection.

If you already have an iPod, and/or have Apple’s iTunes software on your PC, then you have a Podcatcher, and may already have explored Podcast programs by clicking the Music Store link in your library menu, then the Podcasts link from the “Inside the Music Store” menu. If not, the next edition of this article series will explain what “Podcatching” is and how to get started in exploring the world of Podcasts.

What makes this series different from others is the overall view of creating a program, and helping to get you past the tricky bits, including the pitfalls of actually hosting your Podcast on the Web, and “getting the word out” about your show. I call it a “savvy” guide to Podcasting, because once you finish reading it you will be “more savvy than the average bear” (with a nod to Yogi Bear) on everything related to Podcasting!

A Blip or a Movement?
While I was writing this series during a period that starting in late 2005, and much of 2006, a number of Wall Street and venture capital types began to weigh in on Podcasting as a blip in the business and entertainment culture, versus a true movement of change. I, and many others who have been at the forefront of past technology shifts, strongly disagree with this view. I remember being on the launch team of an e-commerce Web site in 1995 and then going to business seminars in 1996 where various business and financial opinion leaders were stating emphatically that online shopping would not take off, and cited the example that women preferred to lay on the couch and dog-ear pages in fashion catalogs — which could not be done online. Ten years later, I think that notion has clearly been disproved. (Many online sellers did add “wish lists” to their stores which is a definite response to the dog-eared page crowd.)

Podcasting is not simply a label for yet another marketing buzz concept, but the first step in a different kind of social movement for creating and sharing ideas and content, and making it easier for people to find the content without relying on branded search portals like Yahoo! or Google, or an entertainment empire like Time-Warner or Disney, to control who sees what and how.

Certainly some are using Podcasting as a way to troll for money to start new ventures, which may or may not be viable business models, but entrepreneurs looking to spend other people’s money on a business gamble is nothing new, and this is not the core of the Podcasting movement.

Because the RSS mechanism that makes Podcasting work can be used in so many different ways, virtually anybody can set-up their own directory, and even create “re-casts” of content from favorite sources. This is so far outside the established mechanisms of TV, Cable, or print subscription models, that it’s too soon to even speculate on how far this will go, except to say that there are now millions of folks who are expressing themselves and getting their message in front of the exact same audience that normally would only see something from a major corporate conglomerate — this is both freedom and power for “the little guy” (and girl).

Because video is now cheap and easy to make, even with some cell phones, the video blogger is spreading “vlogs” of their ideas, music, and extemporary thoughts, onto social networking sites like YouTube.com and MySpace.com, and mini-celebrities are being made every day. The distinction between a video blog (or “vlog”) and a video Podcast is subtle, but technically both use RSS feeds to help people to subscribe to recurring content from the same place. Video which doesn’t include an RSS feed would simply be a video, and neither a vlog nor a video Podcast.

Podcasts are really “food” for portable devices like the iPod, just like a DVD is food for a DVD player.

As I write this introduction, Apple has sold well over 60 million iPods worldwide and will likely surpass 100 million in early 2007 (the U.S. has about 300 million citizens). That’s no “blip” by any sane measurement.

To further illustrate the popularity of the iPod, one need only look at online auction sites like eBay.com, where in any given week, the iPod was in the top ten most searched for terms; in fact, during the week surrounding Mother’s Day 2006, the #1 most searched for item on eBay was for used iPods.

There is no age range or social class that defines the Podcasting culture, either on the producer or listener side, and that is what makes it such a compelling social change.

Who is Creating Podcasts?
As you might expect, those folks with an expertise in some area are doing Podcasts about what they know; whether it’s tending to a sick pet, or how to custom build a “Gamer” PC. Others are creating interview programs with industry experts and celebrities, much like a radio talk show. Museums are adding Podcasts for walking tours, and at some museums you can even buy the iPod on your way out of the building.

Still others are creating audio diaries for world travel tours or other adventures using phone-in free hosting services like Podomatic.com. And, as you might expect, commercial interests like traditional radio and TV broadcasters have joined in with their own original and repackaged content.

On my own Podcast, I interview unusual people doing interesting things, whether it’s writing a book about pop culture, or being a counter-culture champion (see: ChristopherSimmons.com, which is being rebuilt as I write this, so depending on when you read this it may be a dull page or a flashy one – relaunch ETA is Spring 2007. You can find one version of the show in the site where you’re reading this article, here: www.musicindustrynewswire.com/podcast/ ).

To give you an idea of how widespread this movement has become, in the first 60 days of Apple adding Podcast support to the iTunes Music Store in August 2005, over 15,000 programs had been added to their Podcast Directory. A year later, the numbers had tripled. For example: 2,600 Business Podcasts, 3,300 Comedy Podcasts, 7,700 Entertainment Podcasts, 7,200 Music Podcasts, 3,000 News Podcasts, 3,900 Talk Radio Podcasts — and this is just a tiny sampling of the programming available.

During the past year and a half some “home brewed” Podcasts have even broken into the mainstream, and have acquired advertiser support from corporate America. Others have become so popular that they have moved from being “free” (as most Podcasts are), to being offered to paid subscribers only. Other entrepreneurs are creating subscription fee-based video Podcasts for education and teaching purposes, and replacing the old-school (pun intended) CD-ROM delivery model for on-the-go e-learning.

Some quick examples of notable Podcasts:

    * “Five Minutes with Wichita” — hosted by amateur bluegrass musician Wichita Rutherford, features interviews with Nashville performers (created with a Mac notebook, two microphones, and an online Podcast hosting account). Between March and November of 2005, his audience grew to 200,000 regular listeners (www.5minuteswithwichita.com).

    * “MommyCast” — features two mothers from Virginia, Gretchen Vogelzang and Paige Heninger, talking about child rearing topics for 20 minutes per episode. This program gained some notoriety in late 2005 for acquiring a corporate sponsor, the Dixie Company (makers of Dixie cups) — one of the first privately produced Podcasts to acquire major sponsorship. The MommyCast site had 200,000 downloads per month at the end of 2005. In 2006, they added a MommyCast Music Show (www.mommycast.com).

    * “This Week in Tech (TWiT)” — is a Podcast from the former hosts of TechTV’s “The Screen Savers,” Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton, along with Kevin Rose. The Screen Savers, which was arguably the best ever program on cable TV for people who wanted to know things like how to “overclock” a PC, or change the system registry of Microsoft Windows, was sorely missed by many when G4 took over TechTV and retired the show. TWiT brings back all the good things about their show, and is one of the most popular “techie” Podcasts out there (www.thisweekintech.com).

    * “The Ricky Gervais Show” — is one of the most popular celebrity-fronted Podcasts, hosted by actor Ricky Gervais (of “The Office”). This show became so popular in February of 2006 (the #4 most downloaded Podcast on iTunes), that it moved from the free space of most Podcasts, and became a “paid subscription only” program powered by the Audible network. The second season of the show was offered at $1.95 per episode, or $6.95 for the entire season.

    * National Public Radio — Daily and weekly Podcasts from NPR and member stations (www.npr.org). I particularly enjoy “World Cafe” from WXPN in Philadelphia, hosted by David Dye, that combines new music with interviews and often features guests as diverse as David Bowie and Yo Yo Ma.

These examples illustrate that the fundamental “success” of a Podcast is the same as with any entertainment medium: content that comes from the heart, as well as developing and sustaining an audience. For an instant look at many diverse kinds of Podcasts being created by people around the world, visit Podomatic.com.

Using this Series
This series is organized, and may be approached, in several ways. If your interest is in learning how to create a Podcast, then you can explore the series chapters on creating content, and getting a program onto the Web (chapters will be posted every other week starting March 2007). If you already have a program and want to get an audience for your Podcast, then this series will help you there, too, with how-to help on advertising and promotion. If you’re a marketing VP or work for an agency in the advertising or entertainment fields, this article series may help enlighten you on the whole process to better explain to clients or to prepare an internal company proposal for launching a Podcast.

The “chapters” have been organized based on the path one might take in first formulating and developing an idea for a Podcast, to choosing how to create a program, to optimizing and encoding for the Web, creating the feed file, and publishing on the Internet (note that “Web” and “Internet” are used interchangeably in this series), to promoting a program, to measuring who your audience is.

Also, throughout this series we will consider PC to mean “personal computer” and not a Microsoft Windows-based computer.


Coming up next:
* What is Podcasting
* Podcatching 101
* The Difference Between Internet Radio and Podcasts
* Where Did Podcasting Come From?

Continued in the next part:
CHAPTER ONE: The Basics (click to continue)

Copr. © 2005-2007 Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved. This article series, including text and images, charts, and glossary, is protected under U.S. and international copyright law – unauthorized reproduction or republication, online or offline, in whole or part without express written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Blue Microphones graciously provided a review unit of their wonderful Snowball USB microphone (“mic”) which has been used during the creation of this article series.