Feb 29, 2008

Podcast: Audio Production Tools

Audio gear looks really cool and has lots of flashing lights and plenty of meters; the current trend of making audio gear look slightly retro adds to the effect. Audio gear is also relatively cheap. Although you can easily spend thousands of dollars on audio gear, you can get great audio quality out of budget home recording equipment, which has vastly improved in the last ten years. And most importantly, quality audio gear immediately improves the quality of your podcast.

Most podcasts are produced from the podcaster's home or office, so lets talks about the tools required for a basic podcasting studio. Some folks grab interviews on the go, so a section of this post is dedicated to portable recording. Many podcasts include remote guests who call in on either a traditional phone line or an online phone service such as Skype, so telephone tools are covered in detail.

In any recording situation, the environment is important to the final quality, so this covers things you can do to improve your recording environment. Finally, some suggested combinations of equipment are listed, so that you can make a shopping list for your audio gear.

Using Basic Production Tools
Many multimedia computers ship with microphones, speakers, and soundcards, but in general the quality of these bundled tools is not very high. That doesn't mean that you can't produce a podcast with whatever tools you have on hand. But if you want to produce to a high standard, you should invest accordingly. Your podcast quality is limited by the quality of your audio signal chain, and that starts with your microphone.

The quality of your podcast, to a large extent, is dependent on the quality of your microphone. If you use a cheap plastic mic, your podcast sounds cheap and, well, plastic. Spend a hundred bucks, and you can compete with the best of them. But before you pull out your credit card, learn a little bit about how microphones work and which type of microphone is best for you.

Pickup patterns
Microphones have different pickup patterns, or directional response. Omnidirectional mics pick up sound from all directions equally. Directional mics pick up sound predominantly from a particular direction, and reject sound from other directions. Most mics are directional, with a particular pickup pattern. These are the most common pickup patterns:

Cardioid: Cardioid mics pick up predominantly what is in front of them, less of what is to the sides, and very little of what is behind them. The name derives from the heartshaped pickup pattern.

Supercardioid (or hypercardioid): These microphones exhibit an exaggerated cardioid pattern, with more rejection of sound from the sides and rear. Hypercardioid mics are commonly referred to as shotgun mics.

Figure 8 (bi-directional): Figure 8 mics pick up sound from the front and rear, but not from the sides.

Common microphone pickup patterns. Cardioid mics (left) are mostly sensitive to the front, with some sensitivity on the sides and very little to the rear. Supercardioid mics (center) are less sensitive to the sides than standard cardioid mics, but also have some sensitivity to the rear. Figure-8 microphones (right) are sensitive along a given axis and much less sensitive off-axis.

As you can see in figure above, mics have different pickup patterns, and more importantly, have a front and a back! It's pretty obvious which end you speak into with handheld mics, but it may not be so obvious with some higher-quality mics. For example, some mics have a switch to determine the pickup pattern. If you switch from a figure-8 to a cardioid, which side is the correct side to speak into? In most cases, the manufacturers put their logo on the "front" of the mic. If you're not sure, you can always try speaking into both sides of the mic. When it's set to cardioid, one side sounds much louder and brighter than the other side.

In most cases, a directional mic with some type of cardioid pickup pattern is the best choice. These mics can easily be pointed at the talent, and by design won't pick up much else. The one exception is with clip-on (or lavalier) mics. If you decide that clip-on mics are going to work best for your needs, you should buy omni versions. Even though they're omnidirectional, they really don't pick up anything other than who they're attached to. The advantage of the omnidirectinal pickup pattern is apparent when the person turns his head from side to side. With directional mics, this leads to a dramatic drop off in signal level. With an omnidirectional mic, the drop off is far less apparent.

Dynamic versus condenser mics
Most microphones fall into two basic categories, dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. Dynamic microphones have a diaphragm that is attached to a coil of wire, known as the voice coil. The voice coil is suspended between magnets. When the diaphragm vibrates in response to incoming sound, the magnets create a very small oscillating current in the voice coil by a process known as electromagnetic induction. This current is an electrical representation of the sound wave.

The diaphragms in condenser microphones consist of two plates coated with a conductive material such as gold. A voltage, known as phantom power, is placed across the plates to form a capacitor. (Historically, capacitors were called condensers, hence the name condenser mic.) When incoming sound causes the plates to vibrate, the distance between them varies, which varies the capacitance. This variation in capacitance is converted into an oscillating current, which is an electrical representation of the sound wave.

Condenser mics are much more sensitive than dynamic mics. This translates to higher frequency response and lower noise. However, the sensitivity comes at a price: Condenser mics are very sensitive to handling noise, and therefore cannot be held in your hand. They're always placed in microphone stands and sometimes in special suspension mounts. If you're in a controlled situation, you may want to take advantage of the higher quality that condenser mics offer. Some reasonably priced condenser mics are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Condenser mics: Neumann TLM49, AKG C3000B, Audio Technica AT4033

Dynamic mics may not have quite the frequency response and dynamic range that condenser mics have, but that doesn't mean there aren't some fabulous dynamic mics. In fact, two dynamic mics are broadcast industry standards, the ElectroVoice RE20 and the Shure SM7B, shown in Figure 3. These mics are prized for their tone, and both are incredibly resistant to the proximity effect. Either of these would be ideal for your podcasting studio.

Figure 3: Studio dynamic mics: ElectroVoice RE20, Shure SM7B

If you're going to be working on location or outdoors, or you just don't want to be tied down to a chair in front of an expensive mic, you can buy a nice handheld mic. Handheld mics are dynamic mics by definition, because they must be resistant to handling noise. They're usually sturdy enough to survive being dropped, which, as any reporter can tell you, is important. You should always have a handheld mic or two, because they're very reasonably priced and can serve as backups in case of equipment troubles. Some great handheld mics are shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4:Handheld mics: Electrovoice 635A, the venerable Shure SM58

Feb 27, 2008

Formats: The shape of your podcast

You should be thinking of inventing something completely new; after all, we're talking about your show, not Jay Leno's, not Anthony Robbins' infomercials, not Howard Stern's morning schtick. There are, however, familiar formats that you can use to give your audience a clear indication of what you intend to deliver each time they press the Play button.

Formats, like genres in literature, convey lots of information. A short story promises to provide some conflict or quandary and its resolution in a given number of pages, while a novel is more contemplative, or at least longer, and usually involves more characters. A podcast is not a radio program or a newspaper read aloud. It can draw from any of the following formats:

- News: The newsreader is one of the most familiar sounds and sights in our lives. They take news stories reduced for the time available and read them. If you can get a script from a local news radio or television station, you'll find they aren't written like news stories you read in the newspaper. The scripts are telegraphic. Short sentences summarize rather than explain events. Stories have "hooks," a lead sentence that catches the attention, such as "Fear strikes a local neighborhood!" Then a brief explanation of what happened follows, and if a reporter is in the field, a "throw" introduces him and segues to the reporter's air-time. The problem here is that this format has become so truncated on many networks that you never get anything but the lead; the summary is good enough to startle the audience and nothing more. You can exploit this format, providing much more than the audience expects with additional detail and information. It's also very easy to make the mistake of editorializing, or adding your own opinion, which changes your news into something else. Keep your audience's trust. If you promise them news, give them news.

- Opinion (Open Crossfire!): After facts, opinion took over television and radio news. Most news programs today include a heavy dose of opinion. In the worst form, it's intended to activate responses in different parts of the audience by appealing to and confirming their assumptions and prejudices, all the while offering that pandering as "opinion." Nevertheless, opinion can be offered respectfully and constructively by broadcasters and podcasters who build arguments based on solid information and make a rational case for the position they advocate. Hearing lots of people arguing intelligently and with respect for other opinions would be great, but because people tend to mimic success, you will certainly see plenty of ideological ranting that looks like "opinion" programs on CNN or Fox Network News. We hope you do the right thing.

- Magazine: A magazine show combines news, opinion, and "feature" reports that are like the longer stories you hear on National Public Radio or read in a national magazine. These types of shows depend on your ability to act as an editor, picking and choosing the parts that make a great listening or watching experience. Magazine shows are typically longer, presenting more opportunities for ad or sponsor messages. They are also much more expensive to produce, because having many voices requires lots of coordination. That said, this is a very attractive format for the kind of community-building show that organizes and blends the voices of members.

- Essay/Short story: Stories have full arcs of action, with beginnings and ends. So, too, do essays. Either format will be familiar to you, though both require some experience and training in composing the text you'll read. Reading the words of others is more straightforward, but be sure to clear the rights to the text or you may hear from lawyers. Environmental sound can play an important role in these programs, filling in audio gaps that would have to be described in text. These programs can be as short as a minute or as long as an hour, delivering a complete thought or narrative and nothing more. They can also be excellent parts of a magazine show.

- Audioblog: Audioblogging developed as an interim step between webcasting and podcasting. It still retains an essential element that you won't find in most professionally produced programs: an absolutely riveting immediacy. Sound can be collected by telephone or grabbed from other sources and mixed to make a brief, compelling point. The different between the audioblog and the essay is similar to what distinguishes the blog from a news story; it takes a compelling slice and puts it out there for the audience to judge itself. Again, this format is a good component of the magazine format.

- Roundtable: Conversations can be interesting. Realistically, not all conversations are compelling. Your job as the producer is to pick the participants and moderate the discussion to get the best from all involved. That doesn't mean you're trying to let everyone win the argument, but that you make sure the discussion is complete and everybody gets their say. Now, in some situations, not giving someone a fair say will work with your audience, who may enjoy, say, hearing a neo-Nazi shut down. Setup for these recordings can be complicated, because you'll need multiple mics and a multi-channel mixer to do the conversation in person or a way of taking several calls simultaneously and mixing them.

- Event Coverage: Plenty of live events in the world go completely uncovered. From industry events to professional training, the world is full of free information being talked through every day. Getting permission to record is your first challenge, because many conference producers are greedy enough to think that they should be paid for your coverage. In reality, being in the audience at these events is much more about the networking opportunity, and recordings can be powerful recruiting tools for future versions of the physical meeting. Besides professional events, lots of news and debate is left unreported, lots that is easily identified in advance so that you can do a recording setup and capture the sound or video. Editing these events can be difficult if you don't have control of the audio setup, because sound can be garbled or fail completely. Getting the sound is only the first step, because you can use your coverage to win listeners. Amazingly, many people will listen to an event just because they were there.

- Serialized Programs (Back to the cliffhanger): We haven't seen much drama in podcast programming, but the format is ripe for this medium. People subscribe, so you need to catch their attention only with a single episode to get them to subscribe. If you can write a script and capture performances that convince listeners that Indy and Marion are about to take the wheels off their airplane as the episode concludes, they are likely to subscribe to hear the rest of the story. Episodic drama is actually a proven format for young media; it worked for radio, film, and television, so there's every reason to suspect it will work for podcasting.

- Readings and Theatrical Performance: You may have a favorite poet or author. Have you ever considered calling him to see if he has some work he'd like to record? How about local theater groups whose work you appreciate? Besides dealing with egos, you have to be attentive to the challenge of capturing sound performed by someone who doesn't understand how a microphone works, but with a little patience you can get something really special. The program can be serialized and be part of a magazine program, as well. For theatrical work, be ready with multi-microphone recording and the ability to mix creatively. Consider supplementing spoken performances with environmental sound. Get creative.

- SoundSeeing Guides: Museums, historical sites, and many other significant locations are "unrecorded" events. The SoundSeeing guide is a spoken tour of a place or event that requires explanation. An excellent professional services business for a budding podcaster could be providing walk-through tours of a trade show; all you need to know is the location of booths and descriptions of the products the companies are spotlighting. You can charge the conference producer, but it would be much better to charge the companies themselves, who are already paying for their appearance at the event. Museums have permanent and temporary collections that can be the subject of an audio tour. In the future, we may experience guidance as a constant service; this is a significant opportunity for a producer.

- DJ Reborn: This book's authors have been involved in music, as a producer and as a DJ.It's fun, and you can add your creativity with simple things like the juxtaposition of songs to emphasize a unique beat or the irony of one song following another. Once, during college, Mitch fell down on the ground from the shock of mixing the end of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb with Alice Cooper's Clones. It required slowing one down and speeding the other up slightly to generate a resonant tone that melded the songs. He never forgot it. Picking the music people hear is gratifying and a kind of art.

- Short Form or Bites: Many of today's existing formats were born out of broadcast time slots. Don't limit your thinking to that clock-based topand bottom-of-the-hour schedule that makes all news shows or sitcoms 20 or 22 minutes long. Podcasting enables short form content that doesn't necessarily fit the previous categories. Think differently: Joke a Day, Daily Haiku, Trivia Question of the Day, Horoscope, or Top 10 lists. In addition to listeners subscribing to the short form feed, other podcasters can use them in their programs.

- Video: Podcasting isn't just about audio. Moving pictures, or "talkies," took hold of the podcast world within months of its invention. Every format we have described in this section can be translated to video, though you need to address another dimension of perception (reading poetry in video can be artful if you focus on the poet's face or by juxtaposing images with the words, for example).

Feb 26, 2008

Podcast : Making your choices

Get out a piece of paper. You need about 10 minutes today and 15 minutes tomorrow to complete this exercise. Really, if you just wait a day or two between the phases of this exercise, you'll get a much better program by following this process:

1. Make three columns on the page. Place a heading for the left column, "Topics," and call the middle column "What I can add."

2. Under "Topics," write down five things you think about every day, whether it's a hobby, your business, sports, politics, or something you argue with friends about frequently and energetically — things people enjoy talking with you about. Don't take too long, just a couple minutes. What wakes you up? Are you worried about finances, the state of your relationships? What gets you going?

3. Now, under "What I can add," write the ideas you've had about each of your topics in the past couple of days. These could be your "original notions" about the topic, such as a theory that the Red Sox consistently under-invest in third basemen, that there are three regions of the world or industries that are ripe for investment by people like you seeking improved returns, or maybe your ideas about how to resolve the political problems in the Middle East. You get the idea; write down what, if you were to do a podcast on that topic today, you would talk about. Got it all on paper? Now, stop. Let it percolate.

4. On day 2, return to your worksheet. Add a title to the third column, "Sound." Have you thought of additional topics? Add them to the Topics column. More importantly, as you went about the intervening day, did you find yourself identifying stories in the news, ideas in your head, or things people said to you in conversation that you'd like to have recorded for a podcast? Write these under "Sound" for each of the topics. Seriously, are you already looking for audio as a natural part of your day? That's the producer's habit that we're looking to cultivate, starting with this list. Finally, write down the ideas you'd add about each of the topics or the sound you'd record; that's the raw material of your own comments.

After the second visit, your list probably looks somewhat lopsided. Some of the ideas you had yesterday yielded little or nothing, because they aren't sustainable topics. This is the problem with picking a topic: Unless you genuinely engage with the subject, you'll quickly find yourself experiencing burn-out. Don't be one of the people who launch two or three podcasts on a whim and then fade away. You may want to repeat the exercise for a few days; this is an approach we've used with programs created for a news network staffed by young journalists who needed to work through the difference between what they could talk about and what they really wanted to talk about day-in and day-out on a regular program.

Of the topics you've identified, which produced the most notes? Take a look at the environment for that topic. Begin by doing searches on news and search sites for articles that relate to the topic. You're looking here for how much material you can expect to draw from. Whether you're doing topical political humor or investing ideas, you need fresh material to write about. If the topic doesn't present you with enough subjects to talk about as frequently as you hope to produce, then you need to look again at the list and combine topics or find another more fruitful one.

This exercise also forces you to begin the process of producing the show on paper, making you test your resolve about the topic and the frequency with which you can expect to deliver programs. Even if there is lots of material, you may not find all of it particularly interesting to talk about, so you must start to think through what you're going to do with outside information, especially how you're going to link it to the ideas you want to add — after all, it's your head that people will want to tune into. Make sure you're offering a podcast that accesses the busier parts of your brain. You can discuss your ideas about phenomenology, a branch of philosophy, or global warming, as long as you know you'll be productive and engaging.

Look, if you're contemplating a show for your family, they'll probably want to listen just to hear you. Your family loves you, or at least we hope they do. But if you want to earn the attention of an audience — whether they're your customers or complete strangers — for a long time to come, these are serious questions to ask yourself. Some labor now will save you from totally retooling the show after launch.

Finally, how often should one produce? That answer depends very much on the format and topic you choose. For example, doing news commentary once a week will not keep up with the pace of events, so you'll have difficulty convincing listeners you are timely. Daily may be your only option, unless you decide to focus on some aspect of the news that can be wrapped and summarized less often, such as The Week in Advertising or This Week's Seattle Mariners Moves. A show about history or math, however, that goes into detail about events or concepts can be a weekly or monthly program that is listened to repeatedly in order to get the most out of it.

Frequency is up to you, although you should avoid the temptation to over-deliver. People may not be able to keep up with your production schedule and feel they are falling behind if, at first, you offer a program a day (music programming, where there is no narrative to lose track of, can be daily from the get-go). It's probably best to start with a less frequent production, gather feedback from your listeners, and then decide about increasing how often you deliver new shows. That way, you will not find yourself backing off an original and overly ambitious promise to offer a daily show when it's not what is needed. Or, think of it this way: It is better to add shows — it's like increasing the value — than justify producing less.

Feb 23, 2008

Searching Podcasts

In stark contrast to text documents, which are easily searched — Google just looks for words in documents, after all — podcasts are difficult to search because they must be transcribed by man or machine first and then searched. The science of transcription is young and, based on our experience with companies claiming to search audio and video, partially an act of smoke and mirrors. Most of the search tools we've reviewed look only in metadata — the text associated with a podcast — rather than searching the content of programs. In many cases, people who are as inexact or error-prone as machines are involved at some point, and almost always there is a very spotty result. As computational power increases, this will improve. These are the major players:

- PodScope: This site searches both audio and video on the Web, mostly podcasts. Our results showed very poor results, where, for example, a search for Microsoft Vista (without quotes) yielded only three results while a search for "Vista" returned dozens of results, many referring to Microsoft. Some unique neologisms from podcasts, such as "Ninternship" from the popular Ask A Ninja podcast, were not found at all. http://www.podscope.com/

- PodZinger: A much more complete index, PodZinger is offered by BBN Technologies, a commercial provider with a long history. It purports to search almost 300,000 podcasts at this writing and returns much more complete results for common words, like Microsoft Vista and Vista — more than 1,000 each — while failing to find unique words, such as Ninternship. http://www.podzinger.com/

- Pod Razor: The service is obviously using metadata describing shows rather than transcribing the shows themselves before searching. http://www.podrazor.com/

- AOL Search Podcast Beta: This has all the hallmarks of beta software, but the results are impressive, if sparse, because they return results from within the body of shows. Keep your eye on this one. http://podcast.search.aol.com/

- Digital Podcast: An interesting effort in podcast search, we found the results poor, but the excerpts of programs displayed were more comprehensive than many other search providers delivered, even if there were lots of extraneous characters in the results indicating imperfect machine translation. http://www.digitalpodcast.com/

Feb 22, 2008

Where to Find Podcasts

You'll run across podcasts all over the Web on blogs and sites you already visit, but seeing shows organized by category or using social tags, which listeners use to collaboratively categorize podcasts and identify popular programming, can help you find your way to intriguing new podcasts. A number of sites collect all or most of the podcasts on the Net. Here's a selection of some we find especially useful:

- iTunes: Despite many criticisms, iTunes has mastered the integration of podcasting — audio and video podcasting — with commercial services. http://www.apple.com/itunes/

- Podcast.net: A kind of Yahoo! directory of podcasts, Podcast.net uses tagging to identify topics along with categorization of the programming. The site provides an online player, so it keeps you within its borders rather than making you subscribe using your own podcatcher. http://www.podcast.net/

- Odeo: Besides being a broad index of everything podcast, Odeo is a self-serve podcast production system that lets people produce their own podcasts. We like the listener-authored reviews and use of social tags, which help expose interesting programming. Odeo has an embedded online podcast player, but it doesn't provide easy access to subscription URLs. Rather, it keeps people within the Odeo world. http://www.odeo.com/

- Yahoo! Podcasts: Hey, it's commercial, from Yahoo!, but it's comprehensive and there are real people doing some discovery of new and interesting stuff, as a magazine editor does when he tells you what he likes. Subscription links are available from the site. http://podcasts.yahoo.com/

- Podcast Alley: Created by Chris McIntyre and no one else, the site is largely the work of podcasters who want to get more attention for their shows, but it also does a fine job of tracking what's popular and what's changed recently by genre or a specific title. Subscription links are provided so that they can be pasted directly into an aggregator. http://www.podcastalley.com/

- Podcasting News: Another wide-ranging directory, though it takes some effort to get through all the listings under each category. But you get direct links to browse recent shows or to subscribe. Lots of good listener ratings. http://www.podcastingnews.com/

- NPR Podcast Directory: While the programming choices are limited, this is a great guide to the public radio podcasts from all over the United States. From individual segments from Morning Edition and other NPR shows in a daily best-of collection to local issues shows, this is where to look. http://www.npr.org/podcasts

- Melodeo: A recent entrant in the business, Melodeo is a combination of podcast directory and social network. It combines commercial and "amateur" podcasts with discussion by members, rankings, and a nifty interface that delivers most of its information through pop-ups within the page that let you navigate to forums where people are talking. The system also bundles and delivers podcasts to some mobile phones as streams (you need a very generous data plan to make this affordable). http://www.melodeo.com/

- Audible Wordcast: Another relatively new player, Wordcast blends the fee and free subscriptions offered by Audible and others into a single resource where you can find amateur and "professional" podcasts from the New York Times, Ricky Gervais, and many others. http://wordcast.audible.com/

Feb 21, 2008

Portable and CD Playback

Podcasting wouldn't be what it is without the iPod and other portable devices that let people replace their radios with self-scheduled programming. One of the reasons Apple's iTunes has succeeded to the degree it has is its early integration of podcast subscriptions and the fact that it is not only the default music library for any iPod user, but also the only step between subscription and portability needed. With other portable players, there's a bit of jury-rigging to connect the podcatcher to the device, though you also get more flexibility, as well, because you can mix and match different features.

The forgotten option for many, however, is burning a CD so that you retain a permanent copy of programs that play in many legacy audio systems, notably the dashboard CD players of so many vehicles. All the major media players handle this conveniently. Windows Media Player and iTunes, for example, make it easy to build a playlist by selecting podcasts. Just burn and go.

Feb 20, 2008

Subscribing to Your First Podcast in iTunes

iTunes' interface is basically the same in Macintosh and Windows, though here we're going to walk through the subscription process in the Mac version. Again, let's assume that you've got an RSS reader that typically handles your RSS subscriptions, so we've copied the URL of the XML file used by CNET's Buzz Out Loud podcast RSS feed. Now, open iTunes and click the Advanced menu, where the second option is Subscribe to Podcast.

1 - Select the Subscribe to Podcast… option in the Advanced menu, which opens a dialog box where you paste the URL of the podcast RSS feed of the program. When you click OK in this dialog box, iTunes queries the server and retrieves a list of available shows. It downloads only the last podcast immediately, leaving the rest for your review and, if you like, downloading. iTunes also continues to check the server on a regular schedule for new shows, downloading new programs as they are released.

2 - iTunes doesn't display lots of information about each show, so you can Ctrl+click (with a one-button mouse) or right-click (with a three-button mouse) the title and select Show Description to read show notes, which include guest lists, topics discussed, and songs played on the program.

3 - If you select Get Info, you get a much more complete view of the metadata for the podcast and individual shows, including the show logo, encoding format, bit rate, sample rate, and so forth. Click the Info pane in the Get Info dialog box to see the show notes.

4 - To play a podcast, double-click the title in the iTunes library.

Feb 19, 2008

Subscribing to Your First Podcast in Juice

A number of podcast indices list popular podcasts, and most podcatchers come with a list of shows, but let's imagine that those don't exist and look at how to find a podcast on a site you're visiting. Some of the best programs you can find are ones you stumble across when reading, whether it's discovering the Nature podcast published by the eponymous British journal of science or a quirky individual podcast like Dave Slusher's Evil Genius Chronicles.

Finding the feed for a podcast when visiting a Web site can be difficult, because there is no standard way of announcing that a feed is available. Some sites deliver podcasts as part of their regular blog feed while others have dedicated podcast feeds. These services may be represented by an orange "RSS" tag, the closest thing to a standard user interface for subscribing to RSS feeds, but others may have a button or text link that says "podcast" or "Subscribe." As you can see in Figure below, the Evil Genius Chronicles site has several different ways of subscribing, as well as links to individual shows in the text of Dave Slusher's blog. It demonstrates in how many different locations you may find a feed or links to individual shows.

Podcast feeds are often displayed in several places on a site, and sometimes it's hard to distinguish those feeds from regular RSS and links to individual programs.

Slusher's RSS feed, which is linked to the orange XML button at the upper left of the page, includes his podcasts and written blog postings. If you want only his programs, that link is beneath the XML button, indicated by the Podcast button. But wait, there's another Podcast button immediately below that, which provides an additional feed in case the others fail. That's overkill, but in a technological world one must expect to experience some failures. You need only subscribe to one of those feeds. If you subscribe to more, your podcatcher downloads multiple copies of each show.

As explained previously, your podcatcher can be configured to add subscriptions automatically, but not all feeds should be handled this way, because text and audio RSS files may need to be passed to different applications. We subscribe manually to his feed following these steps:

1 - Right-click the orange XML button to open the pop-up menu for your browser to copy the URI of the podcast feed. If you are using Firefox, select the Copy Link Location command in the pop-up menu as shown in Figure below; if you are using Internet Explorer, select the Copy Shortcut command.

Copy the location of the RSS feed.

2 - Now open Juice and click the Add new feed button, the green circle with a white plus sign in the center. A dialog box titled Add a Feed opens, as shown in Figure 3.11. Paste the URI you just copied into the URL field in the General tab of the dialog box. You don't need to add a title; Juice picks up the name of the show from the feed and fills in the Title field.

Subscribe to a podcast in Juice; just paste the feed address into the URL field.

3 - Don't close the Add a Feed dialog box. Click the Cleanup tab, where you can configure Juice to delete shows that are older than a number of days you choose. For purposes of this explanation, we're checking the box here to enable deleting of episodes older than 14 days, as shown in Figure below. This prevents your podcatcher from filling your hard drive with podcasts, not to mention that it puts pressure on you to listen to shows before they are tossed out. Some shows may be worth saving longer. Click the Save button.

Check the cleanup preferences for each podcast. Some you'll want to keep longer than others.

4 - Juice immediately checks the RSS feed for programs that are available; it doesn't begin downloading old shows. Click the name of the feed in the main window of Juice to see a list of shows that can be downloaded. Congratulations, you've subscribed to your first podcast.

5 - Don't be satisfied with titles alone when you are deciding what to listen to for the first time. Podcasters usually include show notes that describe the guests, the topics discussed, and any music that may be included. This is passed along as part of the RSS feed, in metadata that can be viewed by clicking the title in Juice, as shown in Figure below.

To get more information about a particular show, click the title and select Show Notes to see what the producer has to say about who's on or what music is playing.

When you find what you want, click the green arrow beside title or click the tile and select the "Play episode in…" option. Juice passes the file, in this case to Windows Media Player, and it begins to play.

Feb 18, 2008

Downloading and Installing a Macintosh Podcatcher

Before we get into using the Juice application, let's cover how to download and install a podcatcher on Mac OS X. If you have OS X, you already have Apple's podcatcher, which is built into iTunes. If for some reason iTunes isn't on your Mac, here are the steps to get and install it:

1 - Open your browser, and type http://www.apple.com/itunes/ into the address field. This takes you to the Apple iTunes and iPod home page. Apple changes the design of this page frequently, but you usually see the iTunes software prominently displayed. Click the Download button in the iTunes promotion. If you can't find the iTunes download link in the main body of the page, look for the Download button in the blue bar at the top of the page below the tabs, which takes you to the iTunes download page.

2 - On the iTunes download page, you can choose which version of the software you want. The Mac version is the default choice, because, we presume, you are using a Macintosh for this process. You don't need to give your e-mail address; just click the Download iTunes — Free button.

3 - As the file begins to download, your browser proceeds to an Apple-hosted page that encourages you to spend lots of money in the future. Ignore this for now. If you are running Safari, Apple's browser, a dialog box opens warning you that the file contains an application. Click the Continue button. The file finishes downloading, decompresses, and appears in a volume on your desktop called iTunes with the current version number of the application. It contains two files: the installer, which is called iTunes.mpkg, and "Before You Install iTunes.app."

4 - iTunes.mpkg is a Mac-specific UNIX installer file represented by an icon of a box with a cube flying out. Double-click this icon, brazenly ignoring the read-before-you-install file, which explains that if you want to use iTunes to listen to audio files, it is compatible with Mac OS X versions later than 10.2.8, and if you want to watch video files, you must be running Mac OS X 10.4.2 or later.

5 - The iTunes installer opens, offering a dialog box explaining that it must check the software before it can be installed on your Mac. You must let this run, so click Continue. It takes a moment to complete the review of the operating system and hardware before displaying the welcome message. Again, click Continue.

6 - iTunes is a carefully protected application. Apple has threatened to pull out of countries, such as France, that have demanded the security features of the iTunes application be revealed. Unlike Juice, the Windows application we installed in the previous section, the license for iTunes, which is part of the About iTunes dialog box, is restrictive and can include notices about how Apple or recording companies may prosecute people who use it to pirate copyrighted material.

7 - After you click the Continue button, which you do twice to get through the About iTunes dialog boxes, if you do not scroll through the full body of the license text, you are presented with a dialog box that insists you agree to the terms of the license. By clicking Agree, you continue the installation. Clicking Disagree closes the installer.

8 - The next dialog box presents you a choice, or lack thereof, about where to install iTunes. Because the application must reside on the startup volume of the computer, the installer selects your boot disc by default — represented by a big green arrow — and you cannot change it. This dialog box exists solely to keep you oriented to where the software is installed. Click Continue.

9 - An Installation Type window opens, offering the ability to select the Easy Install, which puts all the components of the application on the hard drive, or a Customize option that allows you to select which features you want to use. Components you may need are highlighted. This choice is really only necessary if you have not previously installed an iPod driver for some versions of OS X or if you have an iTunes-compatible mobile phone. For almost everyone, except those who have purchased one of the early and poorly received Motorola handsets that play music, the button to choose is Easy Install. Click Install. Depending upon which version of OS X you are using, a dialog box may ask if it is okay to restart the computer after installation; if so, click Continue Installation.

10 -The application installs, and that's it. iTunes can be set as your default media player for podcasts, even if you use other applications to gather subscriptions. For example, in the popular news aggregrator, NetNewsWire (http://www.newsgator.com/NGOLProduct.aspx?ProdID=NetNewsWire), preferences allow you to set the application to hand files directly to iTunes for playback. If you need to restart, the installer tells you it's necessary, and you click Restart. Otherwise, you can close the installer and get started with finding your first podcast.

Feb 16, 2008

Downloading and Installing a Windows Podcatcher

Let's download and install a podcatcher application now. If you're using a Windows PC, we suggest starting with Juice, one of the original and most robust podcatchers (formerly known as iPodder), which you can download from CNET's http://download.com or http://juicereceiver.sourceforge.net. In our example, we're installing Juice 2.2, and it is reflected in the filename referred to in these steps:

1 - Follow the links to download the file. (You may be referred to a mirror site; choose one near where you are located to get the file quickly.) When your browser asks you where to save the file, choose the Desktop, as shown in Figure below. A file called Juice22Setup.exe — the numbers in the name change as new versions are released — is stored on your desktop.

When downloading the Juice installer, save the file to your desktop.

2 - Close your browser, and find the Juice22Setup.exe file on the desktop. Make sure other applications are closed before beginning the installation. Double-click the file icon to open the installer application, and click the Next button in the dialog box that opens. You may read the License Agreement, which is a GNU General Public License that allows you to modify the software and that requires you provide the same rights to anyone to whom you may choose to distribute the software in the future. We'll assume you're okay with these conditions, so click the I Agree button.

The Juice installer GNU GPL license

3 - The next dialog box asks where you want to store the file, suggesting C:\Program Files\Juice, which we recommend you accept. Click the Next button.

4 - The installer now asks if you want to install all the components of the application and whether you would like to have a desktop shortcut to Juice, which is checked by default. If you want to crowd your desktop with icons, accept this. The other option presented, however, is important, because you want your podcatcher to do most of its work without asking you when it can go do its business. We suggest that you check the "Add to Startup Group" box, shown in Figure below, which makes Windows open the application every time you launch your PC. Doing this should not open any security holes on your PC, but it ensures that, when you want your podcasts, they'll already be downloaded. If you don't enable Juice to load at launch, you have to wait for podcasts to download whenever you open the application. Now click the Install button.

Checking the "Add to Startup Group" box ensures that Juice launches and checks for new programs whenever your computer is on.

Caution : If you travel frequently or have a computer at work or elsewhere that you shouldn't be using for personal reasons, it's a good idea not to check the "Add to Startup Group" box so that Juice does not go to work downloading dozens of megabytes worth of podcasts when you log in to a wireless hotspot or while your boss is waiting for an important e-mail message from you.

5 - Juice installs, listing the files it is modifying. The last dialog box tells you that the application has been installed successfully and asks whether you want to see the Readme file (we don't need no stinkin' manuals when we have a Wiley Bible close at hand!) and launch the application. Click the Finish button to open the application.

6 - When Juice opens, the first thing it asks is if you would like to review a list of file types that it is not currently set to handle. The "Yes" radio button is selected by default; click OK.

7 - The window that opens is the File Type Preferences pane of the Juice application, shown in Figure below. You see a list of file types, indicated by file extension names or HTML tags, which are automatically handled by Juice whenever you click them in your browser. For each box you check, Juice becomes the default application to handle that file type when it is found by any other application, such as your browser. This means that if you've selected .rss in this pane and then you click an RSS feed on someone's site, Juice opens and adds the subscription automatically. The problem is if you click a text RSS feed, Juice subscribes to it. So we suggest that you leave this file type unchecked, so that your text RSS aggregator can handle those. The other options provided refer to podcast feeds, or feeds that are likely to contain video or audio, and are much less likely to conflict with other RSS readers. You can subscribe manually to feeds that include podcast files — Juice ignores all the text postings and downloads only the audio files. After making your choices, click the Save button.

When you first launch Juice, it asks you to review the file types it should open and play automatically. Selecting .rssmakes all RSS feeds run through Juice, which extracts audio files for playback.

8 - Finally, the File Type Preferences includes a check box to "enforce these settings at startup." You want to check this box so that Juice overrides other applications that may think it is their job to deal with these file types. After checking this box, click the Save button. The Juice application is installed. When you quit the application, it asks if you want to keep it running in the background. Again, with the same caveats about when you may want to disable background downloading, we suggest you leave the application running by checking the Yes radio button. Check the "Don't ask me again" box to avoid this dialog box in the future.

Now let's configure Juice to handle the various formats and tags in which you may find podcasts when surfing the Web, as well as how to store podcasts according to your preferences. Consider, for example, how you might listen to a series of short program, say of two to five minutes in length, compared to longer shows. Saving several short programs and listening to them in a single sitting makes sense for some listeners, but if your podcatcher is configured to toss programs after 14 or 21 days, you may not have more than one stored at any time. On the other hand, if you fall behind on listening to a longer show, perhaps a daily one-hour program from National Public Radio, having the podcatcher dump older programs so that you can get caught up is a good plan.

Setting Juice to regularly check subscriptions is what makes the podcatcher work when you are away. Click the Scheduler button (it looks like a clock and calendar) to open the Scheduler. Juice can visit servers up to three times a day, at times you specify, or on a regular interval of between 12 hours and every 30 minutes. It's probably best to have the podcatcher working at night, when you aren't using the computer. Like e-mail, podcasts can take up your whole day if you don't limit how often new ones show up on your system. However, if you know your favorite podcasters are updating their shows at certain times of the day, setting the podcatcher to check shortly after those times can keep you up-to-the-moment.

Juice can be set to check podcast subscriptions several times a day at specific times or on a regular basis.

Next, select the General pane in the Preferences panel, shown in Figure 3.7, which covers the general behavior of the application. Juice should be left running in the background so it can continue to check for new podcasts when you aren't using it. The other important preference is the fifth box from the top, "Catchup skips older episodes permanently," which skips ahead of programs in your downloaded shows list without erasing them so you can hear the most recent podcast. You'll need to go back to play skipped shows manually, as Juice will ignore them in the future.

The General preferences in Juice let you keep the application running so it can continue looking for new podcasts on a regular schedule.

We don't suggest selecting the box for "Play downloads right after they're downloaded," because the podcatcher then counts them as played when looking for most recent unplayed programs. Click the Save button. You can tell Juice how long to hold onto files on a per-subscription basis, which we cover later.

Finally, select what media player you want to use when listening to a podcast. We've moved to the Player pane of the Juice Preferences, where the media players available are listed by the application. We've selected Windows Media Player, but you can choose your favorite and Juice hands files automatically to it for playback or synchronization with a portable player.

The Player pane in Juice Preferences, where a media player is associated with the podcatcher

Two player-specific options are displayed here, as well.

When passing files to iTunes, Juice can label the file as a custom genre, which iTunes uses to sort programs. By default, it hands files to iTunes as a "Podcast," but you could use something else, such as "News" if you use more than one podcatcher to segregate different types of programs. For example, you could use Juice to download news programs, passing them to iTunes with that genre label and find a folder on your iPod called "News," while a different podcatcher downloaded your music podcasts and loaded them in a different genre.

With Winamp, a Windows media application, the option is "Play button enqueues selected track." "Enqueues" isn't actually a word, but it means that the file is added to a list of files to play according to a last-in-last-played basis. If other files are playing or are queued to be played, the latest file goes to the end of the line.

Feb 14, 2008

Choosing Your Podcatcher

The podcatcher emerged as a standalone application for managing podcast subscriptions, but the functionality is now built into many of the applications you may use for e-mail, RSS feed reading, and your browser. In some cases, sites that aggregate podcast feeds also provide synchronization with your local audio application or allow listening in an online player, so you never need to download the podcasts or any software to your local hard drive.

Most important to your convenience is the ability to associate your podcatching with other kinds of audio management tools you have. If, for example, you have Windows and rely on Windows Media Player to listen to CDs, store MP3s, and synchronize your mobile audio device, you want a podcatcher that can hand files to Windows Media Player, identifying them as podcasts so that you can find and listen to them in your library. Macintosh users and many Windows-using iPod owners, on the other hand, want their podcatchers to deliver programs to the iTunes software they use for music, video, and MP3s, because it makes synchronizing to the iPod a snap.

With so many to choose from, the best way to start is to try a couple for yourself and see which one you like. We suggest visiting CNET's http://Download.com (http://www.download.com/) or Podcast Alley's Top 20 Rated pages (http://www.podcastalley.com/forum/links.php?func=toprated) to see what other folks are ranking among the best of the current crop. These are some of our favorites:

Juice: A free (though donations are welcomed) open-source podcatcher for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems. Created on the foundation of the original podcatch software, Juice evolved nicely to provide a simple, straightforward experience with links to interesting services for sharing and rating podcasts, which keeps you tapped into what's new in the podosphere. Download it at juicereceiver.sourceforge.net.

Nimiq: Another free podcatcher, Nimiq has the added attraction that it also handles BitTorrent downloads, the most popular way to share files, especially music and video, between peers on the Net. It includes support for the emerging OPML browser features that allow you and others to share your playlists to improve community search. Download at http://www.nimiq.nl/

NetNewsWire: A robust Macintosh RSS reader, NetNewsWire can handle podcast subscriptions, handing them to iTunes and adding custom category descriptions so that they are easy to find on your iPod. Although it isn't free at $29.95, it serves so many useful purposes for Mac users that we think it's highly worthwhile. Download a trial version at http://www.newsgator.com/NGOLProduct.aspx?ProdID=NetNewsWire.

Newsgator: From the same company that makes NetNewsWire, Newsgator is the most advanced Windows RSS product available, integrating blog and news subscriptions, podcasts, and much more into Microsoft's Outlook productivity application and a hosted version on the Web that can be integrated into the Yahoo Messenger instant messager client. The cost is $29.95. Download a trial at http://www.newsgator.com/.

FeedDemon: Newsgator has been accumulating a variety of podcatcher applications, including another widely used favorite, FeedDemon 2.0, which features custom organization of text feeds and podcasts, with direct download to a docked iPod. The software is $29.95. A free trial is available at http://www.newsgator.com/NGOLProduct.aspx?ProdId=FeedDemon.

Apple's music application, which comes on all Macs and in the box with any iPod for the PC, also is an outstanding podcatcher. It's free to download at http://www.apple.com/itunes/download/.

In a nutshell, look for a client that supports adding podcasts to the rest of your listening rather than having to create another catalog of audio on your computer. All the applications listed in this section meet that expectation and more. So let's look at how to install these applications.

Exploring the World of Podcasting

We show you how to find, subscribe, and listen to thousands of podcasts available on the Net. The steps for getting audio files onto your portable audio player, such as an iPod, or burning a CD and listening on a desktop computer are few and easy to understand. We also introduce you to the client software used to subscribe to and download podcasts, including the wide variety available for the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems.

A variety of podcast portals offer lists of podcasts; we walk you through some of the better neighborhoods in podcastland, explaining the basic mechanics that make podcasting work. Finally, as part of that technical introduction, we explain the technical origins and personal conflicts that color the podcast landscape. After this, if you just want to listen, you're ready to go. But we bet a big bag of fish that, after you've tried listening, you're going to want to start to speak with a podcast of your own.

The Basics of Listening
Listening is easy. Managing your subscriptions is easy. Keeping up with everything you can download with such ease is harder. That's because the listener is in control. Unlike broadcast media, where every listening choice is a zero-sum game, where choosing one program means you can't listen to the others, podcasting gives you the power to stack up a full schedule of listening and more.

First, you need to get an application commonly referred to as a "podcatcher," news reader, or aggregator. All these applications do the same thing; they visit a list of servers to check for newly posted files. A push client was locked to a particular server.

If you had multiple push services, it meant running several different applications. With podcast and RSS, your subscriptions are handled by one application. Later, we introduce you to the choices in podcatchers; here, we focus on what a podcatcher does.

As shown in Figure below, a podcatcher running on your computer maintains a list of subscriptions in the form of uniform resource identifiers (URIs, also called URLs) that tell the application the name of each server and where subscription files are stored on a regular schedule that you specify. Each subscription is referred to as a "feed," which is the Web address of a file that describes the catalog of shows stored in a particular directory on a server. You may have feeds for several different programs on the server, each with a unique URL for the XML file for each show.

The podcatching process

For example, let's say you've subscribed to a podcast called Big Blue's Beer Show, which is stored on a server named http://www.bigblueBeer.com in a file called "podxml.xml." The full address of the file is http://www.bigbluebeer.com/site/feeds/podxml.com, and you've set your podcatcher to visit the site every day at 6:00 AM to check for new shows listed in that XML file. When the application finds a new show listed in the podxml.xml, the full audio file is downloaded to your PC and stored in a directory where you can open it and listen, or the podcatcher application can identify new audio or video files and move it to your computer or portable audio player. The podcatcher then moves to the next subscription on the list, in this case, a http://PodcastBible.com podcast, and checks that server for a new show. At the end of the update process, your podcatcher has a list of programs that are downloaded and ready for listening.

Of course, you can have your podcatcher visit many servers, collecting programs all day long, but remember that audio files take lots of space on the hard drive. An hour of MP3 audio is typically about 30 MB in size. Like a digital video recorder for your television, podcatchers require some tending, with frequent weeding to keep space available for new programs.

Feb 11, 2008

Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond

Podcasting is the foundation for a new media landscape, where independently produced content coexists with "professional" programs created and distributed by big media companies. Apple is selling as many as 34 million iPods a year, based on current quarterly sales figures. ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and innumerable other production companies are offering shows for download.

Making the most of the opportunity to communicate is what you, the prospective podcaster, need to keep in mind as you contemplate where this market is going. A narrow definition of podcasting could prevent you from seeing how to apply these tools to the needs of your family, your company, or a vast international audience.

Podcasting isn't about making "shows" as though, like some 1930s Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film, you've found out your dad has a chest full of costumes and Judy's barn is the perfect place to put on a fundraiser to save the pastor's ailing racehorse. It can be about establishing regular communication with your customers. If you're a dentist or a physician, think about printing a podcast feed address on your appointment cards and delivering a weekly minute-long recording about teenager's teeth or preventing the flu. A small business — even a large one — can use podcasts to promote new products and services or to offer tips on getting the most from something the company sells to improve post-sale satisfaction among customers. Workgroups within a company or across many companies can keep in constant contact by recording conference calls and making them available as podcasts for team reviews or just to let folks who miss a meeting catch up. Professors and school teachers can upload audio or video of their lectures for students to review and, if the lectures are great, maybe build a global "class" of thousands of students who subscribe in order to get a leg up on their own studies.

And podcasting can be all about the show. If you're already producing radio or television programming, the millions of new podcast-ready listeners buying iPods and other portable digital audio players each month are already looking for new ways to control their listening. Broadcasters who refuse to accommodate the audience's desire to listen on their own schedule risk losing their listeners and the advertising dollars that came with them. Likewise, if you've just dreamed of making a radio or television program, the podcasting market is still so wide open that you can have your shot at winning the first thousand audience members who, if they love your work, will help bring the next 20,000 subscribers. Plenty of local television programs succeed on audience numbers of those sizes, but podcasting doesn't limit you to the people within the reach of your radio or television signal. Podcast foundations could support media empires in the future, although there will be lots of work involved.

Feb 10, 2008

Transition State: From Curiosity to Phenomenon

Adam Curry's main role in podcasting was the popularization of the medium. His Daily Source Code podcast, a part-music, part-The-Man-Evangelizing-the-Medium, became something of a phenomenon in late 2004 and early 2005. Curry became podcasting's first star. He campaigned for ordinary people to "take back the media," something that later contributed to skepticism about his motives.

But first, the medium needed a name. Blogger Ben Hammersley, grabbing a portion of the name of the leading digital audio player, the iPod, had used the term "podcasting" in an article in The Guardian newspaper to describe Christopher Lydon's interview series in January 2004. It was on Curry's ipodder-dev mailing list, though, that the word was applied and it stuck, when Dannie Gregoire suggested it in September of that year. Variations on the theme appeared. Blogger Doc Searls described podcasting as Personal Optional Digital casting in an effort to describe the listener's essential role in choosing what flows to the device. "Pod" and "casting" were merged.

With a catchy handle, Curry put his MTV experience to work. His program combined mash-ups, remixed music, and an ample dose of promotion of the podcasts he enjoyed. Podcasters sent Curry their shows in hopes of hearing them recast on Daily Source Code and subscribed to hear it. Curry was funny and cool, the audience feeling gratified when they heard themselves or peers. It was a perfect storm of subscription-driven programming. And the thing about it was that much of the programming Curry featured was very good. A huge reservoir of talent was waiting to be heard.

Connections were important in another way that was helped along by Curry, who introduced http://iPodder.org, a directory of podcasts organized by theme. It was supplemented by many other directories, notably Podcast.net, PodcastAlley, and ultimately, iTunes, the Apple entry into the community. Podcasts, as with anything on the Net, had to be discoverable to lend to the success of the small producer. Contrary to the mass media that survive on blanketing the world with ads for their programming, the podcaster lives and dies on being found through directories and searches.

As the number of podcasters and listeners rose and the number of Google hits for "podcasting" climbed from the hundreds to the millions, the medium became a ripe target for commercial interests. Adam Curry was the first to capitalize on the momentum, launching a company, PodShow, that promised to promote podcasts and, in order to help podcasters earn a living, placed ads in programs. At the same time, Apple Computer came a-courtin' and signed Curry to help promote the integration of podcasting into iTunes. At launch, podcasting on iTunes was headlined by Curry, who appeared dressed in some kind of ‘60s hipster-cum-metrosexual getup that looked like it had been stolen from a ‘70s Blacksploitation movie. Finally, Curry did a deal to produce a "podshow" of podcasts for broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio, which continues to this day. He was the showman who would toss gas on the fires of podcasting.

It was about the time Curry began to gain fame for his podcasting entrepreneuring that he had a falling out with Dave Winer, who in various blog postings claimed to be the real father of podcasting. For about a year, the two of them barely talked, according to reports, while Winer bickered with Curry in his blog and Curry, it appeared, mostly ignored him.

The boiling pot that was the Curry-Winer or Winer-Curry feud, depending on the partisans whom you were reading at the time, erupted again in December 2005, when the fact that someone using an Internet Protocol address (the network address of a computer connected to the Internet) that Curry owned had been editing the Wikipedia entry on the history of podcasting to remove contributions of others than Curry. In fact, Curry or someone working for him had repeatedly removed references to a number of contributors to the evolution of podcasting. Curry pretty much completed the immolation of his populist credentials when PodShow, his production company, introduced a contract for podcasters that was interpreted by many to require producers who worked with the company to assign all rights to their podcast to PodShow. Moreover, the producer reportedly had to agree to make all future productions they might do to PodShow on the same terms. As entertainment and publishing contracts go, it was straight out of the studio system of the 1930s and 1940s, when film stars were, albeit, pampered slaves, but slaves nonetheless. PodShow has been working to clarify and repair its contract terms.

These fireworks were peripheral to what was really happening to podcasting. Combining easy distribution with inexpensive production technology had suddenly put anyone with a good idea and a little marketing savvy on the map, able to be found by audiences. Advertisers quickly followed, though at first the approach to support of podcasts looked more like the National Public Radio model, where sponsors turned over a fee to the podcaster without regard to how many people might listen. Ad networks have only begun to form around podcasting at this writing, still largely on the sponsorship model, but as with the Net and television and radio before it, economically rewarding podcasting will eventually move from sponsor models to become a thoroughly measured medium.

That's not to say that podcasting is or ever will be all about the Benjamins. Rather, when someone wants to make a living on his talent, through podcasting audio or video, it will look more like the media we know today — the Web and television. Stars will come and go, making huge impressions on the public consciousness, as Jerry Seinfeld or Yahoo! did in other television and Web portals, while lots of moderate successes will change the basic landscape of choice available to the public. At the same time, a subculture of "free" podcasts offered by individuals and groups who just want to be heard will complete an alternative universe of audio and video that is available at no cost, though it may be sponsored a la NPR.

Media becomes democratized when anyone can take her shot at any kind of audience she seeks, regardless of how she bends or breaks the form and economic models. The what-it's-not factions, regardless of their special tweak of the definition of podcasting, are actually doing more harm than good when they place limits on the uses of a medium. Podcasting exploded onto the scene, morphing past all limits. We're not talking revolution, which does have its doctrines, but rebellion, the struggle of individuals to overcome the definitions laid upon them by the world. And, yes, some of them will become rich doing so.

Podcasting's Meteoric Trajectory

Podcasting has a meteoric history because it has gained rapid adoption by producers and audiences, but also because it has enjoyed its share of interpersonal fireworks.

Be aware that there are self-righteous monsters in this field. Like some technical fields, podcasting is full of zealous believers who combine technical innovation with fixed opinions about how their tools should be used, so talking about the history of this medium is much more than light, around-the-water-cooler talk for many. Be warned that this can be a contentious subject.

We introduce you to the personalities who have shaped podcasting's first couple of years, focusing on their unique contributions, the beliefs they built into the technology and definitions of podcasting, and how progress has already changed the medium. For some early podcasters, who define the medium as involving only MP3 files, podcasting has already been betrayed by the introduction of other formats, advertising systems, and fee-based podcasting. These pioneers react as though color television diminished the glory that had been black-and-white TV in the 1950s.

From the foundations, we move on to the current crop of podcasting vendor offerings that have already begun to expand the applications of downloadable audio and look ahead at where podcasting is headed as individual producers and media companies alike experiment with new formats and business models.

Digital Audio Grows Out

Podcasting emerged unexpectedly from the intersection of several technology developments. Since the commercial Internet exploded on the scene in the mid-1990s, audio has played an increasingly important role in the lives of users, who streamed and downloaded music, sports events, and audio books, among other things. But the channels for delivery remained relatively expensive or had gatekeepers who controlled access to their audiences.

RealNetworks, neĆ© Progressive Networks, founded by former Microsoft executive Rob Glaser, pioneered the delivery of streaming audio. Despite competition from Microsoft, by decade's end RealNetworks had about a million subscribers to its premium streaming audio and video services, which included baseball games, bikini competitions, and music. Streaming, however, was useful only for connected computers — the disconnected laptop or any other digital device was likewise cut off from RealNetworks' streaming service.

Microsoft was the first to develop a system for delivering copies of audio and video files for playback on portable PCs, Sync N Go, largely because it hoped to make its portable operating system, Windows CE, the default platform for mobile media. It did not produce a hit, that is any show with millions of listeners, but a bunch of shows with tens of thousands or, even, hundreds of thousands of listeners, so Microsoft eventually shut it down. RealNetworks, in the meantime, focused on its server business, hoping to sell streaming capabilities to media companies. In both cases, the technology was thinking too big. Podcasting cracked the mold because it was satisfied with small audiences.

In 1995, Don Katz, then an author and columnist for Esquire, decided that the audiobook, then available mostly on audiotapes, was ripe for a transition to digital delivery. He and a few friends founded Audible Words, now known as Audible Inc., to develop this business. Unfortunately, no portable audio devices existed, so in addition to concocting a business based on delivering audiobooks, they also invented the first mobile digital audio player capable of synching with a server on the Internet. That device is in the Smithsonian today. By 1998, other portable digital audio player vendors, notably the Rio PMP300, made by Diamond Multimedia, had come into the market, and Audible began licensing its file format and playback technology, which tracked playback location, to those companies.

As the Web grew, media makers became increasingly enamored of the idea of delivering rich media — everything from audio and video to user-controlled animation. Network throughput in those pre-broadband days (hard to believe it was only a decade ago) was too slow to support delivering these media types in real-time. Images and audio would stop or stutter unbearably whenever they fell behind the viewer, which was all the time. The solution seemed to be to schedule downloads of programs and text content overnight, when the network was less busy and, more importantly, the computer user was asleep. Audible had led the way with this approach, scheduling the downloads of audiobooks and programs at night. Ideally, these downloads could be played back at the audience's leisure in applications that captured the data and presented it for playback. Folks called this "push" technology, because the producer of the content pushed the data to the client application arbitrarily. Push media failed for two reasons:

- The data storage requirements for the PC were vast, taking dozens or hundreds of megabytes on the hard disc to keep everything the subscriber might want to see.

- Push companies controlled the channel, preventing much new creative work from appearing on people's screens.

- Nothing new was on and push filled people's hard drives with programming and lots of text they never got around to viewing.

- Because people could get the same stuff from the television or a news Web site, the economic model for push failed under the massive cost of delivering data that, for the most part, went unused.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs had returned to Apple Computer in 1996. After beginning the turnaround of the company with the first of a new generation of Macintosh, he turned his attention to digital music. In 2000, he hired Tony Fadell, an engineer who had built several handheld computers at General Magic and Phillips, and asked Jonathan Ivie, a designer, to take a shot at building a marketredefining portable audio player. Thus, the iPod was born, and the first component of the transformation of streaming into podcasting was in place. Apple introduced the iPod, followed by the iTunes Music Store, with a proprietary file format that required music providers have a business relationship with Apple to gain access to its iPod customers. Although the iPod would play MP3 files ripped from an audio CD, the focus of Apple's effort was on its secure format. Apple also licensed Audible's format and signed an exclusive agreement with the company to provide its audiobook catalog through iTunes.

That was the commercial side of the world as we settled into the 21st century. A home-brewed technology movement was also afoot, growing from the open source ethos of Linux and the GNU software development community. It was here that Dave Winer, the developer who brought form to the blog, made his pivotal contribution to the emergence of podcasting.

It came from planet RSS
Winer had taken a key piece of Netscape technology, the Resource Description Framework (RDF) that built on the eXtensible Markup Language for describing data, and made it work as a remote procedure call on Internet Protocol networks, known as XML-RPC. RDF was a standardized approach to describing the parts of a Web page. Winer christened his invention Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. By linking it to remote procedure calls, Winer made subscribing to Web sites possible, so that readers could receive the contents of those pages as a "feed" that could be processed by an RSS-aware application called a news reader.

Compared to push applications, RSS was brilliantly open. Anyone with a Web page could put a subscription service out for all comers to grab and use. Download costs were far lower, because only the data people wanted was added to subscriptions. From this foundation, the blogging phenomenon, which Winer also led, took flight. But audio was still outside the blogging mainstream.

By 2003, lots of folks were experimenting with the idea of blogging with audio. Webcasting, the streaming of audio files, was giving way to the idea of downloadable files that could be played back on portable devices, not just PCs. Apple's iTunes store was actually selling songs. Several audio download services, still closed in various ways, had appeared, including I2Go's MyAudio2Go. com. Fermentation was bound to produce something new. One of the authors, Mitch Ratcliffe, posted a downloadable audio file of a parrot joke on his blog in September of 2003 (signifying nothing other than, if he was doing it, it wasn't obscure anymore). Eric Rice, co-founder of http://Audioblog.com, had launched a downloadable version of his webcast about the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and at Webtalk Radio, a tech talk show, Rob and Dana Greenlee were approaching a million downloads a month through their Windows Media Player placement on MSN. Stuff was going on when Dave Winer started the transition to podcasting.

Ease of use, though, hadn't made its way to audio distribution. Tristan Louis, a media and Web site developer, had suggested the idea of using RSS to deliver audio files as early as 2000, but the blog of record for the nascent movement, Harold Gilchrist's Audioblogger, was still reporting the use of downloads through links in early 2004 — lots was going on, but the catalyst hadn't appeared yet.

The last yard, via USB

For several years, Dave Winer and Adam Curry, a former MTV VJ who had spent the 1990s building a digital technology consulting company (he was the idea guy rather than an engineer, though he can code), had been exchanging audio files by sending links to one another. Winer began to play with placing the audio in an enclosure in an RSS feed, distributing the Grateful Dead's U.S. Blues on Inauguration Day in January 2001. In September 2003, Winer created an RSS feed for journalist Christopher Lydon, who had put together a series of interviews with leading technologists and politicians. Another step in the path to podcasting was taken. In June 2004, Stephen Downes, a Canadian developer, began offering audio via RSS from his blog, making it the first regular source of RSS-based personally produced audio.

Winer's wiring up of audio RSS would make automatic download of programs as simple as blogging, but it took several more years, until early 2004, before he and Curry helped make the last connection that resulted in podcasting's birth.

The step in the functional chain missing from the stone soup of podcasting was the ability to synchronize an RSS download to a portable device automatically. Non-RSS synchronization was a part of several commercial applications, including iTunes, Audible, and Windows Media Player, an expected feature for most people with iPods and other portable audio players. People expected audio from the Internet to flow over the USB cable they plugged in to their portable audio player. RSS didn't have that last connection.

Amphetadesk, an RSS newsreader developed by Pete Prodoehl, had integrated audio support after the Lydon interviews were released. This made desktop playback easy, but getting the file to an application that delivered it to a portable MP3 player required a series of steps, too much management effort.

Adam Curry and Kevin Marks, an engineer with weblog search engine Technorati, collaborated or at least talked about how to create a script based on a script. Marks had developed an AppleScript, which became RSStoiPod, that automated the transfer of an audio file downloaded by Winer's blogging software, Radio Userland, to Apple's iTunes. It was the last stretch of data pipeline from the server to the portable device. In short order, two more programmers, August Trometer and Ray Slakinski, integrated that synchronization functionality into an audio-centric RSS client that they called iPodder.

Podcasting had been borne, so it was time for some throes of agony to supplement the relatively painless birth.

What podcasting is not
Tiresome though the blogosphere could be when comparing itself to "mainstream media," with a literal voice some early podcasters went shrilly to work policing the limits of podcasting. People who had been doing audio downloads before were labeled "not podcasters," either because they didn't share a foggily described aesthetic with early podcasters or because of their continued use of other channels to distribute audio. A cottage industry sprang up to support gatherings that, like the Council of Nicea did the orthodoxy of the early Catholic Church, laid out the doctrines that made podcasting unique.

Some of the definitional details were correct, but these arguments quickly became personal and uselessly circular.

Steve Rubel, whose Micro Persuasion weblog is quite influential, said of a New York Newsday program on August 11, 2005: "In my view, downloadable audio itself is not a podcast, as Newsday and the WB Network think it is judging by this page [a link to the page displaying the audio link]. You gotta have an RSS feed to distribute it and they don't." The definition of a podcast had been right, and it turned out that Newsday had a podcast feed.

When Audible announced a podcasting service, Dave Winer wrote: "By design, podcasting took a poison pill at the very beginning of its life that made it impossible for the corporate types to subvert it without fundamentally changing what it is. That's why I was sure that Audible wasn't doing podcasting." The poison pill Winer refers to is his decision to thwart commercial insertion through the use of the MP3 file format, which is widely available but as inflexible as any other format available, as it is controlled by the Frauenhofer Society, a German engineering group that licenses MP3 to software and hardware developers. Any changes to MP3 to facilitate advertising insertion and tracking will result in new revenues for the Frauenhofer Society. The file format is a temporary feature of podcasting, as many others are already in use, but if Winer's definition of a podcast — only those feeds delivering MP3 files — had been enforced, it would be like television makers had decided that when the switch from black-and-white to color happened, the new colorful picture would not have been television but something new.

When KYOU, a flagging San Francisco Bay Area radio station, started broadcasting podcasts instead of its ordinary fare, blogger-media critic Jeff Jarvis wrote: "This is still a big company handing over its time and using the second-person plural: YOURadio. We'll know we've arrived when the people take over the station for real and change the name to OURadio." Jarvis praised the development, but the branding rubbed him the wrong way. He quotes approvingly this comment by MasterMaq, another blogger: "KYOURadio is not a podcast radio station — they simply play content submitted by listeners." Apparently something happened to the audio transmitted over KYOU that made the podcasts aired into not-podcasts in some mysteriously metaphysical way. These hair-splitting distinctions armed many critics.

Dave Slusher, commenting on the contending definitions of podcasting, provided an excellent summary of the technical features of a podcast, then this maxim, which suggests limits on podcasting that emphasize amateurism: "In summation: podcasting is based on ‘asynchronous bundles of passion, automatically delivered to your device of choice while you sleep.’" The "bundles of passion" is apt, but for many it means that one can't make money at this, even if it takes all your time and people love what you do. Slusher takes advertising today, but many people argue that "podcasting" has already been subverted by efforts to route around Dave Winer's poison pill.

The debate has never ended, which is a fine thing, because podcasting is constantly evolving. The point, though, is that podcasting is not defined by limits; rather it represents a wide range of possibilities. Anything could be a podcast, from a recorded conversation over lunch to a grandmother's memory of her grandparents preserved for her family in digital audio and offered only to family members via RSS feeds. If Gutenberg had defined what could be in a book, it would have slowed things down dramatically. Instead, the printing press replaced scriptoria filled with monks within 70 years of its introduction because it was used to produce all sorts of books, not just Bibles. The second bestseller to come from the press was an accounting primer, by the way.

Feb 9, 2008

A Podcast for Every Listener

Podcasting began with voices, just like radio. The first podcasters were also the medium's creators, hacking together technologies to make the programs they recorded available, and they will be remembered for their contributions — people like Frank Conrad, the Pittsburgh-based radio operator who first turned his ham radio transmitter into a foundation for popular entertainment. Conrad's audience grew through the auspices of a store that sold radios and advertised on his "station." Eventually, the station became KDKA in 1920, the first licensed commercial radio operation in the United States.

In podcasting, the voices began with Dave Winer, whose Morning Coffee Notes were among the first to be delivered via RSS. On his first program, from August 12, 2004, Winer related his ideas about blogging and journalism, beginning with a story of hellish travels:

"Good afternoon, everybody. This is your friend, Dave, calling in… checking in from New York, where it's hot and humid. You can tell that, you can hear the sound of the air conditioner in the background, probably. Had a very eventful trip across the country yesterday…."

Winer's podcasts allowed him to evangelize the technology itself. As one of the creators of RSS, he was interested in finding other uses for the XML (Extensible Markup Language) syndication format that let bloggers offer subscription services of their text feeds. Podcasting became its own best marketing in Winer's hands, as well as those of former MTV VJ Adam Curry, who introduced his Daily Source Code program on August 13, 2004.

Unfortunately, the early episodes of Daily Source Code are no longer available on the Web, but the show combined Curry's patter with his favorite independent music and "mash-ups" of popular music that he made himself. Curry's promotion of other podcasters was critical to the evolution of the medium, because he became one of the most reliable sources, in the early days, of new podcasts.

Fairly soon, several podcast indices offered links to new podcasts, which gave rise to what can only be called "surprising" new programs. Out of those lists, early "stars" rose. Dave Slusher, who'd done some radio in school and performed computer programming services in South Carolina for a living, was among the first to grab a loyal audience.

Slusher riffs in his program, Evil Genius Chronicles, about his day, the news, culture, technology, and coding over a music track. The effect he was aiming for was similar to National Public Radio's This American Life, but what he created was uniquely Dave Slusher. What did it do for Slusher? His Evil Genius Chronicles podcast became a source of revenue from sponsors and the sale of a small collection of Evil Genius t-shirts, as well as advertising revenue from his blog, which saw more traffic. The show also made people aware of his coding skills, bringing him consulting work and, basically, making his effort to earn a living more flexible than he dreamed it could be.

The podcast is, for most people, another piece in a complex puzzle that makes an economic life possible. But it won't always be so.

Dawn Miceli and Drew Domkus, a married couple living on a shuttered dairy farm in Wisconsin, launched a funny, truthful show about marriage — their marriage and everyone else's — that combined banter and sex, sometimes recorded for The Dawn and Drew Show (see Figure 1.2). Dawn and Drew became some of the first to "go pro" as podcasters, earning their living on podcasting after a year "on the air." Their show is sponsored, and they won a slot on Sirius Satellite Radio. The couple has become something like celebrities, but not quite so full of bull as most of what passes for celebrity, because it is not manufactured but captured in sound.

Dawn and Drew: honest sex and marriage

Podcasting's history is evaporating as quickly as storage limits for hosting accounts fill up. We can't tell you what Adam Curry said, because there's no copy of the file accessible through any links exposed by Google and other search engines. Podcasters are often forced to purge their archives to keep their costs low, yet all these older programs make up the "long tail," the vast catalog of content that can serve the incredibly diverse interests of listeners for many years, but only if the programs remain available. What made the long tail interesting in the first place was the notion that at a site like iTunes or Amazon, which make available titles that couldn't be stocked in a retail store on CD or on shelves, was the fact that almost every title would sell in a year.

The problem podcasting has is a shortage of storage, which organizations like The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/) and Our Media (http://www.ourmedia.org/) are seeking to ameliorate by providing free storage to content that can be freely reused.

OurMedia's message: Share and share alike

However, podcasters have to know to go to these sites and upload their programs, and if they want to protect the content, they are left on their own. In the former case, society loses out, and in the latter, audiences and producers lose. As podcasting matures, a full range of business and sharing models will be needed to preserve the creative efforts of so many people.

That's not to say that Dawn and Drew are a success because they make money. Rather, they would probably be doing this show anyway, because the stories, the bickering, the funny criticisms and witticisms seem to flow out of these two. They exemplify the kind of honest passion that can be captured by a microphone and find an audience.

Anyone can build a business on this technology, but it still takes talent and a kind of excitement that makes producing a show thrilling every time the mic goes live. Another couple, Rob and Dana Greenlee, created WebTalk Radio long before podcasting came along, migrating to the new distribution technology when it swept away streaming as the preferred way to get audio over the Internet. Dana Greenlee says the problem is that after years, you start to think about producing as "time to make doughnuts, oh well." Indeed, Wired Magazine wrote about "podfading," the tendency for programs to disappear as producers lose interest. Keeping the excitement in a podcast is critical, whether you're going to deliver it to the world or to a small group.

But the Greenlees have enjoyed many rewards for their efforts, including executive jobs won by Rob and Dana's becoming the first podcaster for CBS Television, where she produced shows about the Fall 2005 television shows offered by CBS. Their podcasts were far less expensive than the radio program they'd previously produced, since they no longer had to pay for airtime on local stations, and their audience was dramatically expanded both geographically and in size by the move to downloadable audio.

Performers have shown the way to success, as well. Robby Gervais, star of the BBC's The Office, launched his podcast with friends Steve Merchant and (the astonishingly funny) Karl Pilkington (see Figure 1.3). The first "season," when it was hosted by the Guardian Unlimited, a Londonbased online newspaper site, achieved a huge audience, as many as 250,000 per episode, more than most cable channels can expect.

Karl Pilkington: genius stupidity as performance art

The show is funny and is clearly a performance, for no one can be quite as dense as Karl Pilkington pretends to be. Gervais, an accomplished actor and comedian, took his experience in radio to podcasting, building a show on quick transitions between conversational segments, very like radio. For these guys, who have worked together in media for years, the performance is natural. They've practiced their enthusiasm as their work and their natural humor shines through.

Gervais broke new ground when he partnered with Audible Inc. to offer the first subscription podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show, charging $6.95 for six shows, which is now in its third "season." The podcast also reinforces his relationship with fans and is just part of the total Gervais package.

Journalists, too, have made the transition to podcasting. Since the podcasting world began in and amidst technology, it was natural that some of the most successful podcasts would be about technology. This Week in Technology, or TWiT, hosted by Leo LaPorte, a radio and television host for many years, is a well-sponsored program that provides technology news and reviews, often in front of a live audience at retail locations and conferences, a kind of Tonight Show that makes obsolescence fun (finding new stuff to buy is entertainment). LaPorte manages to turn almost everything he does into a podcast, offering a variety of specialized programs, such as Inside the Net, that serve parts of his audience.

A news background trains the mind to make use of so many parts of every recording and experience, because news is made on a strict budget — now more than ever.

The last area where podcasting has just started to take hold is in business, where a budget is appreciated too. As a medium, podcasts enjoy a special quality of taking little time to produce. Podcasts are a natural for marketing and engaging customers in discussion about a company's products and services. With less than two years behind it, podcasting hasn't provided the business world enough examples of success to make it a major movement, but like the Web, television, and radio before, it will happen.

Corporate podcasts might be marketing vehicles, and companies certainly will find a way to sponsor audio delivered via RSS and download. Advertisers have begun making noise about the millions, even billions, they want to put behind new programs. Think, though, about how simple it is today to start your relationship with customers. From a local nursery that prints the URL for its podcast about gardening on its sales receipts to chains that distribute fliers at retail outlets advertising a contest that, like American Idol, brings the voice of the customer to the world through a podcast, the possibilities for programming are endless.