May 1, 2009

Using Peer-to-Peer Distribution

The last method of distribution you may want to consider is peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution uses other people on the network to distribute files, instead of sending everything from a single centralized server. P2P distribution came to notoriety with the arrival of Napster, which was originally used to share music files across the Internet. Since then, it has gone mainstream, with many different types of data distributed in this fashion. Skype, the Internet telephony start-up, is actually a P2P application.

There are a number of different P2P approaches, but basically the way it works is that if you request a file and the P2P network knows that someone near you already has a copy of the file, you are directed to that person's computer to get a copy, instead of sending another copy all the way across the network. Sometimes, downloads are distributed across multiple computers, so you're downloading parts of a file from many different participants on the P2P network.

The advantage of P2P distribution is that is uses the audience's bandwidth, so you don't have to pay for the throughput. Instead, people are being directed to other people on the network, and they're using their bandwidth, not yours. However, P2P distribution really works only if your content is very popular.

How P2P works

To explore how peer-to-peer distribution works, we'll look at BitTorrent. BitTorrent is perhaps the best-known P2P system. There is a vast amount of BitTorrent traffic on the Internet, by some estimates as much as 35 percent of the traffic at any given time. It's anyone's guess what all this traffic is and whether or not it's legal. Regardless, it's a proven system that works well.

BitTorrent is a protocol that defines how files can be shared between two or more hosts. It's also the name of one of the programs that distributes files using the BitTorrent protocol. Essentially, BitTorrent works by breaking large files into many small pieces. BitTorrent downloads are not done sequentially, like regular FTP or HTTP downloads. Instead, BitTorrent clients download files in pieces, from as many different clients as possible. BitTorrent clients find out about the different locations they can download files from by checking in with a BitTorrent tracker, which keeps track of everyone who is participating in the distribution of a particular file. It may seem a bit confusing, but it's actually pretty simple. Here's an example of how it works:

  1. You create a "torrent" for the file you want to distribute. This is a small file that contains all the information people need to know about the file to download it. The torrent is created in your BitTorrent application.

  2. After the torrent is created, it is placed on a Web server and registered with what is known as a tracker. The tracker keeps track of everyone who is participating in the distribution of the file.

  3. Next, you have to seed the file. This means getting the initial copy of the file into distribution. Usually this is done from the user's desktop. You click the link to the torrent on the Web site and indicate in your BitTorrent client that you're seeding for this file.

  4. When the first audience member clicks the torrent link, the torrent file opens by their BitTorrent client. The BitTorrent client finds out from the tracker who is participating in the distribution. Because no one else is, the BitTorrent client begins downloading the file from the original seed file, which in this case is your computer.

  5. When the next person clicks the torrent link and then checks in with the tracker, he finds that there are now two machines participating in the distribution: the original and the first audience member. Their BitTorrent client requests pieces of the file from both clients.

  6. As more clients joint the torrent, the distribution becomes more and more distributed, allowing clients to download the file from many different clients. Files that are very popular have many people participating in the torrent, so the distribution process scales accordingly.

  7. BitTorrent "etiquette" dictates that it's nice to leave your BitTorrent client on for a while after you've downloaded the file, so that you can help distribute the file to other people.

This is a simplified picture of how P2P distribution occurs, but essentially it's correct. For P2P distribution to be efficient, it requires lots of clients participating in the distribution. So when you're first starting out, P2P distribution offers very little benefit, because your audience most likely will be downloading at different times and won't be able to take advantage of the distributed download. When your podcast audience is in the thousands, then you can make an argument for P2P distribution.

Is P2P for you?

One thing that we've conveniently ignored up to this point is that P2P software is not built in to any podcatching software. Podcatchers can download MP3 files using HTTP, but they cannot participate in a P2P distribution scheme. So if you want to use P2P as a distribution scheme, your audience has to download and install P2P distribution software. Considering the antipathy some folks have to installing software, this may not be the easiest sell.

P2P distribution is used widely by the gaming community to distribute new releases and software fixes. It's a proven distribution technology that can potentially save you lots of money in bandwidth costs. The problem, however, is that it isn't yet integrated into podcasting in any meaningful way. Although P2P may be an effective way to scale podcasting distribution in the near future, for the time being you're probably better off sticking to other methods of distribution.

Apr 27, 2009

Using a Content Distribution Network

Content distribution networks (CDNs) are designed to deliver large volumes of traffic quickly and efficiently. Whereas a Web host may have hundreds of servers in a single location, a CDN has multiple data centers, and generally the data is replicated across each data center. This is done both for data integrity, so that if there's a power failure somewhere your files are still available, and also for speed. Most CDNs also rely on caching to make downloads happen faster.

Caching is a technique where the most popular files are stored at multiple locations so that when they are requested, the request doesn't have to go all the way back to the origin server. For example, let's say has an extremely popular story on its home page. The origin servers are most likely in Atlanta, where CNN is based. The first time someone in Los Angeles requests the CNN home page, a copy, along with all the images, is sent from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Then a copy is stored in a cache somewhere on the west coast, so that the next time someone requests that page, it can be served directly from the local cache and not re-requested from the origin server in Atlanta.

CDNs offer premium delivery services, so you won't find pricing like you can with the Web hosting services. CDNs also like to deal in very large numbers, so if you're not expecting to spend hundreds of dollars a month, you shouldn't waste your time calling CDNs. However, when your podcast is at a stage where you have a large audience that demands quality service, a CDN is your best bet.

The CDN marketplace

The CDN market is often divided into the "tier 1" providers, who have the largest and fastest networks, and the "tier 2" providers, who may have slightly more aggressive pricing but may not offer the same service. CDNs are often graded in terms of their availability, which some brag about in terms of "five nines." This means that their network is available 99.999 percent of the time. Another metric used to grade CDNs is the response time, which is the average amount of time it takes for a CDN to respond to a request. A number of services grade CDNs from time to time on their performance. The CDN market has seen lots of consolidation in the last few years, and prices have dropped considerably. The performance of the tier 2 CDNs has come so close the tier 1 providers that the tier 1 providers have had to drop their prices to remain competitive. Some even question whether there is enough distinction between providers to classify them into separate tiers anymore. Be that as it may, these are some of the better-known CDNs:

CDN pricing

CDNs use two basic models for pricing. Traditionally, they have billed using what is known as the 95th percentile model; recently many are moving to a per megabyte/gigabyte model. One of the frustrating things about CDNs is that it is almost impossible to translate between these two pricing models, making it difficult for CDN customers to figure out their cost of delivery.

Using the 95th percentile model, your price is quoted as a dollar amount per megabit of concurrent throughput. For example, a CDN may offer you a price of $50 per megabit. The tricky part is how your concurrent traffic figure is arrived at over the course of a month. The CDN measures exactly how much throughput you are using many times over the course of each day. At the end of the month, the CDN tabulates all the measurements, discards the top 5 percent of the measurements, and uses the 95th percentile measurement as your billable amount.


Billing at the 95th percentile is measured in terms of megabits, not Megabytes. Be careful when you're doing your calculations!

Here's another way of looking at it. There are 720 hours in a 30-day month, so 5 percent of a month translates to 36 hours. So when you're billed at the 95th percentile, the busiest 36 hours of the month are discarded, and you're billed for the throughput your site used during the 37th busiest hour. Still confused? Don't worry, you're not alone. This model is frustrating to customers, because it is hard to understand and hard to budget for. In some ways, it's good because you don't pay for momentary spikes in your traffic. On the other hand, it's very hard to calculate your cost of delivery on a per-file basis because that varies depending on your traffic patterns.

For example, let's say you've got 1,000 subscribers, and you put up a new podcast each day. Over the course of that day, all 1,000 of them check the RSS feed and download the podcast. Assuming the same 5-minute, 5-MB file we talked about earlier in the chapter, and assuming folks are on an average broadband connection of about 300 Kbps, it's going to take the average listener about 2 minutes to download your file:

5 MB * 1024 MB/KB * 8 bits/byte = 40,960 Kbits
40,960 Kbits / 300 Kbps = roughly 136 seconds (fudging the
difference between K and k)

Given an ideal distribution, over the course of a day, just over 700 people could download your file, one at a time, and you'd never have more than one person at a time downloading. But given that most of your listeners probably will be from a limited number of time zones, and most folks will check their favorite feeds either at lunch time or early in the evening, you'll probably get the bulk of your downloads during three or four hours a day. That means you'll have around 5 to 10 people downloading at any given time. Let's say 10 for a liberal estimate. This means your concurrent throughput during these hours will be:

10 * 300 Kbps = 3 Mbps

This should end up being your 95th percentile number, because you're hitting this peak for 3 to 4 hours each day. If you're paying $50 per megabit, you can then do some math to figure out what your cost per delivery is per file:

3 Mbps * $50 = $150
1,000 subscribers * 20 podcasts/month = 20,000 podcasts
$150 / 20,000 podcasts = under a penny a podcast

So it's not impossible to get your cost of delivery, but it involves some calculation. And the calculations are highly dependent on your traffic patterns. Your bill depends on when people download the file, not how many. So it's very hard to figure out what your incremental cost per subscriber is, because it depends on when they download the file!

For this reason, some CDNs are now offering pricing on a per gigabyte basis. Using this model, customers are billed for the total amount of throughput they use. It doesn't matter when the throughput is used. This model is much simpler for customers to understand, because the math is straightforward. Using the previous example, let's calculate what the cost would be, assuming a cost of $1 a gigabyte:

20,000 podcasts * 5 MB/podcast = 100,000 MB = 100 GB
100 GB * $1 = $100
$100 / 20,000 podcasts = half a penny a podcast

Using this model, it appears that it's cheaper, and we know it's a hard cost that we can use in our calculations. Each podcast costs a half a penny to deliver. Contrast this with the 95th percentile where we know the cost is under a penny, but that could change depending on traffic patterns. However, don't let these numbers fool you. It's not quite this simple.

Let's say your podcast audience doubles in size. Using the cost-per-gig model, we know our costs would double. However, with the 95th percentile model, they may not. An audience that's twice as large quite probably would come from a much more dispersed geographical area and may distribute the load over more hours in the day. It's quite possible that you could double your audience size and not pay any more at all! That's the tricky part. If you make efficient use of your bandwidth, the 95th percentile model can be substantially cheaper.

Some companies put caps on bandwidth usage, so for example they're never using more than one megabit per second. This slows down file delivery for people if they're all trying to download at the same time, but keeps costs low. In fact, this is a tool that some hosting companies use to make sure they keep their costs low. (How else do you think they can offer so much bandwidth for free?) You may be able to do the same if you work with your CDN. This compromises performance for your listeners, but it can be a good cost-savings mechanism.

Apr 24, 2009

Using a Podcast Hosting Service

Podcast hosting services are very similar to Web hosting services, but with product offerings geared towards podcasters. You generally get a certain amount of storage space and throughput, and depending on the service, you may get a Web site or a blog, tools to author your RSS feed, and statistics regarding your podcast.

The tools that podcast hosting services offer make them a great bet for folks who are not technically savvy. Also, many of the podcast hosting services are using an interesting model where they charge for the amount of storage you use, but don't charge for throughput. This is an interesting approach and a great deal if your podcast becomes extremely popular. However, as mentioned in the preceding chapter, using a podcast hosting service means giving up some of your ownership, because you won't be able to use your own URL for the site.

However, you could use a hybrid approach where you host your Web site at a Web host and your media file at a podcast hosting service. You'd still have access to the RSS tools, and you could either host the RSS feed from your Web site or point to the RSS feed on the podcast hosting service. It's a little awkward in that you're using two separate services instead of one, but you may be able to get the best of both worlds this way.


Another benefit to some hosting services is that they may offer the possibility of advertising or sponsorship to help pay for your podcast. For example, Liberated Syndication is partnered with Kiptronic to offer ad placement and sponsorship opportunities. Granted, you don't have to be a LibSyn user to take advantage of Kiptronic's offering, but if you are, the integration is seamless and taken care of for you.

Apr 20, 2009

Using Your Web Server

The simplest case is to host your podcast media files right on your Web server. When you're starting out, this is probably the way to go. Most Web hosting agreements usually include a fair amount of bandwidth these days, which cover a fair amount of downloads. For example, here are a few of the better-known Web hosting companies and the deals they're currently offering:

As you can see, killer deals for cheap Web hosting abound. However, as the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch. The only way they can offer these kinds of prices is by putting hundreds if not thousands of Web sites on each server. You'll be sharing resources with lots of other folks. In some cases, this may not be a problem. However, sometimes it can be problematic. Your listeners may have to wait longer for your pages and your podcast files to download.

When you're first starting off, prices like these with the amount of storage and throughput they're giving away are pretty hard to pass up. Many of these services also offer fairly comprehensive tool sets that allow you to build Web sites and create e-commerce pages, blogs, and forums, and they'll even host your e-mail.

If you're thinking of going this way, it's really important to comb the comparison sites and the forums of your potential partners. See what people are saying about them and whether their existing customers are happy. Don't just go by the testimonials they put on their home page; dig into their message boards if you can, and search them to death. It's not that the couple of dollars a month is going to break your budget; it's more that after you're settled into a Web host, changing can be a painful experience.


A number of sites out there regularly update the ratings for Web hosting services. Just search for "best web hosting" and you'll have a number to choose from.

Apr 17, 2009

Distributing Your Media File

Although the discussion was couched in somewhat general terms and assumed that your podcast and the Web site hosting your podcast were the same thing, they don't have to be. You can host your Web site using one solution and host your podcast media files somewhere completely different.

You may want to do this for several reasons, but they all generally boil down to the fact that MP3 files are much larger than Web pages, so you're going to use lots of bandwidth and lots of storage. This places unique demands on the server infrastructure, which may be a job handled by a trusted partner.

Understanding Distribution

One of the best things about podcasting is that it doesn't require any special serving software, like streaming media does. You just place the file on your Web server and update your RSS feed, and you're done. That's all fine and good when you're starting out and have a handful of faithful subscribers. But what happens when your podcast becomes wildly popular?

Several things happen. First, instead of downloading a handful of MP3 files to your listeners, you're suddenly sending out thousands of copies of your MP3 file. If your podcast is 5 minutes long and encoded at 128 Kbps, you're looking at a 5 MB file. A thousand downloads means you're talking about 5 GB of throughput. If you have a daily show, you're talking about over 150 GB per month. That's a pretty serious amount of traffic.

At this scale, things change significantly. Instead of sending out a few files when your friends check to see if you've updated your blog, your Web server is now running all day long. That means the disc drives are spinning, and much more wear and tear is being put on the machines. Servers have a much shorter shelf life than desktop computers for this reason. Most hosting companies plan on servers lasting approximately three years before they have to be replaced.

Of course, this is assuming that your podcast becomes popular enough to attract a large audience. That may not be your case. Your podcast may be niche content that is devoutly followed by a faithful few. Disregarding the size of your audience for the time being, your choices for hosting your media files break down as follows:

  • Host it on your Web server.

  • Host it on a content distribution network (CDN).

  • Host it on a podcast hosting service.

  • Use peer-to-peer distribution.

In the following sections, we talk about each of these possibilities in a little more detail.

Apr 14, 2009

Using Feed Icons to Publicize Your Feed

Chances are good that you'll get most of your subscribers from the larger directory services if you're diligent about listing your podcast. However, that's not the only way to get subscribers. Quite a few may find your Web page via a search engine, particularly if your topic is unique. In this case, it's important to showcase your podcast on your Web page. You want visitors to know in a split second that your Web page is more than just a blog. You want them to see that you have a podcast and that they can subscribe with a single, easy-to-find button.

Until recently, the problem was that there was no single universally accepted icon to indicate that a podcast was available. Different sites used different icons and different colors. Some folks took the original RSS icon, which was a small orange box with the letters "RSS" in white, and substituted the letters "POD." The good people at the Mozilla Foundation decided it would be best if a standardized icon were developed. The logic behind the development was that the icon should not include any abbreviations or acronyms, because people wouldn't necessarily understand what XML or RSS stood for, nor should they have to. They came up with the orange icon shown in Figure 1 (shown here in grayscale, obviously).

Figure 1: The "standardized" RSS icon

As with most things in the world of podcasting, the icon was loved by some and hated by others. There was plenty of lively discussion, which was pretty much brought to a halt when Microsoft decided to use the same icon for its upcoming Internet Explorer 7.0 release. Although you'll probably still see mavericks out there using their own iconography, most people will gravitate toward the Firefox/IE icon, and it will become the de facto standard.


The Mozilla Foundation has publicized usage guidelines for feed icons here:

In most cases, you'll want the RSS icon to link to your RSS feed. However, for those folks who subscribe to podcasts using iTunes, you can make their subscription easier by posting a link to your feed via the iTunes store. For example, the link to subscribe to the Dawn and Drew Show on iTunes looks like this:

When you click this link, it automatically opens iTunes and subscribes you to the Dawn and Drew show, with just one click. To find out what the direct link to your podcast in iTunes is, just Ctrl+click (right-click in Windows) the image you uploaded for your show. This opens a little window that lets you copy the URL for your show for linking purposes.

Now that you have the iTunes direct link, the question is what icon should you use to link to it? You don't want to use the standard RSS icon, because it doesn't work for folks who don't use iTunes to listen to podcasts. You want some way of letting people know that the link is specifically for iTunes users. Unfortunately, there's no right answer here. Folks have designed their own icons for this purpose, and there is no Apple-approved version.

Of course, if you're offering a special button for iTunes listeners, you may also want to offer a button for folks who use Yahoo! Podcasts, Odeo, Google, or any other number of podcast subscription services. And if you're offering your podcast in a number of different formats, you need to have an RSS feed for each format and ideally some sort of icon for each one. Again, there are no standards here. Peter Forret has created a nice set of icons that use a miniaturized version of the RSS feed icon along with wording indicating what the buttons specifically do. You can see his icons here:


If you want to tweak what Peter has done, he's kind and modest enough to admit that he used a cool online tool to create his buttons, and you can too — the Brilliant Button Maker:

Apr 4, 2009

Dedicated Podcast Hosting Services

Dedicated podcast services host your podcast files, provide statistics, and automatically generate your RSS. Some also include a Web site, which is usually a blog. Quite a few of these services are available at various price points and offering different services. For example, most offer some sort of Web site with your account. Some offer a free service, but place ads before your podcast. Many offer a trial period, which is a great way to see how well their tools work. Following are a few examples of podcast hosting services.


PodOMatic(, shown in Figure 1, is a complete podcast hosting solution, complete with a Web site for each member. PodOMatic offers both free and paid accounts. The free service gives you up to 15 GB of data transfer and 500 MB of storage per month. They also have two levels of paid service called Pro and Pro+. The Pro service upgrades your storage to 2 GB and upgrades the bandwidth to 100 GB per month, which they say is equivalent to 4,000 downloads per month for a 15-minute show. The Pro+ service upgrades the transfer to 200 GB per month or 8,000 downloads. PodOMatic Pro is $9.99 per month; PodOMatic Pro+ is $14.99 per month. The Pro services also offer enhanced statistics including what they call geo-ip maps showing where your listeners are on a map of the world.

Figure 1: PodOMatic is a dedicated podcast hosting solution.

Liberated Syndication (Libsyn)

Liberated Syndication, or as it's commonly called, Libsyn (, is another complete podcast hosting service, offering service at rates based on the amount of storage you use, with no limit on the number of downloads. Libsyn, shown in Figure 2, charges by the month for its services, which come in $5, $10, $20, and $30 levels with 100MB, 250MB, 525MB, and 800MB storage capacities respectively.

Figure 2: LibSyn charges only for storage, not for bandwidth used.

One of the nice things about Libsyn is that it gives you advanced statistics, shown in Figure 3 even with the lowest cost service.

Figure 3: LibSyn offers detailed statistics to all members.

Radio Userland

Userland (, shown in Figure 4, was founded by Dave Winer, the inventor of RSS and co-inventor, along with Adam Curry, of podcasting. Radio Userland is the oldest blogging service and has had podcasting support built in since the very beginning. Radio Userland has both a Web and a desktop-based component to its service. A basic subscription is $40 per year. Radio Userland does not provide hosting support for your podcast files, but it does have one of the all-time best set of blogging features.

Figure 4: Radio Userland is the granddaddy of all podcast hosting services.

Blogging services with podcasting support

Many blogging services are starting to offer podcasting support. Some have integrated podcasting support, some have add-ins you can use to enable podcasting support, and some require the use of services such as Feedburner or can be used with a manually created RSS feed.

Here is a short list of some blogging services with different degrees of podcast support:

Mar 24, 2009

Retaining Ownership

Ownership is another thing to bear in mind when you're making the decision about where to host your podcast and what software you're going to use. Another way to think about this is using the concept of brand. If you're spending lots of time and effort to create a successful podcast, your podcast, Web site, URL, and everything to do with your production are part of your brand. Building a successful podcast goes hand in hand with building a successful brand.

Successful companies have what's known as brand equity. That's why soft drink companies are extremely protective of their brands. They know their brands have intrinsic value, and they don't want anyone else to be profiting from them. You should be thinking the same way as you build your podcasting empire. If your podcast becomes wildly successful, you want the rewards from that success to come back to you — not your podcast hosting partner or your Web hosting partner. These people may play an important part in your success, but without your success, they're just hosting companies. You're the one bringing the programming to the table.

For this reason, it's important that you seriously consider retaining ownership of everything related to your podcast. Earlier in this chapter, we mentioned that you should register a URL for your podcast, and this is a prime reason why. If you're hosting your site on someone else's service, you're surrendering some of your brand equity. As your brand builds, you're also building someone else's brand, because everyone coming to your site sees your hosting partner's branding. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; you may, in fact, be building your brand on the strength of an existing podcast directory's brand. In the long term, however, you want to be able to focus on building your own brand, not someone else's.

Similar to registering your own URL, you should also retain ownership of your RSS feed. It's great that many podcast hosting solutions offer tools that automatically generate valid RSS feeds. However, these feeds live on their servers, so the URL to your feed ends up being:

Part of that URL has your branding, but the other part has your podcasting host's branding. The problem here is deeper than just the URL. After all, the URL may be hidden beneath a large "Subscribe to my podcast!" button that you put on your home page, so folks may not even notice the branding attribution. The problem is what do you do when you decide to part ways with Podcast Poodle? Everyone who has subscribed to your podcast has done so via the hosting service URL. You have to wean your audience off the old URL of your RSS feed to the new URL, which may not be a simple task, particularly if you have thousands of listeners.

A better approach is to keep control of your RSS feed, so that all your subscribers are coming in through your Web site, subscribing via your RSS feed. That way, you can change hosts at will, Web or podcast, and your audience won't notice a thing. If you change Web hosting partners, people will still find your Web site through the magic of the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS). They just type, and presto, your site pops up. Similarly, if you change hosts for your media files, you just have to change the contents of your enclosure tags in your RSS feed, and no one will ever notice.

Granted, managing your own Web site and maintaining your own RSS feeds may not be for everyone. It requires a significant amount of responsibility and technical know-how. There's a reason that podcast hosting companies are popular: The convenience is hard to pass up. If you decide to go the hosted route, just remember that you may be faced with a difficult decision later if your podcast is as successful as you hope it will be.

Mar 12, 2009

Finding a Home for Your Podcast

Now that you have an understanding of what RSS is and how to create an RSS file, it's time to figure out how the RSS feed fits into your Web site, where to put it so that people can find it, and how to keep it current. It's not that difficult, but there are a number of different ways to do it, so you should do some long-term thinking about how you want to manage your podcast and your Web site.

You have to make a number of decisions revolving around the two main aspects of your podcast, your Web site and your media. The decisions you make now have a direct effect on your production chain and also affect your long-term planning. After you launch your podcast and crank up your Web site, it can be difficult to change your approach mid-stream.

Let's start with an overview of the different ways that you can bring your Web site and podcast to market, along with some of the basic benefits and drawbacks of each option.

What Are the Options?

Up to now, all we've really discussed is how to create your podcast media file, and we talked a little bit about authoring your RSS feed. There's another aspect that can be just as critical to your success: your Web site. Podcasting began as a way to add audio to blogs, and to have this audio automatically transferred to an iPod. However, the concept of podcasting has grown since then. Informal studies have shown that up to 50 percent of all podcasts are watched while sitting in front of a computer. Many of these may be played on iTunes running in the background, but a significant number are also watched on Web sites as embedded presentations.

Podcasting purists are quick to say that these aren't really podcasts. (Some, in fact, say that anything other than an MP3 file is not a podcast.) Call it what you want: A ton of programming is being produced and distributed on the Internet using RSS feeds. This programming can be experienced in many different ways. The question is what sort of experience do you want your audience to have?

In an effort to try to impose some sort of order on this chaos, we can divide the different options into three main categories of ways to host your podcast:

  • On a Web site or blog that you manage and maintain yourself

  • On a managed Web site or blogging service

  • On a dedicated podcast hosting service

Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. In a nutshell, if you're willing to take on the burden of managing and maintaining your site, you'll have the most flexibility and freedom. This flexibility comes at a price, though. If you're managing your own site, you have to worry about lots of things, such as software updates, hackers, spammers, and hardware problems. If you use managed or dedicated systems, you have much less to worry about, but this ease of use comes at the price of flexibility. You may not be able to install some new gadget on your site that you found on an opensource forum, or you may not be able to embed the latest video technology due to support issues. Let's talk about the options in a little more detail.

Managing your own Web site

Managing your own Web site can be lots of fun, but it can also be lots of work. First, you have to either build a server or buy space on a shared server from a Web hosting provider. Some Web hosting providers allow full access to the operating system so that you can tinker to your heart's desire, while others place fairly serious restrictions on what you can and cannot do.

The nice thing about managing your own site is the complete freedom to do what you want, when you want. Assuming that you're running on your own server and have full access to the operating system, you can add forums, install a wiki (a shared space where people can add and edit content at will), change the look of your home page, or do anything else that strikes your fancy. You don't have to wait until a host adds new features; you just add them yourself.

Of course, this assumes that you're very comfortable running a server and installing software. Many blog and content management system (CMS) software packages install fairly painlessly these days. At the end of the day, however, if something breaks, you have no one to call. Everything is just fine until something breaks, at which point running your own server can become a nightmare, particularly if your podcast becomes popular and your audience is baying for more.

Scalability is another issue. If your podcast becomes wildly popular or if for some reason iTunes decides to put you on the podcast directory home page, the traffic to your Web site will spike. Web servers are not that complicated, but they can break down, and if they do, it's almost invariably due to a large increase in traffic — precisely the most inconvenient time for them to do so.

As the saying goes in the world of start-ups, having capacity issues is "a good problem to have." If your podcast is so popular that you're frying the small server at the end of your home DSL line, chances are good that you'll be able to afford a new server or afford to move to a managed hosting service. You should try to run your own server only if you're a seasoned Internet veteran with access to some reasonable server hardware and some free time. If you're just starting out, you should consider a managed hosting service or a dedicated podcasting hosting service.

Using a managed hosting service

The next step up in the hosting world is to use a managed hosting service. There are literally hundreds of different hosting options out there. When you register the URL for your podcast, chances are good that the company you use to register your URL will offer some sort of hosting package for your site. Hosting packages generally offer a certain amount of free storage and throughput each month, and you pay overage charges when you exceed either of these.

Some hosting packages come with pre-packaged software that allows you to create a Web site from pre-existing templates or a content management system that allows you to easily manage your Web site. If you're thinking about including e-commerce on your site, you'll need e-commerce capabilities. Many hosting service providers offer "shopping cart" functionality and may even be able to process credit card transactions for you.

One thing you'll want to make sure the service offers is statistics about your Web site traffic. If you're serious about turning your podcast into a business, you'll need accurate traffic statistics to gauge the success of your programming and to lure potential sponsors and advertisers. You should look for as much statistical information as you can find. A number of standardized Web stats packages are satisfactory, but the best hosting companies will offer incredibly detailed stats.

Perhaps the greatest thing about using a managed hosting service is that a significant amount of responsibility is taken off your plate. You no longer have to worry about hardware, and spammers and hackers are the hosting partner's problem. Also, if your statistics are showing a strong upward trend, you should be able to predict when you're going to run out of capacity and work with the hosting partner to add more capacity.

The only drawback to using a managed hosting service is that you may be limited in the software you can install. It depends on the type of service you purchase. You can purchase a shared server, in which case you're usually fairly limited, because the server must be a reliable hosting environment not just for you, but the other clients on the same server. There may be hundreds of other Web sites running off the same shared server.

Hosting services generally also offer dedicated servers, where you essentially lease hardware from them and they keep it up and running. Different hosting services allow different levels of access. Some let you do anything you want to do, while others limit what you can do so that the machine conforms to their standard, which makes it easier for them to maintain. The service you choose depends largely on how much freedom you want to install and modify software.

Using a dedicated podcast hosting service

Dedicated podcast hosting services are managed hosting services that are highly customized for a podcaster's needs. For example, these services usually offer tools to create and update your RSS feed. They may even be automated through some sort of wizard so that when you upload a new media file, your RSS feed is automatically updated. Many dedicated podcast hosting services also offer some sort of Web site for their clients, typically in the form of a blog. The blogs often come with their own URL, so that you can have a somewhat custom Web address. For example, let's pretend that you've decided to host your podcast about pike fishing with a company called Podcast Poodle. You'd probably be given the option to register your own URL like this:

As good as this may seem, it's not as good as having your own URL, such as:

In the first example, your Web site is what's known as a subdomain of the master domain, which in this case is (please don't register this and sue us). Essentially, you're piggybacking on the master domain. This isn't much of an issue if you're a tiny podcaster, but if you make it big, you really want everyone coming to your Web site, not a page on someone else's site. When you use one of these services to host your site, you are giving up a degree of control, which you may not be happy about later.

That being said, it's hard to argue with the convenience these services offer. They make it extremely easy to get a simple Web site up and running, to keep your RSS feed updated, and to monitor how popular your site and podcast are, because they usually run top ten lists and feature different podcasts from time to time. Many also offer automated tools to list your podcast in a number of other directories, which is especially important when you're first starting out.

Some podcasting hosting services have become destinations themselves, either because they host other popular podcasts or have been around long enough that folks know it's a good place to find podcasts. This can be another compelling reason to go with a dedicated podcast hosting service. They already have an audience looking for podcasts, and there's a good chance that they'll check out your podcast if you're the new kid on the block.

You probably won't have lots of freedom to modify your Web site on these services, because they're so highly specialized to begin with. You also may not own all the real estate on your Web page. For example, the hosting service may reserve the right to advertise on your Web page in order to recoup some of their costs. They may also want to put an ad in your podcast. Seeing as how many of these podcast hosting services give away a serious amount of bandwidth and storage, it's not surprising that they want to try to earn a bit of money from your podcast. It comes with the territory.


Be very careful when signing up for a podcasting hosting service. Some incredibly bad contracts have been floating around that would make any respectable lawyer blush. One host in particular had language in its contract that specified that any podcast placed on its service immediately became the property of the host. In another case, a host was found to be modifying all the RSS feeds hosted on its service, crediting the podcasts to, you guessed it, the hosting service. It may seem like common-sense advice, but read everything put in front of you, preferably with a lawyer present.

What solution is best for you?

With all these options available, how do you choose what is going to work best for you? We can try to summarize your options here:

  • Managing and hosting your own Web site is really only an option if you're very savvy or if you already have an existing site to which you're adding a podcast. You may run into scaling issues, but because you're savvy, you'll be able to solve them, right?

  • Using a managed Web hosting solution is a great option for your Web site if you're experienced. The more Web savvy you are, the more you can get out of a managed solution. You'll have your own URL and the freedom to do what you like to your site.

  • Using a dedicated podcast hosting service is a great idea if you're just starting out and don't know much about Web sites. You can't beat the convenience, and they allow you to focus on the programming, which is what you should be doing anyway. If you outgrow the service, you can cross that bridge when you come to it.

One thing to mention is that this doesn't have to be an either/or situation. For example, you could host your Web site with a managed hosting solution and then use the dedicated podcast hosting service just to host the podcast file! Just because a podcast hosting solution offers you a simple Web site doesn't mean that you have to use it. In fact, this is probably the best option for the savvier user. Use a podcasting hosting service to host your podcast media files, and you'll be able to take advantage of its RSS tools, its statistics, and any other special tools it may offer. Then, host your site, complete with your personalized URL, with a Web hosting service, so you can have more flexibility with your site.

Mar 3, 2009

Filling a Niche by Focusing on a Specific Area of Interest

Deciding what topics you can talk about is an important step, but it’s time for the application of what we like to call Jurassic Park logic. JP logic requires you to ask yourself this question: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether you could, but have you figured out whether you should?

While we’re not trying to put you into tidy boxes or for an instant suggest that adding your voice to a busy conversation is a waste of time, we are suggesting that you strive to introduce a new topic to the podosphere, or find an underserved audience. Yes, you could create yet another music podcast featuring an eclectic mix of podsafe music artists. But realize that you will be competing with the dozens — perhaps hundreds — of shows out there doing basically the same thing.

You’ll best serve the current and future audience of podcast listeners by selecting a niche topic. This stands in stark contrast to traditional broadcast media, where the idea is to select broad-reaching topics to maximize the coverage area. That’s fine in a world where only so many stations fit on a radio dial, but that’s not where we live. Go for the small and focused. It’s where you’ll find the most loyal audience just waiting for you to start talking.

Determining whether you’ll have enough to talk about

One of the perils of going niche is making sure you have enough material with which you can create new episodes. A show centered around the intricacies of reattaching lost buttons to ladies’ blouses might limit your options in the future. However, that might make an excellent episode of a podcast about tailoring or seamstressing (is that a word?).

Our advice is to write down the topics and subtopics that come to mind. Don’t worry — you’re not planning out your show production schedule for the next six months. If you can list ten items of interest with only a few minutes of thought, you’ll probably be fine.

Helpful Hint

You never know when show topics will hit you, so figure out a system for jotting down the inspirations when they strike. One of your authors uses a portable Moleskine notebook (overpriced notebook, claims the second); the other keeps an outliner application at the ready (though the first wonders why inspiration only strikes at the keyboard). Figure out what system works best for you. Heck, sticky notes are a great way to start. Anything that allows you to collect ideas as they come is good to have.

Considering whether anyone will listen

Once you know you have enough to get started on your first five to ten episodes, you’ll want to do a final sanity check: Is there anybody out there waiting to listen? We hesitated before putting this section out there and remain torn as of this writing. But in the end, practicality won out. You can have exceptional diction, excellent production values, and extraordinary content — but someone other than you and your mom needs to care.

Luckily, this shouldn’t be a problem for you; more (sometimes way more) than one person always seems to be interested in the most obscure things out there. Keep in mind, however, that audience size and podcast topic are intimately related. If a large audience is your goal (and we’re not saying it should be), then select a topic that appeals to many.

Mar 1, 2009

Taking Inventory of Your Interests

Let’s start this off with the most important person in the equation: you. No, it’s not your audience. It’s not the community you aim to serve. It’s not even the person who might have paid you to pick up the mic and start cranking out episodes. We’ll even tell you that it isn’t your spouse, though as we say this we cast a wary eye over our shoulders, burning through even more SPUs (which we explain later).

The host of the show is the lifeblood of the show. We’re not trying to put undue pressure on you, but your show won’t get very far if the topic isn’t something that you (a) want to talk about and (b) can talk about while (c) demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about. So what can you talk about? What do you want to talk about?

To be fair, you may have had the idea of doing a podcast thrust upon you as part of your job. That’s fine. Unless your boss has arranged for someone to hand you a completed script to read in front of the microphone (in which case, you probably aren’t reading this anyhow), you’ll still benefit from the suggestions in this section.

List what aspects of your job interest you

Like it or not, we spend a lot of time at our jobs, developing skills and competencies we use in our personal lives as well. While there is no question that some of your daily tasks at a job might fall into the mind-numbing category, examine those parts of your job that you do find interesting.

Notice we didn’t say day job. The reality is that for many people with the drive and ambition to even consider becoming podcasters, the wearing of two hats is commonplace. It’s not uncommon to take off the Accountant hat at 5:30 and assume the mantle of Community Organizer, Sports Memorabilia Collector, or Classic Car Restorer. These are every bit as much of a profession as that which provides the majority of your household income. The pay just stinks.

We recommend making a list of the things you do in your profession that most interest you, keeping the following points in mind:

  • You can get very specific or very broad — you can always refine or group tasks together later.

  • Be sure to include the aspects of professional affiliations, groups, or associations to which you may belong. Within all of these are hidden gems that may very well lead you to the right topic.

Jot down what you like to do for fun

What else turns your crank that you enjoy doing in your leisure time? All work and no play makes Jack a very boring podcaster whom no one much wants to listen to or talk with. And let’s face it, the possibilities for entertainment-focused podcasts are endless.

Look — you don’t have to be in this for the money. Some of the best-produced and most rewarding shows are created by people for the sheer fun of it. Perhaps you are an avid bowler and would like to share your passion with others. Maybe you know a ridiculous amount about beer. Perhaps your friends all turn to you for information when it comes to obscure knots and stitches, and everyone knows it takes you half as long to knit a sweater than anyone else on the block.

The idea is to find out what you are passionate about. Jot down a few ideas and see if you can come up with five or six subtopics worthy of further discussion. And remember that you don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person on the planet on a given topic. If you have the passion, it might be fun to take your listeners on the journey as you learn more

Feb 28, 2009

RSS: Podcasting's Secret Sauce

The RSS file really is the secret behind podcasting. RSS is an acronym for Really Simple Syndication.

In the late 1990s, during the first Internet "boom," companies such as Marimba, PointCast, and DataChannel offered news distribution based on a technology known as "push." Push technology delivered information to client PCs when the server was ready to push the content. This turned out to be technologically impractical because the server tried to push the information out all at once, which consumed huge amounts of bandwidth and clogged personal and corporate networks.

A new model called "poll then pull" evolved. In this model, the server did not send out updated information until it was asked for by individual clients. RSS, inspired by the various content syndication formats used in push technology, was originally proposed by Dave Winer in 1997 while he was running a company called Userland. RSS was designed to enable a particular form of news syndication known today as blogging. Other companies such as Netscape and Microsoft developed versions of their own known as RDF and CDF.

Winer attempted to work with Netscape and Microsoft until Netscape abandoned the effort in 1999, and in late 2000 Userland released version 0.92 of the standard. Optional elements including the crucial tag were added in 2002, and RSS was eventually standardized in its current form in July 2003. Several versions of the RSS story exist; you can read them at these sites:

As interesting as the RSS story is, all you really need to know at this point is that your RSS feed is a critical ingredient in the success of your podcast. It's the mechanism by which folks subscribe to and automatically receive your new episodes.

Feb 24, 2009

Adding a Logo to an MP3 Podcast

If you're at all serious about podcasting, you're going to want a logo. Adding a logo gives your podcast that extra bit of polish and recognition. And after you have a logo, you should embed it in every podcast you produce. However, it takes a few additional steps. Embedding images in MP3 files is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The original MP3 file specification did not include a way to attach metadata, such as the title, author, or copyright information. It wasn't until 1996 and the introduction of ID3 tags that metadata could be included in MP3 files. The original ID3 specification was fairly simple, including fields for title, album, year, genre, and comment. Over the years, the ID3 specification has grown to include much more, such as the track number on a CD, the composer, lyrics, and most important to this discussion, an embedded image, designed to contain album cover art. You can use this ability to embed a logo into your podcasts.

To add a logo to your podcast, you have to use an ID3 tag editor. Many are available, as a quick Internet search will reveal. As luck would have it, you probably already have one installed: iTunes. All you have to do is import your MP3-encoded podcast into iTunes and edit the ID3 tags via the Info window:

  1. Open iTunes, and import your podcast by choosing Import from the File menu.

  2. Find your podcast. If you're in library mode, you can sort by Date Added. This brings your podcast to the top of the list if you're in descending order.

  3. Highlight your podcast, and choose Get Info from the File menu. This opens the Info window.


    If you're not seeing the Artwork tab, then your podcast isn't yet in a format that supports embedded artwork, for example an unencoded WAV file. This is why it's a twostep process: First encode your file to MP3, and then open it and add your logo.

  4. Click the Artwork tab, and then click the Add button to browse for your logo graphic.

  5. Select your logo graphic, and click the Open button. You should see your graphic displayed in the Info window. Your graphic can be in BMP, GIF, JPG, or PNG format and any size up to 300×300 pixels. You should make sure that it looks good at different resolutions, because it will be displayed at different sizes on different players. iTunes provides a handy slider bar that lets you preview what your logo looks like at various resolutions. If it doesn't look good when it is scaled, you should consider revising it until it does.


    The 300 × 300 image size is not a strict limitation. However, using a larger resolution is not recommended because it may not be supported on portable media players, and it adds unnecessary payload to your podcast file.

  6. Click the OK button to save your changes.

Your logo is now embedded in your MP3 file and will be displayed in iTunes, Windows Media Player, and on portable media player screens that display graphics.

Feb 2, 2009

Encoding H.264 video using QuickTime Pro

You can export H.264 vide from QuickTime Pro in a number of ways. The simplest way is to use the iPod preset. This is perfect for creating iPod compatible files, but it gives you no control over any of the settings. You may want to tweak the settings a bit to suit your podcast, in which case you'll have to create your own encoding setting.

Using the iPod preset

Using the iPod preset is simple:

1. Open QuickTime Pro, and open the video to be encoded.

2. Choose Export from the File menu. This opens the Export window, shown in Figure 1

Figure 1: Export an iPod compatible video from QuickTime Pro using this preset.

3. From the drop-down menu, choose Movie to iPod (320×240).

4. Click Save. QuickTime Pro exports an iPod compatible H.264 video.

The only problem with using this preset is that it doesn't give you any control over any of the encoding options. You can't select a bit rate, a resolution, or anything else. Of course, it's guaranteed to work on an iPod, which is pretty handy. But the default bit rate is rather high, clocking in at over 800 kbps. This is fine for a short podcast, but if your podcast is longer than, say, 5 minutes, you're looking at a pretty serious download. You may want to dial the bit rate down to reduce the file size. To do this, you have to set your encoding settings by hand.

Encoding using custom H.264 settings

QuickTime also makes it easy to customize the encoding settings. There are a few more steps than using the iPod preset, but you have far more control over the output. Follow these steps:

1. Open QuickTime Pro, and open the video to be encoded.

2. Choose Export from the File menu. Again, this opens the Export window, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Here's how to get to the MPEG-4 video export settings.

3. Choose Movie to MPEG-4 from the Export drop-down menu.

4. Click the Options button to get to the video export settings. To begin with, this opens the MPEG-4 video settings, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Configure QuickTime MPEG-4 export video settings with this dialog box.

5. Select MP4 from the File Format drop-down menu.

Note QuickTime Pro defaults to MP4 (ISMA) for MPEG-4 output. ISMA stands for the Internet Streaming Media Alliance. Unfortunately the H.264 codec is not yet considered ISMA compliant (as of Fall 2006). This really doesn't mean anything. The H.264 codec is part of the MPEG-4 standard and will play back in any modern QuickTime player or iPod. For best quality, you should choose the MP4 option, not MP4(ISMA), so you can use the H.264 codec.

6. Choose H.264 from the Video Format drop-down menu.

7. Enter a bit rate for your file. Remember that the total bit rate is the video bit rate plus the audio bit rate.

8. Enter your screen resolution in the Image Size field. If you want iPod compatible files, choose 320×240.

9. Click the Video Options button to access the advanced encoding options. This opens the Advanced Video Settings window, shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Be sure to select Multi-pass encoding for the highest-quality results.

10. Choose Best Quality (Multi-pass) encoding mode, and click OK.

Note You may be wondering about the profiles restriction (Main versus Baseline) on this screen. In MPEG-4 encoding profiles define the "tools" that can be used to encode the video. Consequently these profiles also define the tools required to play back the encoded video. In this example, the Main profile provides more encoding tools than the Base profile. Since our goal is the highest quality video, we chose the Main profile.

The MPEG-4 standard is incredibly broad and frankly, not written in a way that a layman can understand. For a fantastic, concise, and fun-to-read explanation of the MPEG-4 standard, we recommend Damian Stolarz' Mastering Internet Video.

11. Now it's time to configure the settings for your audio. Select Audio from the second dropdown menu in the MPEG-4 Export Settings window. This changes the information displayed in the bottom half of the window from video settings to audio settings, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Configuring QuickTime MPEG-4 export audio settings

12. The first thing to choose is the audio codec you want to use from the Audio Format dropdown menu. In fact, the only codec offered for MPEG-4 encoding is AAC, which is just fine, because it offers great quality.

13. Next, select the desired bit rate from the Data Rate drop-down menu. A rate of 32 kbps should provide good quality.

14. If you're encoding spoken word content or want slightly higher fidelity, choose mono from the Channels drop-down menu.

15. The next available setting is the Output Sample Rate. This determines how much highfrequency information is contained in the final encoding. In general, the default setting works just fine. However, you can experiment with lowering the setting to get increased fidelity.

16. Finally, set your Encoding Quality to Best. This makes the encoding process take a little longer, but hey, your podcast is worth it.

17. Click OK to return to the Export menu, and then click Save to start the export/encoding process. You'll see the QuickTime Export progress window, shown in Figure 6, which gives you an idea how long the process will take. Depending on the length of your podcast, you may have time to grab a cup of coffee.

Figure 6: The QuickTime export progress window lets you know how long it's going to take.

Jan 17, 2009

Exporting MP3 audio from Audacity | Step by Step

Exporting MP3 files from Audacity is simple, if somewhat limited. You have to set your desired bit rate in the Preferences window before you export, because you aren't given an option to adjust settings when you export. Here's how to set your preferred bit rate:

1. Open Audacity, and open your podcast audio file.

2. From the Edit menu, choose Preferences, as shown in Figure 1. This opens the Audacity Preferences window.

Figure 1: Use this dialog box to configure Audacity's MP3 export settings.

3. Click the File Formats tab.

4. Select your desired bit rate from the bit rate drop-down menu in the MP3 Export Setup section.

5. Click OK.

After you set your bit rate in the Preferences window, choose the Export as MP3 option from the File menu. That's all there is to it. Audacity doesn't offer the ability to do mono MP3 encoding or VBR-based encoding. As long as you don't want to do anything fancy, Audacity is a perfectly good encoding option.

Jan 3, 2009

Step-by-Step Encoding Examples | Podcast

Now it's time to actually encode some files. This section demonstrates audio and video encoding using stand-alone encoders, editing platforms, and even iTunes. If your editing application isn't demonstrated, don't worry: It probably works much the same way. Let's start with iTunes, which really isn't an encoder, but it can do the job.

Tip You should always archive the high-quality version of your file so that you can re-edit or re-encode it later.

Encoding MP3 audio using iTunes
iTunes automatically encodes all imported audio. When you insert a CD and iTunes offers to import it, the audio bits are pulled straight off the CD and encoded into whatever format has been specified. The default setting is to encode using AAC. However, iTunes will also convert music in MP3 if you prefer, and will convert any file into an MP3 file. All you have to do is import the file into iTunes, and then convert it to MP3.

Setting MP3 encoding defaults

To use iTunes as an MP3 encoder, you have to set the default encoding to MP3. Follow these steps to set iTunes to import using the MP3 codec:

1. Open iTunes, and open the Preferences window by choosing Preferences from the iTunes menu (the Edit menu on a PC). You also can open this window using the keyboard shortcut Command+, (Ctrl+, on a PC).

2. Click the Advanced icon/tab, and select the Importing tab.

3. Select MP3 encoder from the Import Using drop-down menu.

4. Select your bit rate from the Setting menu. By default, the lowest setting offered is 128 kbps stereo. For most podcasts, this is a perfectly fine setting. If, however, you want to economize on your bit rate, you can adjust the settings by selecting Custom from the Setting drop-down menu.

5. Select a bit rate from the Stereo Bit Rate drop-down menu.

6. You can select a sample rate or leave this set to Auto. If your podcast ends up sounding a little crunchy or distorted, you can try lowering the sample rate to get better fidelity.

7. If you want a mono podcast, select Mono from the Channels drop-down menu.

Note If you select Mono encoding, the bit rate will be half of what you specified in the Stereo Bit Rate drop-down menu.

8. Click OK to close the Custom Settings menu, and then click OK to close the Preferences window. iTunes will now import files using the MP3 settings specified.

Importing and Encoding
To encode using iTunes, you must first import the file, and then convert the imported file. Importing couldn't be simpler:

1. From the File menu, choose Import.

2. Browse to find the file you want to encode, and click Choose (Open on PCs). The file is imported and is listed in your music library.

3. Find the file in your music library. Click it to select it, and then from the Advanced menu, choose Convert to MP3.

That's all there is to it! iTunes encodes it using the settings specified on the Importing tab of the Advanced menu. The iTunes music folder is easy enough to find, but if you want to encode to a specific location, you can change this setting in the General tab of the Advanced settings window.

Caution Be careful when you change your iTunes music folder; otherwise, you'll end up with your music library in two different folders. It's probably a good idea to change the music folder back to the default after you've finished your encoding.