Podcasting: The Time Is Now - EMusician

Podcasting: The Time Is Now

So why is EQ covering podcasting? Because one way or another, it affects your studio. Podcasts combine music, audio, and sometimes, video to create the Internet equivalent of a broadcast. If you think that means people need a studio to do their podcasting, you’re right. Granted, podcasts can be created with a minimal amount of gear, at a very low cost. But they can also be full-fledged productions, requiring full studio capabilities.
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And if you want to promote your band or business, or just play DJ, podcasting is a fun and powerful new way to share everything from personal opinions to your band’s latest recording. Have you ever wanted your own radio show about your band’s antics on tour, or a better way to get your latest live show recording out to your fans? Creating a podcast that can be heard on any MP3 player is an easy way to distribute your own brand of content, while making it easy for subscribers to receive automatic updates. So whether on the production side, content side, or both, this article will show you how to create downloadable podcasts that people can enjoy anywhere in the world.

Just for clarification, despite its name, you don’t need an Apple iPod or iTunes to create, subscribe, or listen to a “podcast.” Your listeners can choose from hundreds of different feed reader programs and MP3 players, yet still receive the same information and content as those using Apple products.

CHECKING OUT PODCASTS

Before you share your show with the masses, you should be familiar with what your listeners will experience when they subscribe to your show. Typical podcasts are nothing more than MP3 files with some extra information attached in a special type of text file. The file directs podcast subscription programs (such as Apple iTunes) what to do with the audio file and its corresponding show information. The easiest way to see this in action is to subscribe to a couple of podcasts yourself. To do this:

1. Surf over to www.apple.com/itunes/.

2. Click on “Launch Music Store.”

3. Under “Inside the Music Store,” click on the “Choose Genre” drop-down menu and select “Podcasts.”

4. You’ll see a “podcast landing page” similar to Figure 1. It features thousands of different podcast shows, all available for free download.

5. Browse categories if you want, click on a show that interests you, and you’ll see a page like Figure 2 with a description, user reviews, the option to subscribe, or the option to download individual episodes. If you download or subscribe, iTunes will add that show in the “podcasts” section of your iTunes music library.

6. After it’s downloaded . . . listen!

The list of all available episodes of a show is contained in a special type of file referred to as the “feed,” which is attached to the MP3 audio. The feed file contains the information about how many episodes there are, and where the MP3 audio file can be downloaded. We’ll show you how to create this file later. Also note that the section of text describing the episode’s contents is what a typical podcast downloading program (also known as a “feed reader”) displays to a subscriber.

The subscriber will also have options to manage how often the feed reader will check in to see if you have a new episode to download, when to download the new episode, and whether the older episodes should be kept or deleted automatically. (In Apple iTunes, access these by going iTunes menu > Preferences, then click on the Podcasts button.)

READY . . . SET . . . PODCAST!

All you need to begin is your show. There is nothing special about recording or editing for a podcast; just have fun and make sure all your speaking hosts and guests can be understood clearly, and any music is mixed properly. There’s more about the subject of creating podcasts in other articles in this issue, including info about portable podcast rigs in the “21st Century Recording” column on page 66.

Once your complete show is recorded, you’ll need to convert the audio file into a format a typical MP3 player can use. Most podcasts use MP3 files because they are the most common format for portable players. While some other file formats (like Apple’s AAC) can give you additional features like bookmarks and changing album artwork pictures, these other formats may not be compatible with your listener’s favorite MP3 player.

When selecting a file format, consider which format will allow the greatest number of people to access your show. You can also create two different versions of your show — one MP3 and one AAC — but you’ll need to create two different feed files, and you’ll use twice as much storage space on your web server. Also be aware that this approach may confuse some less tech-savvy listeners who may not know which file formats are supported by their software or portable player.

If you’ve ever prepared an audio file for the web, you’ve already dealt with bit rates and sample rates. When choosing what bit rate/sample rate combination to use for your podcast, consider both what type of show you’re creating and how much bandwidth you can afford to use. If your show will be mostly talk, you can lower the bit and sample rates down more than for a music show, and still have good audio quality with a smaller file size. Try a few different combinations until you find something that sounds good but won’t hog your server bandwidth when hundreds, or even thousands, of listeners start subscribing and downloading. 64 to 128kbps is a good place to start.

PLEASE LABEL IT!

ID3 tags are just as useful for podcasts as they are for labeling your song, artist, and title information in your music collection. The ID3 tags in podcasting indicate the show’s title, episode title, give a date, and provide a brief description of the episode. ID3 tags work a little differently in podcasts than in music. . . . Artist? Album? Composer? These don’t work for radio shows, so podcasters have adapted these categories for their own uses.

Creating these tags is as simple as bringing your MP3 file into your favorite music listening application (such as iTunes), and editing each category for your show’s audio file. In iTunes, select your show’s audio file and choose “File” and then “Get Info.” You’ll see a dialog box where you can fill in all the information about your show, thus creating your ID3 tag (Figure 3). Here’s the protocol for filling in your information:

Name: Episode name or number.

Artist: Your name.

Album: The show’s name and website.

Comments: Use this for a quick description about the episode.

Genre: Select “Podcast” from the drop-down menu.

All this information will help your subscribers keep track of your shows and find what they want to hear. While you can create a podcast without these tags, your listeners will appreciate the effort.

FIND A HOME FOR YOUR PODCAST

You now have an MP3 audio file with clear and user-friendly ID3 tags on your computer. Like any other file for the web, you’ll need to upload it to a web sever. When choosing a web host for your podcast, remember that podcasting (like any other multimedia file on the web) is a huge bandwidth hog. You’ll want to select a service that can handle lots of bandwidth reliably at a reasonable cost. Remember when we talked about selecting your bit rate/sample rates for smaller file sizes? For podcasting, you have to think about bandwidth in terms of total subscribers and new subscribers. Take a look at this:

Week #1

Your show: 10MB.

Number of subscribers: 100.

Total bandwidth: 1000MB.

Week #2

Your show: 10MB.

Number of subscribers: 100.

New subscribers: 100.

Total bandwidth: 2000MB (twice as much!)

We’re not done! Your new subscribers want to check out your show that they missed the first week so add 100 more downloads: 3000MB total!

As you can see, we’re talking about major bandwidth. For that reason, consider podcast-specific hosting companies that offer special deals on bandwidth for podcasters. Any web host will work; you don’t need a service designed specifically for podcasting, though some companies have designed online services that make podcasting much easier — some feature helpful extra tools and flat rate, per-month bandwidth packages.

Know your web server terms: “Unlimited space” refers to the amount of file storage on the server you can use. “Unlimited bandwidth” refers to how many downloads of your files the server will allow per month. Be cautious about hosting companies that offer “unlimited” bandwidth — many don’t live up to their claims, and your subscribers might be left without your show.

XML . . . RSS . . . WHAT?

Once you’ve chosen a web host, you’re ready to step into the new world of RSS — the file that separates a plain old MP3 media file from a true podcast. In the world of podcasting you’ll hear the terms “XML” and “RSS” used interchangeably to describe the text file that tells your feed reader (such as iTunes) if there are new shows available and where to get them. XML stands for extensible markup language and is closely related to HTML, the programming language which makes up most of the Internet. RSS — or really simple syndication — is a type of XML that includes all the tags and other elements that make podcasting possible. Describing the detailed inner-workings of RSS is a book in itself, but don’t worry about learning a programming language in order to podcast — there are plenty of options for those of us without computer science degrees.

The RSS information you need to podcast can be made in a couple of ways, either with a special program installed on your computer, or by using online podcast production services. If you choose to go with your own standard web host, you can use a special software program designed to help you create your RSS information right on your personal computer. FeedForAll (Figure 4) is one such program for both Windows and Mac that gives you a simple interface to create your RSS information. Programs like FeedForAll generate the RSS code needed for you; all you have to do is enter some basic information about your show and the URL of the audio file on your web server. The software takes care of translating this information into the RSS code feed readers need.

When FeedForAll is done, it will generate a small text file (called the “feed”) and all you need to do is upload this file along with your audio. If you go with a standard web host, just upload your audio file and the RSS text file as you would any file. You may want to set aside a separate folder on your web server for your podcasts so you can more easily see what you have online. If you have a Mac, you may already know a program that will help: Apple’s Garageband 3 features easy podcast creation tools that allow you to record, edit, add pictures, upload, create a feed, and add your show to the iTunes music store directory, all in one program.

Another easy way to create your feed is with online web tools. Some companies will create only the feed file necessary for your podcast, while others offer a full complement of online services. Using their online tools and web interface, you can use a podcast-specific hosting service to create the RSS information and upload your audio all together. Companies like Libsyn.com offer online RSS creation tools, hosting (oriented to high bandwidth needs), and podcast directory listing services (more on that later). Choosing one of these “one-stop-shops” for all your podcasting needs is an easy and affordable way to get started. Some companies also have bonus features like your own blog, or add the ability to call from your mobile phone and create a podcast automatically. You’ll also find a helpful user community and support forums where you can share information, and meet fellow podcasters.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROMOTION

Once your podcast is online and your RSS feed is set up, get ready to conquer the Internet! But how will anyone know you’re out there screaming into the void? The answer is to get your show listed in podcast directories. Getting listed is a pretty simple process; out of the hundreds of podcast directories out there, the two most popular are Podcast Alley and the 800 lb. gorilla known as the iTunes music store. Getting your show listed on one of these sites will help listeners who would be interested in your show find you among the thousands of other podcasts.

Doing a listing is as easy as submitting an online web form containing basic information about your show, such as your website, the location of your feed file, and a brief description of your content. You’ll want to get listed on as many directories as possible so potential listeners can find your show. You may also want to check back in with directories on which you are listed when you make changes to your show such as adding a new co-host, new subject matter, or especially if you change web servers.

Now that you have the basics down, you can create and share podcast shows featuring your ideas, music, or anything else about which you are passionate. Just remember that podcasting is a new medium that is developing as you read this. Keep checking in with a good podcasting news sites, such as podcastingnews.com, to stay up-to-date on the latest techniques and technologies that will help your show grow.