As every musician knows, Podcasting provides a great way to get your music out to the public and let people know what's coming out of your studio. With an interesting Podcast that you update regularly, you can attract steady listeners and possibly generate professional opportunities that might not be available otherwise.
FIG. 1: To subscribe to a Podcast, access the iTunes Podcasts directory, browse through the categories, click on the Podcast you want, and select Subscribe when prompted.
So where do you start? Building your own Podcast begins with becoming an avid consumer and critic of other Podcasts. Start by subscribing to some Podcasts to see how they're done. Fortunately, Apple has made this easy by integrating Podcast support into its iTunes music service (iTunes is available free from Apple at apple.com/itunes). Once you have iTunes installed, navigate to the Podcasts item under the Library tab, then click on the Podcasts directory link at the bottom of the window. That takes you to the iTunes store in a special Podcasts section. From there you can browse the available Podcasts by genre or by doing a search (see Fig. 1). Subscribing is easy: just click on a Podcast you like, and then click on the Subscribe button.
Check out the top Podcasts in your category, noting how long each Podcast is. Do they use audio? Video? What about their show notes? In particular, pay attention to how often the hosts produce a Podcast. Podcast subscribers think of their subscriptions as shows. The most popular Podcasts are not the longest ones, but the ones that update the most regularly. Before putting your own Podcast together, think about your level of commitment to your show. If you're considering putting out a 30-minute Podcast, it will take, on average, four hours of production each week. Do you really have the time for that?
What Is a Podcast?
At the technical level, a Podcast is very simple, consisting of just two types of files. The first is a media file (MP3 or video, for example), and the second is a text file (called an RSS 2.0 document, and commonly known as a feed). RSS 2.0 is a file format based on XML, and the feed lists the name and details of the Podcast, including its title, its description, and a link to the associated media files that are referenced by the feed.
The easiest way to start a Podcast is to associate it with a blog, and that's because a blog already has an RSS feed. You can use a service like FeedBurner (feedburner.com) to turn an RSS feed into an RSS 2.0 feed. (RSS feeds alone are not suitable for Podcasts because they don't point to the media files for the Podcast.) If you don't already have a blog, you can use a hosted service like Blogger (blogger.com) to start one. If you already have your own Web site, then you can use software like Six Apart Movable Type (moveabletype.org) or Automattic's WordPress (wordpress.com) to get you going. These tools support Podcasting by default, and both can create RSS 2.0 feeds for you.
A valid RSS 2.0 feed is critical to getting your Podcast going. See the sidebar “Source Code“ for a portion of an actual feed, including the header and the enclosure tag from a Podcast entry.
At the top of the feed are the iTunes tags, which start with either the word media or the word itunes. These describe the show in general and specify categories that are used later when you register a Podcast with iTunes. The really important part is the enclosure tag within the item tag, near the bottom of the code. This should point to the uploaded media and specify the correct length (in bytes) and file type. The enclosure tag must be in the RSS 2.0 feed for people to be able to subscribe to your show.
The First Podcast
Once your blog is set up, the next thing is to produce the first Podcast. To keep it simple, I'll assume that you want to make an audio Podcast. But be aware that there are popular video Podcasts (vodcasts) out there as well. You can even do a Podcast that sometimes has audio and other times has video. Video can be helpful when you are demonstrating something — for instance, a guitar or keyboard technique.
FIG. 2: The freeware program Audacity (Mac/Win) is a good choice for creating your Podcasts, but you can use any software that supports MP3 output.
To create an example Podcast, I'll use Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net), a free audio editor that works on Windows, the Mac, and Linux, but any application that outputs MP3 files will do (see Fig. 2). Note that you can use any audio format, but most people expect MP3 or AAC. AAC is the standard iPod format, but it's not widely supported on other players.
Using Audacity's ID3 tag editor, set the appropriate title for the individual show. The artist and album should be the name of the Podcast. The comments should contain show notes. Show notes should provide the listener with a short summary of the content of the show so that they can decide whether it will interest them.
Audacity has a recording feature, so you can use that to record your Podcast. You can then edit out the ums, ahs, mistakes, delays, and so on using the simple Select and Delete tools. Try to keep your first Podcast relatively short. Introduce yourself and the show, present a first topic, then wrap it up by inviting the listeners to contact you with their ideas.
To finish building your Podcast, export the complete final audio as MP3. Use only a single mono channel and the lowest possible quality you can get away with (perhaps even as low as 48 Kbps if you are just doing voice) in order to keep the file sizes small. If your subscriber count is low, the size of an individual Podcast might not make much difference. But as your subscriber base increases, the bandwidth costs will also multiply.
Next you need to decide where to host the file. At the end of the day, all that matters is that you have a specific URL for your media. If you have your own Web site, you can host it there, or you can use a .Mac account. If you don't mind going without a copyright, you can store your files for free on the Internet archive (archive.org; you have to license the material under Creative Commons). Or if you're looking for a low-cost commercial solution, you might want to try Amazon's Simple Storage Service (aws.amazon.com).
Blogging Your First Podcast
Once your finished file is uploaded to the Web, the next step is to reference the file in a blog entry. In Fig. 3, I've used the blog-entry editor in Movable Type to demonstrate the first Podcasting entry. You can reference the media file as many times as you like and put as much extra information as you want into the blog entry to describe the show.
FIG. 3: Once your Podcast is finished, you''ll reference it in your blog. Here, I''m entering the text I want using Movable Type.
I strongly recommend that you use both the audio and text portions of your blog to the fullest extent so that you engage your audience regardless of how they want to interact with you. You might reach out to your listeners by encouraging them to send you audio questions, by reading aloud the questions and comments they've emailed you during your show, or by doing a live call-in at a specific time that is then recorded for the Podcast.
Getting the Word Out
At this point, you're ready to have people subscribe to your Podcast, which they can do using iTunes. All they need to do is type in the URL to your RSS 2.0 feed in the Subscribe To dialog box under iTunes' Advanced menu — so be sure to place your URL prominently on your blog page. To make a bigger impact, you'll want to get listed in the iTunes Podcasts directory. Apple makes this easy by putting a Submit Podcast link on its Podcasts directory home page. It might take a while to get up there, so you want to do that as soon as possible.
The real key to Podcast success is to put a show out regularly. Keep it short, keep the quality level high, keep the entertainment factor very high, and incorporate the feedback from your audience to build a better show. Podcasts always start roughly — listeners expect that. But in return, they want their voices and feedback heard and integrated into the show. If you do that, you will win the loyalty of your fan base and rise in the popularity rankings in the iTunes directory.
Jack Herrington is the author of Podcasting Hacks (O'Reilly, 2005). He is a software engineer and writer who lives with his wife, daughter, and two dogs in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Jack Herrington's Personal Blog
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Ten Tips for Improving Your Podcasts
Making a Podcast
Recording Your Podcast in GarageBand