Every now and then, when I tell somebody that Cathrine and I do a podcast, I get asked “What’s that?”. I’ve been in conversations at parties where we talk about our favourite podcasts, and somebody always asks “What’s a podcast?”. And the answers these people get are not helpful because they are inconsistent and contradictory. So I’m writing this to try to clear matters up a bit. Short answer: Podcasting is to radio, what YouTube is to Television. These days, anybody with a computer or a smart phone can make an audio recording, and stick it on the Internet. And if they produce a series of these recordings, and publish them in a way that follows certain technical specifications, then they have a podcast.
The Now Look Here! podcast
When I first had the idea to start an editorial/opinions blog, called Now Look Here, I decided to give things a boost by starting a podcast. Me and one other presenter would record short discussions on the various topics, and publish them through a podcast service that would take care of distribution and marketing. (I ended up starting my own service, by the way – it turns out that I have the necessary skills and resources to do that! Tell all your friends!). I ended up recruiting my wife as co-host, and we put out a few episodes together. It wasn’t long before we’d shifted the focus to something we consider ourselves experts on: Parenting!
Traditional radio shows are recorded in studios, by professionals. The technical work is handled by sound engineers. They are all directed by a producer, who balances the interests of the audience with the needs of the advertisers (who pay for everything). Whether it’s a music show, talk radio, or news, it still has to be broadcast over a powerful radio transmitter, which costs money and has to comply with strict government licensing regulations. It’s expensive, and requires a full-time staff to make it all work.
So when we talk about a radio show, we’re not thinking about a specific format. Instead, we mean an audio presentation that people listen to live, on their personal AM/FM radio receivers. Of course, it might also be broadcast via streaming audio over the Internet, or even as an audio-only channel on satellite TV, but the basic structure is the same.
By contrast, podcasts are distributed by software, across the internet. As each episode is recorded, you publish it on your blog, and update a computer-readable file. This file lists the title of each episode, what it’s about, where to download the actual recording, cover art, and more. This information is also usually in the blog post, so that humans can read it as well.
Somebody who likes podcasts will have podcast software (or podcatcher) installed on their computer or mobile device. If they ask their podcatcher to subscribe to your podcast, it will download that special file we mentioned earlier, and add your show to its subscription list. At regular intervals, it will check for new episodes, download them, and add them to a playlist. Our fan can then just play through your episodes as if they were listening to their music collection. Instead of having to browse websites to find the next episode, they just click “Play”. Historical note: The original podcatcher was iTunes, and Apple actually invented the podcast format. Their iTunes service remains the most important directory of podcasts on the Internet.
So the format of a show is irrelevant. It can be long, or it can be short. It can feature a group of experts discussing a topic in-depth, it can have a single presenter ranting their latest blog posts to you It can even be a rowdy group of friends getting drunk and swapping bad jokes. It can be recorded by professionals in a studio and mastered to the highest audio quality, or it can (and often is!) be recorded on a cheap microphone in a noisy environment and published with no editing at all. What defines it as a podcast is the distribution via the method described above, not the content.
If you’re interested in starting your own podcast, I offer a hosting service at Constellation Online Media, for a very reasonable rate. All you need to do is make the recordings and upload them – we’ll take care of the rest! Just mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org