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Introduction to Podcasting, Part 1: What is a Podcast?

This is the first in a short series of posts examining podcasts: what they are, where to find them, how they might benefit your website, and how to make your own.

And, just so you know that I know what I’m talking about, my own podcast is currently in its fourth year. I’ve produced over 80 episodes of Random Signal, with new material released at least once a month (although I’ve been on an unofficial hiatus since the birth of my son at the beginning of February). It is an eclectic mix of independent music and commentary on what I would describe as “geek culture”: Science Fiction, comic books, television, board games, etc.

What is a Podcast?

A podcast is a media file (usually audio or video) that is available for download via syndication. By subscribing to the podcast feed, each new installment of the podcast is delivered directly to your computer (and perhaps transferred to your favorite media player) to be played back at your convenience–a process known as time-shifting. Think of a podcast like a radio program that you can listen to on your own schedule.

This definition dispels two common misconceptions about podcasts…

Myth 1- You need an iPod to listen to a podcast.

The term “podcast” is indeed a blend of the words “iPod” and “broadcast,” but a podcast can be played on any device that supports mp3 files (or common video files in the case of a video podcast). It’s true that podcasting technology was originally developed with iTunes/iPod integration in mind, but it was never exclusive to those platforms. The name, for better or worse, has stuck.

Of related interest, Wikipedia’s timeline of the history of podcasting.

Myth 2 – Podcast is just another word for a downloadable mp3.

I’ve seen lots of websites which claim to have podcasts, but what they really have is a link to download an mp3. I understand that this may sound nit-picky–after all, what does it matter what you call your downloadable content? Admittedly, most podcasts offer individual download links for each file and give users the option to listen or view any given episode right there on the website, but it is, I believe, ultimately a question of perception. If you say you have a podcast (or blog, for that matter) on your site but don’t offer a way to subscribe, it will seem as though you are just trying to take advantage of buzzwords without any real understanding of the underlying technology. Furthermore, the presence of a podcast on your site will signal to your users that there is more great content to come. If all you’re ever going to have is a download or two, why would anyone bother subscribing?

In my next post, we’ll dig deeper into the world of podcasting. Where do you go to find podcasts, and how do you subscribe once you’ve found them? Not only will these questions be answered, but Newfangled staff members will reveal some of their favorite podcasts. To use an anachronistic, yet oddly appropriate term…stay tuned!

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