i-b45e10b8da4932f6cad93259238394dd-Podcast image.JPGEven though podcasts didn’t exist until mid-2004, there are now so many of them that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number. Yahoo recently listed more than 23,000 podcasts in its News category of podcasts. So what’s a listener to do?

Luckily there are a few excellent online directories that list and rank podcasts to help you find the ones that might interest you.

If you’re brand new to the world of podcasting, you can think of podcasts as radio shows that you can listen to on your own time, using an iPod or other portable audio player — or just your computer. The difference between streaming audio online and podcasts is that you can subscribe to podcasts using Apple’s iTunes or other applications, and each show will be available for upload to your device automatically.

Podcast Alley has a great definition of podcasts, while Yahoo has a simple step-by-step guide to publishing your own podcast. If you’re a little hesitant to jump into another new technology, consider using iTunes or the Yahoo Podcast directory, as both make it easy to try for the novice.

So now that you know what a podcast is, and understand some basics, you’ll want to find the good ones. I’ve tried out some of the more popular podcast directories, and I’ve rated them below.

One nagging question for me was why some directories decided to feature certain podcasts more prominently — did podcasters pay for this treatment or were they picked by editors as good content? I’ve contacted the directories in question and will update this post, and likely do a follow-up on the subject of featured slots for podcasts.

Because technology is ever changing I’ll return to this page again and again to update it as necessary. Your opinion matters too, so send in your reviews, gripes and kudos for podcast directories you have used. Just bang the comments below, or use the Feedback page to give me your take, and I’ll include it in future revisions of this guide.

iTunes

When Apple got into podcasting with iTunes, it single-handedly changed the game from a hobbyist pursuit to a mainstream phenomenon. Instantly, a much larger public had access to podcasts from mom-and-pops to Big Media. But you can’t access the iTunes podcast directory from the web — you need to download Apple’s iTunes software application, which runs on Macs or PCs. The directory is the most graphical of the bunch I’ve reviewed here, but it’s unclear how or why the Top 100 Podcasts are on the list, or why any other featured selections are featured. (I have put a call into Apple to check with them, and will report back.)

However, there are now Customer Reviews, which help give you some idea what your fellow listeners think — though keep in mind that these reviews are sometimes faked by producers or friends. Still, iTunes is tops for one important reason: fabulous integration. You pick the podcasts you want, you subscribe, and then you can listen with iTunes or upload them easily to your iPod.

On the Good Foot: Nice clean design and integration with iTunes software.
On the Bad Foot: Not clear why featured picks are featured.
Overall Grade: A

Podcast Alley

Podcast Alley is part of Adam Curry’s PodShow network, so it emphasizes more homegrown independent talent in podcasting over the more polished fare of mainstream media. Podcast Alley depends heavily on the votes of its readers to tally the Top 50 podcasts. The vote seems to start anew each month, so podcasters end up exhorting their listeners to vote for them. The directory has a nice built-in player to listen (or watch video) podcasts before you subscribe to them. My biggest knock on Podcast Alley is that you have to use a pull-down menu on the home page to see and choose genres of podcasts. In other words, there is no visual depiction of all the categories such as Business and Sports on the home page for easy browsing.

On the Good Foot: Nice database of more than 14,000 podcasts; listener ratings bring up good stuff.
On the Bad Foot: No directory of categories on home page.
Overall Grade: A-

Yahoo Podcasts

Though Yahoo might have joined the podcast directory game later than some others, you have to respect Yahoo for its long history creating web directories. The design and interface here are slick, with the home page split into three sections: “what we like,” “what other people like,” and “explore on your own.” Once again, I don’t know if podcast publishers paid to get into the “what we like” category, especially under “new and noteworthy.” (UPDATE: A Yahoo spokeswoman says that everything in the “what we like” category is chosen by Yahoo’s editors.) But I do like the one-button listen and subscribe functions for all the front page podcasts.

Yahoo also lists Most Popular podcasts by the number of subscribers (at least via Yahoo), and also by Highly Rated, depending on listener reviews. But it’s easy to manipulate these rankings, as I rated one podcast at one star, bringing its rating down from five stars to just three stars. It’s a common problem with ratings systems, and one that will change as more people rate more podcasts. Another nice touch from Yahoo is all the explanatory text, as well as the guide to doing your own podcast.

On the Good Foot: Simple, clean design and large database.
On the Bad Foot: Subcategories would help make navigation easier.
Overall Grade: B+

Odeo’s Directory

Odeo is a classic technology startup, which means they want to do more than just provide a directory of podcasts. They also have an application to let you record and upload audio for podcasts. Unfortunately, that mix of ideas takes away from the simplicity of the directory. You have to know, for instance, to click on the tiny “explore podcasts” link at the bottom of the home page to get to the directory the fastest. The nice thing about Odeo is that the audio player is built right into the web pages, so you can press a “play” button right below the podcast you want to hear. I didn’t follow the concept of “Channels” for podcasts, and had no idea how Odeo is gauging its “Hot Channels” or deciding why it featured certain podcasts on its main page.

On the Good Foot: Clean design with built-in audio player.
On the Bad Foot: Unclear on “Channel” concept; no genre directory.
Overall Grade: B-

Podcast.net

Despite the clunky design, Podcast.net does include a vast mix of podcasts, from the independent to the mainstream. The bonus is that you can browse through the genre directory, search for a topic, or browse through key words or “tags,” chosen by the person who recorded the podcast. Unfortunately, Podcast.net is often missing the main descriptions for podcasts in its directory, and there is no mechanism for either listener ratings or editorial picks.

UPDATE (2/21/06): Ruth Meers of Podcast.net responds to my review. “The description is missing on some of the podcasts since people are not properly formating their RSS feeds with the field,” she wrote to me via email. “This is required in the standard RSS podcast coding. Since there are many people podcasting that are not entirely sure of what they are doing, this is typical to expect this…Additionally, you can browse/search for podcasts by Host, Location, Episode and Keywords. Many directories do not offer these customized search areas.”

On the Good Foot: Large directory; you can browse or search by tags.
On the Bad Foot: No user ratings or editorial ratings for shows.
Overall Grade: C+

UPDATE (2/21/06): I have done a follow-up post on the topic of how podcast directories choose featured slots. In most cases, the sites made editorial decisions on what to feature, but say they did not take payment for those slots. However, Apple has not cleared up exactly how iTunes features certain podcasts and ranks its Top 100.