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From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and hopefully consider trying your hand at a new endeavor. I’ve already covered blogging, RSS feeds, citizen journalism, and wikis. This week I’ll look at podcasts.

What Are Podcasts?

Podcasts are audio or video shows that you can subscribe to via the Internet and listen to or watch on your own time on your computer, portable MP3 player or other web-connected device. The power of podcasts is that you can subscribe to the shows you want, and then they automatically appear in your podcast aggregator software such as Juice or Apple’s iTunes. When you plug in your portable MP3 player — which can be an iPod or any other player — your podcasts can then be uploaded and experienced on the go.

Why has podcasting become such an appealing pastime? People who listen to podcasts love the way they can access an amazing array of content — from language lessons to comedy shows to NPR news — on their own time and on their own devices. Almost all podcasts are free of charge, and very few include commercial or sponsor messages. You can often fast-forward, rewind or pause the podcast, making it a similar experience to watching a DVD or playing back a TV show on a digital video recorder (DVR).

Plus, the barrier to entry as a podcast producer is very low. All you need is a microphone connected to your computer, and some audio software, and you can start creating your own podcasts. Of course, if you want to garner an audience for your podcast, you’ll likely need a website or a blog to help promote your show, and you’ll need to submit your podcast to various podcast directories.

Richard Giles, who co-wrote the “Podcasting Pocket Guide,” explains the explosion of podcasts on his blog:

There are podcasts about music, technology, movies, business, words, camels, coffee, politics, and parenthood. The range of podcasters is just as diverse: professional DJs, truckers, lawyers, counselors, journalists, camel herders, actors and the girl next door. Anyone and everyone can create their own radio show about whatever the heck they please. It might mean that only their wife and mom listen, or perhaps 50,000 people tune in, but the beauty of the show is that it can be whatever they want.

One downside to podcasting is that not everyone is comfortable using computer software to subscribe to shows and manage subscriptions. Listening to podcasts is not as easy as simply turning on your radio, or even just listening to Internet radio stations. However, once people get the hang of it, they often become big fans of the variety and convenience of podcasts.

A Brief History of Podcasting

Podcasting became part of the general lexicon almost overnight. The technology behind podcasting comes from RSS news feeds, which were developed by programmer and blogging pioneer Dave Winer. Former MTV VJ Adam Curry had been pushing for a new way to do RSS with multimedia, and helped encourage Winer to develop RSS with enclosures.

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Dave Winer and Adam Curry

That technology allowed people to publish RSS feeds with audio or video, but it took a few years before regular podcasts were launched. In the summer of 2004, Winer started a proto-podcast called Morning Coffee Notes and Curry started his Daily Source Code show. Curry decided to start coding his own podcast software called iPodder, and was hoping to get other programmers to join in on the open source software project. Eventually, iPodder became the basis for other “podcatching” software programs, which help you manage and subscribe to podcasts. In 2005, when Apple’s iTunes included podcatching software as well as a podcast directory, the medium exploded.

What started out as a geeky side project became a medium that every major broadcaster participates in. When you look at the iTunes Podcast Directory, for instance, “featured providers” include NPR, ABC News, CNN, Comedy Central, MTV, The New York Times, and yes, PBS. Along with the interest by media companies who want to reach this tech-savvy podcast audience, various startup companies have sprung up to help commercialize independent podcasts (e.g. Curry’s PodShow), insert ads into podcasts (e.g. Kiptronic) or measure podcast audiences (Audible’s WordCast).

Where to Find Podcasts

Unlike regular radio shows or TV shows, podcasts live all over the web, so there is no limit to where you might find them. However, to ease the burden of searching high and low for podcasts that might interest you, many sites offer podcast directories with listings of podcasts and easy ways to subscribe to them. (I wrote a guide to podcast directories about a year ago.)

The iTunes directory has the slickest interface, with an emphasis on professional content from media companies. You can search through podcasts according to topic or by popularity or check out “staff picks.” Once you find a podcast you like, you can subscribe to it via iTunes or just download an episode to check out. The great thing about iTunes is that it is well integrated with iPod devices, but the drawback is that you have to open up the iTunes application to check out the directory.

Once you have subscribed to the podcasts you like, you can return to your podcasting software to find new shows. Then you can download those shows to your MP3 player or listen to them on your computer at your leisure. As you listen to shows, you can then discard the ones you don’t need or have your podcast software remove older shows automatically.

How to Become a Podcaster

One great thing about podcasting is that anyone can jump in and start podcasting with very little investment in equipment. For a basic audio podcast, you’ll need a computer connected to the Internet, a good microphone, and sound recording software. Of course, having an original concept will help as well. You should probably sift through existing podcasts in various directories to make sure you’re doing something relatively unique.

Yahoo provides a great step-by-step guide for making your own podcast, and includes the following advice:

Want to really maximize your audience? We’ve found that many successful podcasts start with a good plan…Next, think about the content of your podcast. What will you talk about? How long will your podcast be? Jot down a rough outline for your podcast so you can keep on track when recording. Finally, how often will you create new episodes? Daily? Weekly? Monthly?

Once you have the plan and the gear, make sure you’re in a quiet space and record your show. Be sure to get clearance for any copyrighted music that you use on your podcast. You can find music that’s free for use on podcasts at PodSafe Music. Once you’re done recording, you’ll need to take the audio file and encode it into the MP3 format, and then upload it to your website or the podcast hosting service you might use (such as Libsyn).

Then comes the tricky part: getting noticed. With the thousands of podcasts in existence, you’ll need to consider who your audience is and how to reach them. First you’ll want to submit your podcast to the various directories. Next, you’ll want to give notice to the various bloggers and online pundits who cover your field of interest. Once you have built up a loyal audience, you might consider making money as a podcaster.

Making Money with Podcasts

There has been a lot of hype around podcasting, and much of it has faded since the initial ruckus in 2005. While many podcasters have taken their hobby and made it into a profession — notably video podcasters such as Rocketboom and Ze Frank — the vast majority of podcasts remain labors of love with little commercial appeal. Bullish market researcher eMarketer predicted that advertisers will spend $400 million on podcasts by 2011, up from $80 million last year. But that number is miniscule compared to the nearly $20 billion eMarketer predicts will be spend in all online advertising in 2007.

There are a few problems for people looking to “monetize” podcasts. First, it’s impossible to tell how many people actually listen to your podcast. While you might be able to gauge the number of subscribers, you never know who actually listened to it or how long they listened. This information is crucial to advertisers who want to know specific audience numbers and usage statistics. While some services have cropped up to help podcasters tally their audience numbers, nothing has become widespread enough to make serious inroads. The podcasting audience remains a muddled guess.

Rob Walch of Podcast411 recently compared various research firms’ estimates on the size of the total podcasting audience. His conclusion was that the number is probably “somewhere between 6 and 60 million, with the likely conservative number around 15 to 20 million consumers.” That’s not bad, but still a long way from mainstream appeal.

Perhaps that’s beside the point. The early nature of podcasting was that it was home-brewed radio, created by amateurs and boosted by enthusiasts. Placing advertisements all over a podcast would almost defeat the purpose, and people would simply fast-forward past them or stop listening if it became too commercialized. The trick for podcast publishers is to create an experience that is engaging and includes the sponsors in new, more interactive ways. For instance, GoDaddy at one point allowed PodShow podcasters to create their own ads touting its service.

Resources

To learn more about podcasting — from how-to’s to business articles — check out the list of resources below.

Guides and Histories

Directory of Podcast Directories from Podcast411

History of Podcasting from PodcastBlaster

iTunes Podcast Spotlight from Apple

Introduction to Podcasts (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) from Richard Giles

Make Your First Podcast from Podcasting News

Podcast defined by Wikipedia

Podcasting and iTunes: Technical Specifications from Apple

Podcasting and iTunes: FAQ from Apple

Podcasting Glossary from Podcasting News

Podcast Hosts from Podcasting News

Podcasting Software [for Listeners] from Podcasting News

Podcasting Software [for Publishers] from Podcasting News

The Technology Underlying Podcasts& from Computer.org

Top 25 Podcasts by Hits from Podcasting News

What Is a Podcast? from Podcast411

Yahoo Podcasts — Guide to Publishing a Podcast

News Stories

Audible’s Podcast Tool Tallies Listeners from the Wall Street Journal

Classes To Go Digital with New Podcast Service from the Daily Orange at Syracuse

Music Industry Changes Its Tune on Podcasting from the Wall Street Journal

Podcast Riches? from Blogspotting

Podtrac Unveils Web-Based Media Planner from MediaWeek

Searching for the Pod of Gold from BusinessWeek

The Next Big Ad Medium: Podcasts from BusinessWeek

Services

Audible WordCast

Castfire

Kiptronic

Liberated Syndication

Odeo

Podbridge

The Podcast Network

Podcast411

Podcast Expo

PodShow

PodshowCreator

Podtrac

If you know of other good online resources for podcasting, please add them to the comments below and I’ll update the blog post with any glaring omissions.

Photo of Winer and Curry by JD Lasica.

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