Podcasting is being touted as the Next Big Thing. Wired Magazine, the self proclaimed authority on cool tech, covered the phenomena in an issue that featured an exploding radio on the cover. Companies are being advised to add podcasting to their media mix. Radio stations are now offering podcasts of many of their shows.
Podcasts are simply audio files that are delivered to you automatically. You install a free program on your PC (Ipodder is the most popular) and subscribe to any podcasts you like. The software checks your subscriptions periodically and downloads new episodes as they become available. You can then copy them your iPod (hence the name) or any other mp3 player, or listen to them on your PC. The whole process can be automated: plug in your mp3 player before you go to bed, and while you're sleeping new podcasts will be copied to it.
Podcasts have only been around since August of last year, and there are already more than 4,000 programs available. Some are produced daily, some are published weekly (weakly?) and others whenever the podcaster feels like it. I found a few that I liked that haven't offered any new shows in months. They've evidently been abandoned, but if the podcaster ever makes a new one, I'll get it automatically.
Not surprisingly, the content and quality is all over the place. Some are very slick and professional, some are cheesy and amateurish but fun, and the majority are just pathetic. Virtually every subject is covered. There are technical speeches, lots of music shows, comedy shows (mostly lame), pontifications of all sorts (including mine), and random ramblings. There are shows about wine, beer, BBQ, health, movies, sports, technology, politics, religion, news, education, all of the arts, sex, and of course, podcasting.
What I've Discovered So Far
I've only been listening to podcasts for a few weeks. Here's some of the good, the bad, and the ugly I've discovered.
The Sounds in My Head is a very professional podcast featuring songs you won't hear on the radio. This is the only podcast I save to listen to again, and the only one I liked well enough to get all the past shows. The first show I tried featured Japanese pop bands, and since I've always been a fan of cheesy girl groups, I was hooked. It offers a great deal of variety, the announcing is professional and informative, and the music is great.
The multitalented Harry Shearer rambles on about the weeks event's in Le Show. His commentary is clever, unassuming, and laid back enough that you can enjoy the show even if you disagree with some of his politics.
One of the most amusingly bad ones was an adolescent girl talking way too long about a particular song, which she then plays on a cheap keyboard while singing along. (I won't mention the name, because I dont pick on kids.)
It's always fun to listen to progressives pretending they're not socialists, so I tried one that called described as progressive. It was a couple who started out with apologies for being late with the podcast, and then went into some long dull description of how her chemotherapy is working out. I gave it a whole five minutes before deleting it.
Good podcasts are often marred by inconsistent content. One tech show had a few good fifteen minute episodes, and then infested my hard drive with a three hour interview (in three segments) giving serious attention to someone who claimed to know all about Atlantis and UFOs. I listened longer than I should have, but gave up when he started talking about the importance of astrology.
You can learn a lot of things. I've learned how to paint a landscape and wax my ass. (Not at the same time.) I've learned about the latest gadgets. I've learned that German Rap "music" is even more horrible than it's English counterpart. Until someone starts podcasting Tuvan Throat-Singing, German Rap is the ugliest sound I've downloaded. So far.
There are a plethora of shows that feature ordinary couples discussing their ordinary lives in great detail. They sound like nice, pleasant people, and the conversation might be fun if you were actually having it with them over a beer. This style of podcast is enormously popular. I find them enormously dull, but then, it really doesn't matter if I like it. Or if you like it. While broadcast radio requires a specific size audience to survive, podcasters decide for themselves how many listeners they need to keep going. If they're happy with three people downloading their show, they'll keep producing it. It's the ultimate in niche marketing.
Creating a Podcast
Podcasting is often compared to blogging, but it requires significantly more time, software, and technical expertise. Bloggers who use blogging sites add new content by:
- Logging on to the site that hosts them
- Writing Stuff
Those of us who do it the old fashioned way:
It couldn't be much easier. Podcasting requires quite a few more steps, and more technical savvy. The podcast is mixed on multi-track audio software that is considerably more complex than a blogger's word processor. Here are the steps required to create one. (Depending on a podcaster's combination of hardware, software and expertise, some of these steps can be combined.)
- Write Stuff
- Put in the html file
- Upload it.
- Record the primary voice track. This can be done with a $10 mike plugged into a computer, in a professional sound studio, or anything in between.
- Use artificial filters to make the voice sound more natural. Compression keeps the levels consistent, de-essing removes the shhhh on S words, a light touch of reverb makes it sound more live, etc.
- Edit the voice track. Talking into a mike isn't quite as easy as it seems. There are false starts, coughs, pauses, and other artifacts that need to be cleaned up. (How many tries did it take to get your answering machine message right?) The amount of cleanup depends, of course, on the announcer's experience and talent. Digital audio programs make this much easier than it used to be. (I was telling one of my daughters how we physically spliced tape thirty years ago. She found the concept amazingly crude and quaint.) Many amateur announcers skip this step, resulting in an annoying, sloppy show.
- Add the music track, if it's a music show. Songs from different sources have to be tweaked so they're all the same volume and sound good together.
- Add background music track. Adjusting the volume and timing of it can be a bit tricky, but once you get it right for one show, it can be used over and over again.
- Create the Final Audio File. Once all the tracks are reordered, adjusted, and perfected, they're mixed down to an audio file, usually in the MP3 format. This is the simplest part of the process; the mixing software does it with a click or two.
- Tag the audio file. Audio files have internal tags that identify the recording title, the artist, the album, and other information that must be added manually.
- Upload the file to the Internet host.
- Create or modify the XML file that Creates the RSS feed to add the new show. There is software that helps with this, but the selection is surprisingly limited.
- Upload the XML file.
- Validate the XML file. If the file doesn't meet specifications perfectly, it won't work correctly when people try to download your podcast. RSS validators check your file for errors. When they find one, repeat the previous two steps.
- Most podcasters also maintain web sites where their files are available, so information has to be added to the site.
And that's if everything goes well. When I decided to try my hand at podcasting, I found a couple of additional steps were necessary.For Podcast #1 (Economics for Leftys).
- Realize that the recording sounded as dull and lifeless as a Celine Dion concert, and re-record the entire track.
For Podcast #2 (Porkys)
- Learn that it is not wise to leave the brightly colored chord on the cheap mike dangling where the dog could test it for tastiness and chomp it into conveniently short pieces.
- Replace mike. As a result, this second podcast sounds noticeably better than the first one.
- Create the final mixdown, only to be informed by a friend that I had missed editing out several false starts, and chopped a paragraph in half. Fortunately, this was before I published it. Record the voice track from scratch.
Podcast #3 (Rational Republicans)
- Realize that 15 minutes is way too long for a podcast with "Quick" in the title. Try chopping it down via editing, only to give up and re-record it from scratch. (Noticing a pattern here?)
The Future of Podcasting
Because of the work involved in producing a podcast, it's unlikely to become as popular as blogging. That's a good thing. Although podcasting is less than a year old, listeners still have to dig through a lot of shit to find the occasional pony. The effort required to create podcasts might help keep the stable from becoming overrun with manure.
One can dream. It's more likely that new and easier tools will come to market, making it easier for the talentless to create and publish podcasts, resulting in even more crap hitting the mix, making it harder to find the good stuff. This is known as the AOL Syndrome.
Some critics are proclaiming that this is just another fad that will fade rather quickly. But 20% of the population between 20 and 30 own portable mp3 players, and that number will continue to rise. Podcasts are great for commuters tired of commercial radio. They can be even more niche oriented than satellite radio, and there's no monthly fee. Their popularity will continue to grow, at least for a while.
It's always difficult to predict trends, but I'm guessing that we're going to hear more and more about it for another year or so, and then things will settle down, with several hundred podcasts being fairly popular and another eight or ten thousand jockeying for earshare.
The Future of Quick Hitts
When I started The Hittman Chronicle back in 1999 I wrote a couple of articles a month. That dwindled to one a month, then one every couple of months, and now I do a few every year. The same thing happened with movie reviews. I stopped writing them entirely, because it was interfering with my enjoyment of movies, but I've had a few requests from readers to do them again, so I may add a new one from time to time. It's likely that the Quick Hitts podcast will follow the same pattern. I'll keep doing them until downloads plateau at a dissatisfying level and/or I get tired of it. You can delay that outcome by downloading it and sending me an occasional e-mail telling me you loved it or hated it.
So, before it's inevitable fizzle, while the content is still fresh, check out Quick Hitts. It's the only podcast that helps you get Smartenized®.
You know it's getting mainstream when Newseek covers it.
How Podcasting Will Save Radio
© 2005 Dave Hitt